Your [human] race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug push it a little weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.
Satan, in The Mysterious Stranger by MARK TWAIN
I keep thinking I know what my next post will be, then something else pops up on radar. In this case, it’s a satire currently meming its way around the Internet — an extremely subtle, mildly delicious satire about atheist parents responding indignantly to a movie trailer for the next Narnia movie. Too subtle by half, apparently; the satire is now being reported in blogs as if it were actual news — reported, in other words, by people who failed to get the joke.
So I want to lapse into the pathetic mode of the former professor and post some thoughts on humor as it relates to critical thinking. We’ll pretend I’m on-topic because both humor and critical thinking are precious values in our family, because my favorite humor targets sacred cows, and because it was inspired by a satire about atheist parents. It’ll probably end up five or six posts long, or seven, once a week, in-between the Bible study posts and random others. And here we go.
I am in the fourth decade of a hot, sweaty, nasty intellexual affair with satire.
When our family lived in England in 2004, she was the one I looked for in the bookshops of London and Oxford and Hay-on-Wye. She tickles me through the earbuds of my iPod on our long walks together. If I promise not to mention her age (about 2500 years next July), she leaves me alone about my BMI and MPB. She waits by my bedside, and for thirty minutes every night, we get it on.
(Don’t worry. My wife is generally gettin’ just as busy with Khaled Hosseini or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
Satire is not just entertainment. It’s also a weapon for social change, and a damned effective and rightly feared weapon at that. Yet we tend too often to leave it lying in the drawer, unfired.
In The Rise of Rationalism in Western Europe, historian W.E.H. Lecky described the role of humor in a change in attitudes in England of the 1600s. For centuries, the English had engaged in witchburning to enforce this or that religious orthodoxy or express this or that superstitious fear.
In the 1650s, witchcraft trials and executions in Britain reached a fever pitch under the Puritan Commonwealth. But by the 1660s they’d stopped completely.
Why the sudden abandonment of something that was nearly universal and unquestioned just ten years earlier? According to Lecky, the agent of change was laughter.
Though the Puritans didn’t invent the practice, they were the most enthusiastic witchburners in English history and so became closely associated with it. When Cromwell died, all of the dour Puritan ideologies quickly fell out of favor. The monarchy was restored, theatres that were burned down were rebuilt, and dancing went from forbidden to being something you do in the street while drunk.
Overnight, the sanctimonious Puritans became the objects of ridicule. Every pub seemed to have a resident funnyman who could get the other patrons rolling on the floor with his imitation of the nasal Puritan manner of speech and the stiff-backed, rump-in-the-air Puritan gait.
And, by its close association with Puritanism, witch burning immediately went from obvious social necessity to ridiculous folly. Once it became laughable, it was over.
For centuries, words were thought to have magical powers. Pre-Islamic Arabs put satirists at the vanguard of military attacks, hurling epithets and ridicule at the enemy. Apparently this was also done in the medieval period:
In 1509 Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly, in which the goddess Folly gives a speech in praise of all that the human race does to serve and promote her cause. After getting the reader chuckling at judges and tradesmen and fishwives for a hundred pages, he gradually turns to the church, taking the largest and longest swipes at the clergy. He was an Augustinian monk at the time, which deflected charges of impiety. Many historians believe only his personal friendship with Pope Julius II and his ability to hide in the skirts of satire stood between him and execution. A work of sober rational argument would have been his death warrant.
But Europe got the message. The Praise of Folly hit the continent like a firestorm. Many see it as one of the final nudges for the Reformation, which began eight years later. If true, that puts satire at the center of one of the most earthshaking challenges to the status quo in Western history.
Two centuries later it was Voltaire, railing against intolerance, tyranny and superstition. It’s hard to argue for anyone exerting a greater influence on the rise of rationalism and the promotion of critical thinking over superstition. And lo and behold, he chose satire as one of his primary vehicles. His best-known bust is the only one I know carved with a smirk.
Horace Walpole, an otherwise forgettable English aristocrat, said, “This world is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” And sure enough, throughout history, there’s evidence of thinkers laughing and laughers thinking, each side of that coin calling on the other to facilitate our slow crawl out of the swamp of ignorance and injustice that is our apparent human birthright.
Humor is a form of nonviolent protest, a socially acceptable way to challenge power. Over and over it has been a catalyst to social change. Yet we spend half our time dismissing it as mere entertainment and the other half deriding it as unseemly and disrespectful, especially when the humor is perceived as ridicule. Then it becomes the one thing you dare not do in critical discourse.
Six years ago, I began posting sober critical arguments against religious belief on my office door at the Catholic college where I was then employed. Each Monday for eighteen months I posted new critiques and invited replies. Nothing.
Then one day I posted a satire from The Onion targeting self-contradictory Vatican statements. The headline captured the essential predicament of Catholic salvation doctrine:
VATICAN CITY — In an address before over 250,000 followers assembled outside St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed his commitment to global religious unity, calling upon the world’s Roman Catholics to “build a bridge of earthly friendship” between themselves and the eternally damned.
“We have been aloof too long,” the Pope told the throng of well-wishers who crowded into Vatican Square. “For too many years, otherwise pious, observant Catholics have not made enough of an effort to reach out to nonbelievers, reasoning that, since they would have no contact with them in the next life, there was little point in getting to know them in this one.”
And so on. It remains one of the most brilliantly constructed satires I have ever seen. And less than 24 hours after I posted it, I had an outraged note from a campus theologian.
Why did he yawn at serious arguments but protest at humor? Because Catholicism has a long history of success at batting away rational argument with polysyllabic nonsense posing as rational argument. But, as Erasmus and Voltaire both demonstrated, they’re powerless when someone points and chuckles.
No God and no religion can survive ridicule.