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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

laughing matters 1: humor and critical thinking


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:

Pope Calls for Greater Understanding Between Catholics, Hellbound

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.

[on to laughing matters 2]

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This was written on Thursday, 13. December 2007 at 11:14 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, humor, Kerfuffles. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. This comment is a bit tangential, but I have to recommend the song “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors” by Moxy Fruvous to you.

    When you hear the song or read the lyrics, you’ll see why it’s related to this post.


    Comment: CampQuestAmanda – 13. December 2007 @ 11:33 am

  2. Oh, that’s a hoot! Here’s a link. I can’t believe they actually mention Garcia Marquez.

    Comment: Dale – 13. December 2007 @ 11:38 am

  3. It’s no wonder Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are so popular in my age group. They are two of the best satirists I’ve seen. (Although it helps to have so much politically related material to use these days.) What’s funny is that the news on their shows, while maybe a bit overboard, is probably more trusted by the under 30 group than a lot of what is on those 24-hour news channels. I hope the writers end their strike before the primaries start.

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Holy Grail. I need to add it to my Blockbuster list.

    Comment: Ryan – 13. December 2007 @ 12:51 pm

  4. I honestly think The Daily Show is going to be seen in retrospect as a watershed in American culture. Their comedy actually relies on accuracy — otherwise it wouldn’t kill the way it does. Jon must thank his lucky stars every day that he’s alive during this insane era.

    Comment: Dale – 13. December 2007 @ 12:56 pm

  5. I haven’t seen it yet, (coming soon to DVD I’ve heard) but I’ll bet Julia Sweeny’s “attacks” on religion are just as convincing as anything Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, and Hitchens can argue.

    Comment: Ryan – 13. December 2007 @ 1:27 pm

  6. A perfect example. I saw her show live in LA. She is so damn normal and so funny that you can’t help hearing what she has to say. Well I can’t, anyway.

    Comment: Dale – 13. December 2007 @ 1:29 pm

  7. I was thinking of the Daily Show/Colbert while reading the post and it’s not just for you spring chikens under 30! I think the Daily show has done a great service to inform people of what is going on in America. I can’t sit through the main stream media evening news because 1) they are so dry and 2) they don’t cover news and when they do they don’t tell you anything. Watching the Daily Show I not only laugh, but I stay informed.

    Comment: HappyNat – 13. December 2007 @ 2:46 pm

  8. I use humor everyday as a parent. From silly songs and statements to sarcastic quips (though I will be much happier once my children start to get those sarcastic remarks. My favorite recurring themes are 1) the presence of hippos in the woods behind our house and the prevalence at which they’re found up in the apple tree eating all the apples and 2) telling my kids that there are all sorts of weird ingredients in their supper or dessert – e.g. worm soup or spider pie with grasshopper crunchies.

    I think (and hope!) that doing these things, besides being fun, help my kids think better – see things differently, be more creative, be more flexible, even learn how to argue logically (“Daddy, there can’t be hippos in our trees, they live in rivers in Africa.”). One of my favorite games is “Have you ever seen a…” where we all take turns coming up with funny visuals – “Have you ever seen a caterpillar jumping on a trampoline?” , “Have you ever seen a pillow eat ice cream?”, etc.

    I think you can really tell which households use humor and which do not – simply try to some of these funny games on kids – some get it, others look at me with a blank stare.

    No if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shoo some hippos away from my bird feeders.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 14. December 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  9. Damn hippos! You and I were separated at birth. I don’t think I’ve given a straight answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” even once. Bat lip salad, lizard lung loaf, and fried fish socks have most recently been on the menu.

    And YES, in addition to being more fun, I am completely convinced that growing up under the influence of humor makes for divergent, creative, outside-of-the-box thinkers. And better party guests. And spouses. And parents.

    Comment: Dale – 14. December 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  10. ” How do you know she’s a witch?”
    “She looks like one.”
    That still cracks me up.

    I really like the “fried fish socks” for dinner thingey, too.

    I have been struggling with a certain ‘religious’ post for my blog concerning Christmas, and wasn’t feeling comfortable with my presentation. Humor to the rescue. Thanks. I will proceed.

    Comment: leslie – 14. December 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  11. “This world is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.”

    And, for those who think and feel, laughter is often the best medicine.

    That is a really good quote. I’m taking it, and you can’t have it back. :P

    Comment: yinyang – 16. December 2007 @ 1:05 pm

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