Religion has no sense of humour

Now I realise the zeitgeist of the Mohammed Cartoon Controversy was a couple of weeks ago now. However, there seems to be a lot of meat left on this particular bone, with bloggers all over the world breaking their promises to talk about something else almost as soon as they are made.
I have just finished reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Set in a monastery in the Thirteenth Century, one of the monks hides a book by Aristotle on comedy. He believes that comedy and laughter will undermine Christianity:

“Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God… [Aristotle’s] book, considering comedy a wondrous medicine, with its satire and mime, which would produce the purification of the passions through the enactment of defect, fault, weakness – would induce false scholars to try and redeem the lofty with a diabolical reversal: through the acceptance of the base. This book could prompt tyhe idea that man can wish to have on earth … the abundance of the land of Cockaigne [a land of easy living]”

By laughing and enjoying the here and now, we might lose our fear of God and suppose that we can find happiness not in heaven, but on earth. Jorge the monk is correct: Laughter is indeed a threat to a religion, especially one which depends on a fear of the afterlife for its power.
While the Abrahamic scriptures contain many lofty ideas on ethics and how we should live our life, they are short on wit. True, the Old Testament does declare “Eat, drink and be merry,” but even when Jesus spikes the water with wine at the teetotal wedding at Cana (John 2:9), he does so earnestly. I suppose that “suffer the little children who come unto me” (Luke 18:16) could be delivered with a smirk, and the passage about paying tax to Caesar (Matthew 22:21) shows a quick mind… but there is no irony to be found, and if the Prophets and Messiahs turn criticism on themselves at all, it is through po-faced self-flagellation, rather than self-depreciation of someone who appreciates the funny side of humanity.
When it comes to discussing their faith, true believers are totally without humour. Not for them the chuckle as they consider some contradiction in their position. If dogma is the inability to imagine how you might be wrong, then it is also the inability to imagine how others might consider you funny. Are there any Christians who laugh at Jerry Springer: The Opera? It it possible that we could create a cartoon of Mohammed that muslims would laugh at? If you can only see one side of an issue, then you cannot see the funny side.
The real battle is not over what we say or how we say it, but about how people react when they hear it. A world in which everyone is free to offend does not interest me. I would rather a world in which criticism does not cause offence… but laughter instead.

6 Replies to “Religion has no sense of humour”

  1. Your point notwithstanding, I think it does matter how we say what we say. Criticism can be gentle and constructive, or it can be more like a sledge-hammer. “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it” (Popular Culture 78:299)
    Criticism to my mind could cause laughter in one of two ways:
    1) If it is a) sound and b) gentle enough to enable me to see that it is sound and c) my self-image is not heavily committed to being right in that instance. Otherwise it might cause humiliation, shame and resulting anger, and not feel very funny at all.
    2) If it is so unsound as to be ridiculous, and delivered in such a way that doesn’t make me fear for my life or well-being.
    I think the relationship between criticism and difference is an interesting one.

  2. I enjoyed your post Rob although I don’t think the wedding in Canaan was teetotal. It was just that the wine ran out and Jesus’ mother asked him to do something about it. His mother, like some others I know, was very ready to take responsibility for something that was not her problem!
    I think it is optimistic to expect people to laugh at criticism. I think you have to have an extremely robust self esteem or be very insensitive to be able to laugh when you are criticised. The best you can hope for is to be able to assess the validity of the criticism and take appropriate action if necessary and that is a serious business.
    Like Clarice I think the relationshipe between criticism and difference is an interesting one. Difference often seems to make us feel uncomfortable and so we react by criticising. So much better if we could say, Vive le difference!

  3. Yes, Granny Rose. I also think that difference, the very existence of it, especially if it is ostentatious, can in itself make us feel criticised. If we don’t criticise back, we might get defensive and self-justify, which can make the Other feel criticised in turn. And so it goes on.
    I also want to say, although I don’t want Rob to feel criticised (or meta-criticised), that there might be some occasions where he has felt criticised unfairly, or hard-done-by, and he didn’t find it funny. Yet he clearly does have a sense of humour. So although there is some truth in what he says, I think all I can say is “it depends”. That old chestnut.

  4. Clarice:
    “c) my self-image is not heavily committed to being right in that instance.”
    That is completely outwith the control of the speaker. It is your responsibility not his. Ruling out criticism of people who are badly wrong and brittle about it (and the more wrong you are, the more likely you are to be brittle about it when this is pointed out, no matter how gently) is clearly nonsense.
    The right to free speech has to include the freedom to offend if it is to have any meaning at all. Freedom of Speech is all about the freedom to confront dogma or views that cannot withstand rational scrutiny. It is a challenge to EXACTLY these views that will be seen as offensive.
    – If the offence is unjustified, it reflects badly on the speaker.
    – If the offence is unjustified, but elicits a violent response, it undermines the case that the offence was unjustified.
    – If the offence is justified (i.e. the criticism is valid but put tactlessly), and elicits a violent response, the speaker may have been a little silly, but he is not wrong. It is the violent response that is wrong.
    – If the offence is in a fact a response to or criticism of the use of violence, and such offence elicits a violent response, the offence is not only justified, it is almost mandatory.
    The point being missed widely here is that this discussion is not really about freedom of speech. It is about the use of violence.
    Where the initiation of violence is ruled out, there is no need to be offensive. But if it has not, one should not give any quarter to the feelings of one who would respond with force to your words.

  5. PG:
    “That is completely *outwith* (my emphasis) the control of the speaker”.
    (What’s with this apparent and unnecessary archaic usage? Looks like Rob has caught it too. You’ll be using Latin phrases next for things that English will do just as well for :-))
    I never said it wasn’t. I was simply outlining under what circumstances I could see laughter being my response to criticism. Rob said he would rather a world where criticism doesn’t cause offence, but laughter. And I share GR’s view that while that may sometimes be possible, it is also optimistic, unless we are prepared to try and understand when and why criticism causes offense. What matters is not whether the offense is justifiably taken, but whether it is necessary to give in each instance, and whether it can be understood/predicted sufficiently to be minimised/avoided/repaired.
    I would also add though that the things that my self-image is heavily committed to is not always under my control, as a moment’s reflection on cognitive and emotional development will support. Also, while it may be out of the control of the speaker, if the speaker is aware of it, then he must bear some responsibility for how he acts on that awareness.
    I don’t think anyone was ruling out criticism, as you seem to imply. I was simply explaining when laughter as a response to criticism is ruled out as a likely option for me. This doesn’t actually need any justification, it is a personal statement of fact, and not entirely unreasonable, in my view.
    You claim that “this” discussion is really about the use of violence and not about freedom of speech. I’m not sure exactly which discussion you are referring to, but I was responding to Rob’s plea for people to react to criticism with laughter, not offense, and how realistic this actually is. I didn’t see that there was anything in this post about either F of S or U of V. Maybe I missed it. But assuming that this current discussion between you and I is now about the use of violence, then I would add the following:
    I think your final remarks are potentially rather dangerous and, if what you advocate is followed, rather inflammatory. Just because someone is wrong (eg if they threaten violence, and I think we both agree that that is wrong) that is no reason to disregard their feelings. In fact, since those who threaten violence pose a very real danger, some might say that’s a strong argument for seeking to understand their feelings, in order to diffuse the threat. It seems to me that prolonged disregard of people’s feelings that can lead eventually to violent response. In my view, disregarding people’s feelings is just as “wrong” as threatening or committing violence. And two wrongs from the same quarter emphatically do not make a right, especially if perpetrated on the same victim.

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