Tuesday, February 12, 2013

800 Words: The Importance of Making Fun of Religion

(Patton Oswalt on Sky Cake)

One of the weekly fights I get into with my father is over the issue of religion. One of us is always grumbling about religion. Not over the veracity of religion, an issue on which he becomes withering even more quickly than I. The fights are over the issue of religious tolerance, and particularly what constitutes religious tolerance. He believes that the modern willingness to hold religion up to ridicule is a perfect example of the breakdown of the social contract. To him, a culture which is so quick to ridicule believers is a country whose intolerance causes it to become dangerously unstable.

Whenever I hear him make this argument, I can’t help feeling as though my ears are melting. It seems more than a little strange that a person who devoted so much of his life to mocking religion in private should have such an attachment to its public upholdance. But then again, we must give the devil his due and the devil has a fair point. As the American right-wing grows ever more protective of its values and ever more defensive against the onslaught of progress, perhaps seizing every opportunity to make them feel rejected and isolated is not the wisest idea. Furthermore, I  have the same problem Dad does. I love religion nearly as much as I loathe it, and there is always at least a pang of guilt every time I make a withering comment about it.

I love the comfort religion provides, I love its unbroken sense of connection that transcends thousands of miles and thousands of years. Whether one believes in religion or not, (and I certainly can’t), it is one of the few experiences in life in which a person can feel the boundaries of space and time transcended - even if the experience is just an illusion, religion can convince you for a few minutes at a time that there is more to existence than the essence of this crude cruel world, and that all the suffering our world inflicts upon us is not in vain. Even if that isn’t true, we all need to believe that occasionally. And because religion provides so many billions of people with such a stupendous, comforting, dangerous lie as that, it causes people to do things they would otherwise never countenance - not just to kill, rape, and maim, but also to be accepting of others, to forgive those they hate, and to improve the lot of fellow living beings. Religion makes the world a worse place to live, and yet it simultaneously makes the world a better one.

But because religion is such an overwhelmingly powerful illusion, and because the temptation to embrace its irrationalities is so overpowering, religion must always be held accountable for its illogic. To discourage people from talking about its dangers, even from people’s natural inclination to make light of those dangers, is one of the most serious capitulations to the perils of religious belief that the world contains. The fence between self-censorship and imposed censorship can sometimes be a the size of a hair, and if we are unwilling to talk about the problems of religious belief, it can only be a given that religious belief dictates the law of the land. The secularists among us, and even the reform-minded believers, may believe in the separation of Church and State, but religion does not by its very nature. And when given the power of censoring others, even by compelling others to practice self-censorship, it cannot help but exploit that censorship for its own gain.

We live in a country whose very founding was based upon religious tolerance as much as any other precept, and that fundamental right of the United States can never be violated. If the most fervent secularists among us believe there is no danger of that ever happening, then might I suggest they read up on the history of the Soviet Union. But tolerance does not necessarily mean respect or reverence. People should always be reverent of people’s ability to believe exactly what they want, but people should not be reverent of the beliefs themselves. They should always be curious about what believers believe, and always respectful when visiting religious houses of worship; but public discourse is the place where important issues are debated. And if you can’t use humor to make your points, then the debate becomes all too serious and the stakes seem too high. It’s humorlessness, not humor, which causes intolerance.

The fact that we don’t take religion too seriously is what prevents religion from controlling public life. If religion is truly as serious a business as its believers allege, then it must control public life. To take religion seriously enough not to mock it is to pay it the complement of taking it seriously, and religious seriousness has caused thousands of years of Holy War. Because different religious beliefs conflict with one another, only one religion can control public life. There must always be as many checks as possible to prevent one religion from subsuming others. As disgusting as it may seem to believers, the ability to mock religion is to religious believers’ benefit.

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