Protecting religious beliefs against humour

Posted on January 25, 2011


One of the points that I have often made on this blog is that for religious beliefs to motivate prosocial behaviour, they have to be protected against counterevidence. More generally, they have to be protected against anything that would act to undermine them. There’s a great example of quite possibly just this kind of thing in the news right now:

What caused real grief at NBC, the network that broadcasts the Globes, and among those of the organisers who leaked that Gervais had “crossed a line” was the presenter’s final quip as he exited.

“Thanks for everyone in the room for being good sports, to NBC and the Hollywood foreign press, thank you for watching at home,” he said. “And thank you, God, for making me an atheist.”

The US has 210 television market areas, or regions. By the Monday morning NBC bosses had had their ears bent by managers from dozens, ranging from the liberal Bangor, in Maine, to the deeply conservative Corpus Christi, in Texas. The problem was Gervais’s final flourish, and they questioned why NBC had not “bleeped” it out as it would swearing. The truth was, NBC did not see it coming.

Of course, what is not clear is whether such an attitude to only very mildly irreverent humour is actually helpful in protecting religious beliefs or if it is only a side effect of the general special status that such beliefs are granted in cultures with fundamentalist tendencies. I suspect, however, that a strong reaction to humour is significant for religious traditions in that humour has often been shown to be a very effective means of highlighting the shortcomings of many different beliefs and practices. Indeed, I suspect that humour may well be more effective than actual empirical counterevidence in getting through the psychological defences with which people ring the beliefs they treasure. If true, this means that reactions such as to Gervais’ joke or to the Muhammad cartoons (though that example gets complicated by issues of race, as I discuss later), even though they appear ridiculous and totally over the top to people with modern sensibilities, can be understood to be functional.

Responding to the ‘draw Muhammad’ day last year, Juan Cole provided an interesting list of other cartoons that caused religious rioting and commented:

One Islamophobic theme apparent in the writing on it is that Muslims are peculiar in their thin-skinned responses to such assaults on their religious sensibilities and that members of other religions never riot or protest. This assertion is not only bigoted but it is silly. So here are some other needlessly offensive cartoon-drawing days that could be adopted by the jerks bothering Muslims today, just to show that they are jerks toward other communities as well. All these subjects have produced vigorous protests or rioting and violence among members of other religious traditions.

I think he makes two points that are absolutely correct. The first is that, it is nonsense to claim only Muslims respond in such ways to what they perceive as blasphemous humour. The second, that people who took part in that day were mostly exhibiting the bravery of being out of range. Yet, I think that he does not pay proper attention to the moral standpoint which motivated at least some of those who took part in that day – that all beliefs should be up for discussion and even ridicule. Of course, many of those who drew cartoons of Muhammad were doing so to ‘get the “towelheads”‘, but not all who did this were ‘jerks’. There is a real conflict of values here, since an attitude of unhindered discourse is toxic to religious beliefs. In that respect, the people who took part in the ‘draw Muhammad’ day would have done much better if they had drawn humorous cartoons of Jesus. Which is, in a way, what Gervais has done. On national television.