Every once in a while the juxtaposition of religion and humour pokes me in the side, whispering cheekily in my ear “Now you see me… now you don’t!”
It is a strange question really! The very nature of humour is something that must be undefined to be fun; anything you can force into the mould and chains of a formula somehow seems to lose something. Yet the very nature of religion is that it is important – and therefore worthy of careful consideration, justification and counter-balancing thought. So straight off, we do seem to have a bit of a slippery pairing on our hands.
As I’m sure those who know me will guess, there are many rants I could have about the ‘failures’ surrounding the issue, gleaning ample examples from modern society. However, that is not really what I want to be about here. I’d rather go about constructively clearing up some of the misunderstandings that go around “muddying the waters”.
Moreover, I feel somewhat qualified to speak on the issue by my appreciation of both camps. There’s a large volume of stuff out there from those who have a high respect for one side of the fence, and no time at all for the other.
Anyway, before we dive into the details, here is the perfect one-sentence summary of it all:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. [Ecclesiastes 3:4] (Edit: Sorry for the original ref to the Song of Solomon… 😦 )
Ok, so first off, I’d tackle the notion of humour and religion being mutually exclusive.
The general idea stems from the concept that, as religion is sacred, we cannot allow so much as a smile within miles of it, as that is a mockery of religion. Not only does the conclusion not follow from the premise, in my view it is an unscriptural Pharisaicalism (demonstrated by both the text above, and by the additional references.¹)
However, that is not to say I entirely reject the notion. To me given the alternative of religion vs. humour, I consider it not so much an absolute choice, but a question of priorities.
It seems I am sometimes expected to accept the assumption that “everything must bow before the god of humour”. This might sound like an extreme characterisation… but it is no more extreme than on occasion truthful.
I am speaking of the idea that, for the purposes of entertainment, it is acceptable to push any boundary, break any rule, tread on any tradition. So long as we’re light-hearted about it, and mean to “learn from it”, then humour as a medium is acceptable, and everything else can bend to its rules.
Now, I’m not advocating boundaries, rules or traditions neccessarily. But if humour is to “know no bounds”, then it seems to me as if it is humour itself – as some kind of abstract notion – that is given the place of Highest Sacred-ness.
So, in the extreme cases where humour is pitted against religion, I chose – rationally and individualistically – that, actually, religion is my top priority after all, and the so-called humour has no place.
But, I did say I wouldn’t rant… And to get back on track, and be reasonable about it, most examples do not follow such an ideology as I’ve described. Nor do they tend to be as black-and-white as all that either.
For example, often humour ‘against’ religion is directed not against the religion itself, as at the hypocrisy of the people who do not ‘follow’ the religion they claim to believe in. And I have no problem with this:
- I’m all for having hypocrisy pointed out.
- Humour *is* an effective medium of illustrating how ridiculous some hypocrisy is. (One of my all-time favourites has got to be John Ploughman’s Pictures, and its precursor.)
- Having hypocrisy pointed out is not mocking the religion – or God – but rather we are laughing at ourselves. Surely, that can only be a good lesson in humility!
Along similar lines is the idea of pointing out inconsistencies in beliefs. At the very least, a system of belief should be “internally consistent” as my agnostic philosophy teacher at school once claimed. However, there are many things that are justified by appealing to the authority of religion, that on closer inspection, do not merit much credibility. Humour can expose such flimsy appearances.
So, all in all, I would argue religion and humour can, and should, co-exist. Moreover, though not everyone may agree with my assessment that religion is a higher priority than humour, it would only be rational to acknowledge that there is sometimes a priority-call being made.
¹More evidences of laughter being considered in a positive light in the Bible: Job 8:21, Psalm 126:2, Luke 6:21