by Douglas E. Cowan
* The following is a summary post of Dr. Cowan’s article appearing in the recent issues of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion on “Humor and Religion.”
Many readers may be surprised by an article on atheist humour—or anti-theist humour, if you prefer—in this special issue of the Bulletin. After all, for many of our colleagues those who choose no faith over faith are more appropriately relegated to Philosophy departments than Religious Studies. At least, that’s what I was told when I first proposed a course I teach on Atheism, Skepticism, and Free Thought. The problem, though, is that this eliminates a priori some crucial conversational partners in the cultural discourses around religion. Indeed, without these contesting voices, without those who confront the power religious belief wields in the world, without those who challenge the rationality of religious belief in general, Religious Studies as a discipline is often left with the rather sad spectacle of preaching to the converted and congratulating ourselves on our insight.
Despite the furor caused by the so-called “new atheists,” and the cottage industry they’ve generated amongst a variety of outraged believers, atheism matters in the cultural discourses around religion for a variety of reasons. Consider here just one: what I have called in numerous places “the good, moral, and decent fallacy;” that is, the erroneous but remarkably widespread belief that goodness, morality, and decency are essential characteristics of religion, that they help us define what religion is. Put differently, if these markers are not present, if religionists act in ways other than the good, moral, and decent—for example, by killing other religionists who happen to believe differently than they—then theirs is not “real” religion, they don’t understand what their scriptures “really” say or what their founder “really” taught. The problem with this response, though, is that precious little historical or sociological evidence exists for it. As J.Z. Smith put is so well: “Religion is not nice.” Too many introductory textbooks, religions of the world courses, and academic material not only avoid this reality, but reinforce the good, moral, and decent fallacy. Thus, when we are confronted by profound violence perpetrated by religious believers in the name of their religious faith—whatever that may be, and the examples are legion—we are often left without sufficient vocabulary to understand it, or even talk about it.
Now, that’s not to say that there are no nice religious people, or that people don’t strive to be good, moral, and decent on the basis of their religious beliefs. Not at all. Indeed, that argument is as fallacious as the one that says only religious people can be truly good, moral, and decent. What it does say, though, is that goodness, morality, and decency are not attributes of religion, only potential correlates. They may be present, but they can’t define religion. If atheism, skepticism, and free thought—whether through jokes, cartoons, or the ranting, observational stand-up of Billy Connolly—do nothing more than confront us with the prevalence of the good, moral, and decent fallacy, they will have rendered inestimable service to humankind.
Douglas E. Cowan is a professor or religious studies and the sociology of religion at Renison University College, University of Waterloo.