by Benn Ray
There's a well-established rhetorical device known as "Punching the Hippie." This occurs when someone on the Left decides to attack someone to the further Left as an ill-conceived means to establish credibility with the center.
It's a bad tactic, as it generally doesn't work unless you punch hippies all the time. But if you punch hippies all the time, your left base no longer trusts your credibility. See the problem?
Recently I've noticed a similar trend with a number of comedians whose work I otherwise tend to enjoy and think of as intelligent. But instead of Punching the Hippie, they've been indulging in what I call "Slapping the Atheist."
Slapping the Atheist occurs when a self-described agnostic creates a straw man version of an Atheist based on ignorance of what Atheism really is and then attacks that caricature in order to gain credibility with the religious.
When I see this happen, I usually just groan to myself in quiet disappointment, but it's been happening with such an increased frequency lately, and often with people whose intellect, until that point, I've generally respected, that I've hit my wall.
The breaking point for me was Louis CK on SNL a week or so ago.
I haven't watched Saturday Night Live with any consistent frequency since the 2012 presidential election. However, I revisited it on Hulu when a friend recommended I check out the Lena Dunham episode in March, and I was mostly glad I did. Although I did find the the rule that "if you stop watching after Weekend Update you won't miss much" still pretty much holds up.
So when I saw Louis CK was the next guest host, I figured I'd give SNL another shot, but I should've stopped while I was ahead. The skits themselves were largely unfunny, boorish or just odd, and the musical act was a crucifix-earring-adorned, blue-eyed gospel singer from the UK named Sam Smith who, without an album yet, was one of those acts who show up on SNL that many people have never heard of, will never hear of again, and leave you wondering things like, why couldn't they get Future Islands to play the show instead?
Anyway, I got turned off to the whole show during Louie's opening monologue when he got to this bit:
"I’m not religious. I don’t know if there’s a God. That’s all I can say, honestly, is “I don’t know.” Some people think that they know that there isn’t. That’s a weird thing to think you can know. “Yeah, there’s no God.” Are you sure? “Yeah, no, there’s no God.” How do you know? “Cause I didn’t see Him.” There’s a vast universe! You can see for about 100 yards — when there’s not a building in the way. How could you possibly… Did you look everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom? Where did you look so far? “No, I didn’t see Him yet.” I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet; it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’m just waiting until it comes on cable."
I'm not the sort of atheist who can't take a joke. And I acknowledge that after this set up, Louie goes on to do some pretty subversive, anti-religion stuff with the rest of the monologue - essentially saying god thinks his worshippers are dicks, suggesting god is a woman killer, etc.
But humor predicated on bad premises is not only lazy and unfunny, but it can be damaging. This type of pandering to a majority, by beating up on a minority, is a cheap way of getting the audience on your side.
For example, a 2008 ARIS report showed that only 1.65% of Americans identify as atheist.
39.6% of Americans say that Atheists do not agree with their vision of American Society (University of Minnesota study).
47.6% of Americans say they would most disapprove of their child marrying an Atheist (University of Minnesota study).
It should be noted, that Atheists topped all of these lists. That is to say that Atheists have the distinctive achievement of being the most-hated minority in the US simply for not holding beliefs shared by the mainstream.
And part of the problem is ignorance, the type of ignorance that cheap, pandering set-ups like the one Louie uses to get the audience on his side (admittedly before he gets into some risky material to do not only in front of a live audience, but on national TV) helps propagate.
And Louie isn't alone.
There's a Marc Maron special called Thinky Pain that Maron renders unwatchable by going off on stupid, cheap, anti-atheist nonsense. Recently on his "radio" show The Majority Report, host Sam Seder ended up interviewing a comedian who started going off about ignorant bullshit about how horrible atheists are that Seder seemed to nervously tolerate, and then after the segment, he brought in more listener comments which indulged in more anti-atheist nonsense. And Jon Stewart (who also has an unfortunate history of hippie punching) has indulged in milder versions of Atheist slapping with a few guests of late.
Here's the thing that these folks don't seem to get: the opposite of belief is not more belief - it's the absence of belief.
Many people believe in god (this is an act of faith). But atheists don't believe god doesn't exist (this would also be an act of faith) , they simply don't see any verifiable, quantifiable evidence to suggest a god exists. The difference is subtle. It's nuanced. And it requires the sort of thinking that those who believe in god maybe don't want to dedicate to someone who holds a notion so fundamentally challenging to their own world view.
Atheists see no more reason to believe in a god than they do to believe in Bigfoot, the Yeti, outer space alien infiltrators living among us, vampires, sea monsters or a giant flying invisible spaghetti god.
To the religious, faith is a virtue. To atheists, faith is problematic. Let's look at it this way:
1. Suppose we amass a body of irrefutable evidence that proves god does not exist. I would expect that many of those who have faith will continue to believe in a god anyway. That's the nature of faith.
2. Suppose we amass a body of irrefutable evidence that proves god exists. Most Atheists would say, "Okay, our bad. Now we know. God exists." They would not continue to believe there is no god.
Which of these two is a saner way to respond to the world? I would argue #2. But which of these two world views is more despised by the mainstream? I would also argue #2.
And comedians who keep playing Slapping The Atheist are continuing to reinforce that nonsense and fuel that despising.
To use Louie's joke, Atheists don't need to believe or not believe in 12 Years A Slave. There is proof it exists. So unless god is going to start streaming on Netflix, or open at the Landmark, or is likely to win an Oscar or something (who would he/she thank in an acceptance speech?), the comparison is false - therefore making it funny only to stupid people.
There is this stereotype of the hateful, arrogant atheist: that the loathed Atheist minority is somehow persecuting the religious majority by pointing out that putting god on our money and in our pledge requires governmental legislation regarding an establishing of state religion. Atheists are despised because of pointing out things like holding Christian prayers before government meetings is exclusionary.
But as AC Grayling points out...