Satire and the Humanist Message

Maybe the spirit of Christmas is affecting the judgment of this particular non-believer, but on this holiday morning I am thinking benign thoughts about how we humanists should be going about our business. The issue is whether we can afford to rely entirely on satire and confrontational tactics as we attempt to persuade others that our way of thinking is better than uncritical faith in the old religions.

Satire is one of the older forms of human comment. As a form of argument, it has undeniable advantages. Irony, slapstick, and other ingredients can be melded together to produce an infinite variety of delectable concoctions. It is a very superior way to illustrate the inconsistencies and weak points of the idea or thing being ridiculed.

For humanists, the old-fashioned religions are prime targets for satire, especially when the true believers insist that dogma be taken literally. There is something inherently silly about insisting the world is flat when anybody with enough money can buy a ticket and fly around the world, and when we all see pictures of planet earth taken from outer space. The insistence with which the creationists still hold to the Book of Genesis as the revealed truth about how the world began is only slightly less silly. Here is an example, gleaned through the internet from an unknown author, of a satiric view of that particular nonsense:

If Archbishop Ussher had been correct when he added up all the begats
and concluded that Creation occurred in 4004 B.C., our world would
soon be 6000 years old. To celebrate this event, here is a Biblically
correct 6000-year geochronology of the world:

4004 BC – Earth still molten; Adam and Even invent asbestos waders.
3554 BC – Persistent lava incinerates Noah’s Ark.
2444 BC – Breathable atmosphere develops; first sermon preached.
1794 BC – Children of Ham split from the Israelites, insisting that the fauna in the Burgess Shales are kosher; chowder invented.
1704 BC – Hammurabi bitten by first vertebrate. Lawyers emerge from the slime.
1024 BC – Goliath stepped on by irate Allosaurus; David takes credit.
794 BC – Jonah swallowed by Carcharus megalodon.
454 BC – Marble deposits form in Greece; Parthenon erected.
The Year 0 – Nothing much happened, there being no year.
31 AD – Miracle of the loaves and Ichthyosaurs.
70 AD – Paul undergoes identity crisis on the road to Damascus and writes Epistle to the Cephalopods.
494 AD – Snakes evolve and are driven out of Ireland.
974 AD – Leif the Unlucky dies when his dragon ship is spotted by an amorous Kronosaurus.
1215 AD – Magna Carta is eaten by Velociraptor.
1484 AD – Leonardo da Vinci designs Archaeopteryx.
1588 AD – Spanish Armada frustrated by continuing absence of the English Channel.
1636 AD – Earliest primates appear. Harvard founded.
1754 AD – Gibbons evolve and write Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
1914 AD – Holy Roman Empire wins World War I.
1961 AD – Rachel Carson links DDT to Glyptodonts’ decline.
1971 AD – Andy Warhol paints Campbell Soup cans on the walls of Lascaux Caverns.
1988 AD – Saddam Hussein discovers fire.
1997 AD – Citing instability in oceans, the Christian Coalition flexes its political muscles by banning continental drift.

That will give you the idea. For further illustrations, consult Voltaire, Mark Twain, or any of the many other brilliant satirists who have enriched the human experience over the millenia. The point is that people are full of contradictions, contradictions are the stuff of humor, and it can be great fun, as well as devastating criticism, to highlight the motes and warts in other people’s behavior, or arguments, or fond and cherished beliefs.

Satire is effective with people standing on the sidelines. It is usually less effective with the people it is directed against. When your whole view of the world, your philosophy of life, your moral and ethical code is challenged, your normal reaction is angry denial. Getting people mad is not always the best way to persuade them.

Humanist thought is gradually taking over in much of the world, but it is a slow process. There are still far too many true believers, particularly in the United States, where they have recently been demonstrating unexpected political clout. The issue before us in this essay, therefore, is how we humanists can best go about waging the war of ideas we are fighting against the fundamentalists and the waverers. Should we focus on satire, the sharp point of an “in-your-face” confrontational approach? Or would some other, gentler, less confrontational strategy pay better dividends in the long run?

I don’t think the question lends itself to any simple answer. Satire is effective with waverers and it provides zip and life to what can otherwise become a pretty dull discourse. We need it. But it isn’t enough by itself. It has to be backed by positive thinking about the issues of the day and why humanist solutions are superior to the ones adumbrated by the theists. That is what I am trying to provide in some of the other essays on this website.

But a bunch of essays, no matter how eloquent or persuasive, aren’t enough either. There must be issues and actions. There must be crises, in which the contrast between humanist and theist thinking is rubbed into the nostrils of the public at large. Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood how to transform issues of current public concern into focal points around which they could rally support. So can the humanist leaders of the future.

And finally, there must be good works. I am minded of a conversation I had a few years ago with the late Father Moran, the grand old man of the Catholic missionary establishment in Kathmandu, Nepal. He led the group that started modern education at Godavari, in Kathmandu Valley, when Nepal first opened its borders to foreigners. Most of the older leaders of the country at present are graduates, as are many of the younger ones. That school complex (there are separate facilities for boys and girls) has done more than any other single institution to make possible Nepal’s remarkable transformation, in just two generations, from a medieval authoritarian kingdom to a fledgling democracy.

Father Moran, a Jesuit from Chicago, was probably the best known and loved foreigner in the valley–and there was plenty of competition. One day I was talking to him about the problems of missionaries proselytizing up and down the hills of Nepal, distributing tracts and organizing congregations, and getting into no end of trouble with the authorities. They were constantly getting kicked out of the country and writing their congressmen, who would then complain to the State Department, which would in turn instruct me to do something about it. I would do as little as possible. But it was a pain in the neck, for all concerned.

Father Moran agreed. These proselytizers, it seemed, were an even greater pain in the neck for him than for me, for they prejudiced the acceptability of all Christian activities in Nepal. But look, Father, I said, isn’t your basic reason for being out here in the first place the same as theirs, that is, to spread Christianity among the non-believers? He replied, roughly, as follows:

“Yes, Carl, you are right. But we believe in doing good works, first and foremost. If some of the people who get to know us, and understand who we are, want to join us in the Christian faith, we let them do so quietly. But we don’t press anybody. We impress by the example of what we do. This lets us enjoy good relations with the authorities in what is still, after all, a Hindu Kingdom”.

Nothing succeeds like success. I believe humanists should not try to avoid confrontation with true believers when it is thrust on us, but we also need to set a positive example, by doing good things that make a difference, like Father Moran. We’ll pick up a lot more waverers that way, and who knows, eventually some of the true believers may come around as well. Even if they don’t, we can expect their descendants to show more sense. This conversion to rationality from superstition is, after all, a generational thing, and it will take time to run its course.

CSC, 12/25/98

PS: Since posting the above, I have received the following thoughtful contribution from my friend and colleague, Eric Stockton:

In all modes of addressing the public – writing, speaking, art, drama etc…three main tactical considerations must be firmly in mind.

1) try both to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable,
2) be not so bland that peole nod off but not so sharp that people switch off, and

3) do not divert people from the point at issue by being personally
offensive – it is easier to offend people than it is to make them think.

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