With this understanding of the psychology of religious faith and its support of militarism, we can now consider the opposition between both faith and militarism, on one side, and humor, on the other side. Using a scheme I developed in Morreall (1999), I will contrast militaristic faith and humor in seven ways. The overarching difference is between the mental rigidity of religious faith and the mental flexibility of humor.
1. The first contrast is between the respect for authority in religious faith, and the questioning of authority in humor. In faith-based religions, people believe what they are told, and do they do what they are told, by a leader, typically a patriarchal leader. God himself is pictured as the ultimate patriarchal authority, the Lord, the King of the Universe.
The psychology of humor, by contrast, involves questioning authority. The humorist’s role, from the court jesters of ancient China to today’s standup comedians, has been to think critically about people’s language, about their reasoning, about their actions, and about the relations between all three. From the days of ancient Greek comedy, the creators of humor have looked for discrepancies between what political and religious leaders say and what they do. Aristophanes poked fun not only at political leaders but at intellectual leaders like Socrates, and even at the gods.
2. The second contrast is between the simple, often dualistic, conceptual schemes of religious faith and the more complex conceptual schemes of humor. Faith-based religions offer believers simple concepts with which they can classify everything they experience. Master categories include “good and evil,” and “us and them.” Osama bin Laden’s speeches and George W. Bush’s speeches are full of name-calling based on such simple dualistic categories. As Bush has admitted, he “doesn’t do nuance.”
Comic thinking, on the other hand, is more complex and messy. The world doesn’t separate neatly into a few categories. In comedy, there aren’t any all-good people, nor any all-bad people. Even the best person involved in the best kind of action is likely to be tainted by some selfishness, foolishness, and maybe even hypocrisy. When characters appear in comedy promoting simple conceptual schemes, they are often satirized as fanatics or fools.
3. The third contrast is between the militarism of religious faith and the pacifism of humor. Religions based on faith tend to feel threatened by other world views and so tend to want to eliminate the proponents of those views. And so they often justify violence against “the heathen” or “the infidel,” as General Boykin and Osama bin Laden do.
From the beginning, however, comedy has been suspicious of calls to eliminate those who think differently, and has been suspicious of violence as a way to solve problems. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata satirized the insanity of the constant fighting between the Greek city states. In modern times, the futility of war has been the theme of dozens of comedies, which have lampooned the willingness to kill or die on command. Comic heroes are usually good at talking their way out of conflicts, and when that fails, they are not ashamed to run away. The comic attitude here is captured in the old Irish saying “You’re only a coward for a moment, but you’re dead for the rest of your life.”
4. The fourth contrast is between the single-mindedness of religious faith and the willingness to change one’s mind in humor. The person of faith treats alternative viewpoints as possible sources of doubt, and so something to be suppressed. Once they make a divinely sanctioned choice of action—as in George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, they “stay the course” no matter what happens. They do not look for mistakes they might have made, they do not try to think of how they might proceed differently, and they tend to be defensive when they are challenged. Faith-based religions tout what Conrad Hyers (1996) calls “warrior virtues”: courage, loyalty, duty, honor, indomitable will, unquestioning obedience, stubborn determination, and uncompromising dedication.
In comedy, by contrast, the person who has an idée fixe is portrayed as foolish. Comic heroes do set courses of action, but they are adaptable after that. As situations change, they can too. Their plans are not set in stone but are contingent and reversible. Often, the comic hero has not even determined in advance what will count as success or failure.
5. The fifth contrast is between the idealism of religious faith and the pragmatism of humor. The rhetoric of faith-based religions is full of abstractions like Truth, Faith, and Freedom. On the enemy side are those who love Evil.
Comedy, on the other hand, is based not on abstractions but on concrete things, people, and situations. Comic heroes are concerned not about Truth and Freedom but about their next meal, and getting the one they love to love them in return. Not longing for some utopia, they are at home in the world as it is.
6. The sixth contrast is between the convergent thinking of faith-based religions and the divergent thinking of humor. Convergent thinking aims at reaching the correct answer. In divergent thinking there is no single correct answer, but dozens, maybe hundreds of possible good answers. A standard exercise in divergent thinking is to think of thirty uses for a building brick.
With their simple conceptual schemes and their emphasis on thinking in traditional ways, faith-based religions do not encourage creativity or cleverness. A good example is George W. Bush and his wife Laura. On a TV interview program, Laura Bush was asked if she and the President had pet names for each other. She said, “Oh Yes.” “What is your pet name for him?” the interviewer asked. “Bushie,” she answered. “What is his pet name for you?” “Bushie,” she said again.
Unlike such unimaginative plodders, people with a rich sense of humor are creative. The master skill of the comedian is to look at something familiar in a new way.
7. The seventh contrast is between seriousness and playfulness. Faith-based religious visions of life are paradigms of seriousness, and humor is a paradigm of nonseriousness. It is persons, I take it, who are serious in the basic sense of the word. Issues and problems are called “serious” because they require persons to be serious about them. For us to be serious is to be solemn and given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. It is also for us to be sincere in what we say and do. We say only what we believe, and act only according to our real intentions.
Seriousness is contrasted with playfulness. When we are playful, we are not solemn and are not given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. We are not bound to sincerity in what we say and do. We may say something outlandishly false for the mental jolt it gives us and others. We may impersonate someone, or feign some emotion, just for the fun of it.
Now some people are serious only occasionally, or only about a few issues, while others are serious virtually all the time, about everything. A vision of life such as those of faith-based religions can be serious, when it evaluates most or all situations in life as serious, that is, as calling for our solemn, narrowly focused attention.
In contrast to a religious or other serious view of life, the comic view of life treats most events in life as non-serious–as not calling for our solemn, narrowly focused, resolute attention. It sees playfulness as appropriate in many or most situations. We can be playful in the sense of not being grave, not being engaged in deep, narrowly focused thought. And we can be playful in the sense of not being sincere in what we say and do. As a joke, we can engage in non-bona fide communication and activity. We can exaggerate, understate, or even deny what we believe to be true.
In Christianity and Islam, of course, people who is not serious in what they say and do are, at best, fools, and, at worst, deeply immoral.
Non-faith-based Religions and Humor
Since I have presented all these contrasts between religions and humor, it might seem that I think of religions as essentially humorless. But that is not the case. To see how humor and religion can fit together, let me conclude with a few comments on Zen Buddhism, a religion which is not based on faith and which encourages people to think for themselves.
In Buddhism there is no single correct divine perspective with which we should align our minds and wills. Morality is based not on obeying a god, but on compassion for all living things. There are no crusades or jihads to convert unbelievers. Buddhists are not asked to kill or die for the cause. They are supposed to live in ahimsa, nonviolence.
The goal of Buddhism is not to align one’s will with God’s commands, but to become enlightened, to see things the way they really are. We achieve enlightenment by becoming emotionally disengaged from the familiar world. We quiet the noise of ordinary consciousness and eliminate ordinary cravings for such things as power and wealth. Nonattachment, self-control, and clearheadedness are the big virtues.
Enlightenment involves experiencing the incongruities in life without suffering, and that is possible because emotional detachment blocks fear, anger, sadness, and other negative emotions. That same attitude lies at the heart of humor. What Buddhists call non-attachment is often called “distance” in comic theory. Henri Bergson called it an “anesthesia of the heart” (in Morreall 1987, 118).
To reach nonattachment, Buddhism uses meditation exercises. The simpler ones free us from attachment to things like food, and the more sophisticated ones from higher attachments like the attachment to self. All of them have comic overtones. Consider the exercise which Buddhaghosa, a meditation master of the fifth century C.E., used to free his disciples of gluttonous desires (in Conze 1969, 101-103). He had them think in detail about how they obtained their food, how it was digested, and how it was excreted. Since monks beg for food, he first asked them to meditate on how they had to leave the peace and quiet of the monastery. “On your way to the village, you meet with many nasty sights and smells, walking on rough roads full of stumps and thorns … When you walk in the village, your feet sink deep into the mud, or the wind covers you with dust, and flies land on you. Some people give you no food, others give you stale or rotten food, others are rude to you.” Next Buddhaghosa had them think about how grotesque eating is. Crushed by the teeth and smeared with saliva, chewed food becomes repulsive slop, “like dog’s vomit in a dog’s trough.” It passes to the stomach, “which resembles a cesspool that has not been washed for a long time,” then on to the abdomen, where it becomes feces and urine. Badly digested food, the master continued, causes “hundreds of diseases, such as ringworm, itch, scab, leprosy, eczema, consumption, coughs, dysentery, etc. Notice how the techniques used here, especially the piling up of details and exaggeration, are the standard techniques of today’s comedians.
The best known Buddhist meditation exercises come from Zen Buddhism, a tradition rich in humor. Consider this Zen poem by Masahide:
Since my barn burned down
I now have a better view
Of the rising moon.
More sophisticated than Zen’s liberation from attachment to food and shelter is its liberation from attachment to words, concepts, and logical thinking. We are attached, according to Zen, when we treat logical thinking as a form of power and control, when through our words and concepts we try to “capture” or “master” the world. But understanding through concepts is inferior in at least three ways. First, it is a mediated kind of knowledge, while Zen seeks direct experience of reality. Secondly, concepts mislead us because they are static, while reality is in constant flux. And thirdly, conceptual thinking works by making distinctions, especially between opposites–mind/matter, subject/object, good/bad–while reality is essentially a unity. Our minds, of course, cannot be prevented from forming concepts. But we need to remind ourselves that any conceptual system, however useful in a particular situation, is at best a tool. We must constantly challenge our conceptual systems, according to Zen, and “break up” our concepts, to prevent ourselves from thinking that they give us an objective grasp of things.
In helping us break attachments to things, words, concepts, and self, humor is valuable for its fostering of critical thinking and mental flexibility. It gets us out of mental ruts and blocks negative emotions, allowing us to face what might otherwise be disconcerting truths. Almost any sudden realization may trigger laughter. Enlightenment and amusement often overlap.
Zen is famous for its use of humor to break up our attachment to logical thinking. Exchanges between Zen students and masters often involve illogical shifts of thought, as when Tozan was asked, “What is the Buddha?” and answered, “Three pounds of flax.” And answers to students’ questions need not have any meaning at all. Rinzai, who founded one of the two great schools of Zen, would often reply, no matter what the question, with “Kwatz!”, a meaningless sound. Indeed, a question may be “answered” without words: the master may slap students or twist their noses. The purpose of all this nonsense and slapstick is to derail the rational mind, so that students can break their attachment to it.
There is one last kind of nonattachment that we should mention, which is also fostered through a shocking kind of humor. Zen masters teach that our attitude toward Buddhism itself can be a form of attachment, if Buddhism is thought of as a creed to which we subscribe or a set of rituals we follow. So there are no rituals, scriptures, doctrines, or religious figures–not even the Buddha–to whom we should become attached. Even the idea of nonattachment is not something to get attached to!
To break these attachments, Zen uses iconoclastic humor (Hyers 1991, ch. 4). Sengai (1750-1837) has a drawing of a meditating frog with a grin on its face. The inscription: “If by sitting in meditation, one becomes a Buddha”; the implicit punch line: “then all frogs are Buddhas.” Another drawing by the same master shows a small boy leaning over to fart: its title is “The One Hundred Days Teaching of the Dharma.” The master Tanka (738-824), according to a famous story, stopped for lodging at a temple where the deep snow prevented the monks from getting firewood. Tanka took one of the three wooden images of the Buddha from the altar and used it for firewood. When a monk asked the master Ummon (862-949), “What is the Buddha?”, he answered, “A wiping stick of dried dung!” Before him Tokusan (780-865) had said, “The Buddha is a dried piece of barbarian dung, and sainthood is only an empty name.” There is even a Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
Among the world’s 10,000 religions, then, there is a considerable range of possibilities for humor. The monotheistic religions which are based on orthodoxy and faith tend to foster mental rigidity and militarism, and thus to suppress humor. Religions such as Buddhism which do not require doctrines or faith, which distrust ordinary experience, and which encourage people to think in new ways, are quite compatible with humor. If I were given three wishes, one of them would be that Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush spend a week at a Zen monastery and like it so much that they convert.
Conze, Edward (1969). Buddhist Meditation. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Hyers, Conrad (1991). The Laughing Buddha: Zen and the Comic Spirit. Durango, CO: Longwood Academic.
Hyers, Conrad (1996). The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Morreall, John, ed. (1987). The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Morreall, John (1999). Comedy, Tragedy, and Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Saroglou, Vassilis (2002). Religion and sense of humor: An a priori incompatibility? Theoretical considerations from a psychological perspective. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 15/2, 191-214.