A LITTLE OVER two years ago, Australian stand-up comedian Jim Jefferies released a comedy special entitled Bare. Readers may be familiar with the special through a featured bit on gun control that has since become an on-and-off viral phenomenon [DISLAIMER: Extremely strong language].
It has hit all the same media beats as any other – trending on Facebook and Twitter, an article on Huffington Post – but it has also enjoyed a privilege unique among viral media: it keeps coming back. It celebrates a brief reincarnation after each successive American mass shooting, with threads of bitter internet debate consistently, reliably following. As if this were not enough to set it apart, Jefferies himself claims to have knowledge that it has also been used for educational purposes in Yale Law classes.
In short, this breakout bit lent Jefferies a significant platform for future work. I appreciate the bit, for the record—not only because I happen to agree with Jefferies in this one area, but also, and more importantly, because it makes me laugh. I can’t say I’ve approved of every bit he’s done in all seven of his comedy specials, all of which I’ve seen. But that’s hardly the point of comedy. We were never expected to rely on it to inform our political, social, or religious beliefs, nor should we hold it in the same esteem as, say, a university lecture. There is exactly one thing we’re expected to do with it: laugh.
I wish more people understood this, especially after having watched his most recent Netflix special, Freedumb.
“Our fight in this world is not against Islam; it’s against religion. Be very clear about this,” says Jefferies in Freedumb, “’Cause I can tell you this for sure: no-one’s head has ever been cut off in the name of atheism.”
To be fair, Jefferies is not the only comedian to have ever used the stage to criticize religion. It doesn’t bother me when an audience laughs at an easy, ill-informed stab at Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or any other faith. Humility is a virtue; we should be able to smile at harmless ignorance. What made my insides squirm this time around was the applause. The audience was not treating his jokes like jokes. They were firmly, seriously sympathizing. With this reaction, I watched the routine turn from an hour of comedy to an ideological rally.
But of course, as I’ve said before, who could blame the audience? They’re simply responding to a greater movement in the world beyond entertainment, spear-headed by men like Hitchens and Dawkins, to turn religion into the villain.
Hitchens has said it most plainly: “You can certainly say belief in God makes people behave worse. That can be proved beyond a doubt.”
And who could forget the brutal glee with which he responded to the bombings in Afghanistan:
“’Bombing Afghanistan back into the Stone Age’ was quite a favourable [sic] headline for some wobbly liberals. The slogan does all the work. But an instant’s thought shows that Afghanistan is being, if anything, bombed out of the Stone Age.”
Let me clarify something that should be obvious before going any further: To behead another human being, for whatever reason, is not only subhuman, it is sub-Islamic. There is nothing under the sun that could justify the slaughter of an innocent person. My Book, as clearly as my human instinct, teaches me this. It is a sign of the perverted global attitude toward Islam that I, as a writer, feel a need to make this clarification for my own sake.
Indeed, these men insist that my very belief in my Book marks me as uniquely prone to violence of this kind: In other words, whenever I read the Quran, my eyes begin to glow red and I go helplessly into murder mode. There is, for them, no alternative. Of course, we should give credit where credit is due: Jefferies is clear in his insistence that Islam is not the only villain. Any belief at all, whether it is in Allah or Vishnu, is naturally corrosive of a person’s sense of right and wrong. Watching the Jefferies special is where I witnessed the real-time transition of such a sentiment from a night’s entertainment—not to be taken any more seriously than Blue Collar Comedy—to credible criticism. It has moved from the fringe to the mainstream of thought.
One route that I could take for the remainder of this article, a popular route for apologists, is that of listing off the unending number of people throughout history who contradict this thesis—who are inspired by their religion to serve humankind. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the current Dalai Lama are perhaps some of the most obvious. Cornel West, Janusz Korczak, and Malala Yousafazi are some of my personal favorites. But I won’t devote more than this paragraph to an argument of that kind. For this, there are three major reasons:
The first is that they are so numerous and varied, that to reduce their works by confining them to a single list would be silly and unattractive.
The second is that an antitheist critic could easily come back at me with an equally long list of religious people who have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. Adolf Hitler, though he was by most historical accounts irreligious and anti-Christian himself, used Christian symbols and vocabulary to oil the Nazi war machine and exterminate millions of Jews and other ethnic, religious, and social minorities. A similar, genocidal group of self-proclaimed “Muslims” exists in Iraq and Syria today, motivated by a backward reading of our Quran to repress, abuse, and kill innocents—though, as in the case of the Nazis, I’m suspicious of the honesty in the belief of its leaders.
The third is that identical lists could be drawn up with regard to atheists. There are plenty of people who have found within their inner religious void a sincere and beautiful humanism, and who have used this humanism to do the world inimitable good. I proudly cast my vote in the Democratic primaries for Senator Bernie Sanders, who has called himself “not particularly religious,” but has devoted his life to the fair treatment of all under civil law. On the adjacent list of evil-doing atheists, we find the likes of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, who committed genocides of a scale on par with Hitler’s. [i]
In short, lists of this sort are not an effective argument for either side. The only thing they succeed at demonstrating is that neither good nor evil is the reserved property of atheists or theists. There is plenty of each sprinkled in both camps. There obviously must be something deeper, common among both, that predisposes us to one in preference to the other.
Could it be our humanity? Could it be our natural faults, mixed with a spoonful of free will, mixed with the experiences that shape us, that doom us to sometimes harm one another? Could it be the examples that precede us—a book, a person, or whatever on Earth we choose—that lend us the grace, however temporary, to show kindness?
There is something of ourselves, our own flavor molded over time, which we bring to everything that we do in life. It’s why there is one constitution, but multiple political parties. It’s why one holy book can motivate one person to be a feminist, and another to be a misogynist. Some (perhaps most) of it has to do with differences in levels of understanding and education, [ii] but an undeniable and powerful fraction of it has to do with the character and judgment of a person before they’ve even picked up a religious book. To then blame that book, and everyone else who reads it, for the individual’s shoddy moral compass is simplistic. In an age facing such confusing, manifold crises, we cannot afford to be simplistic in our understanding of any dimension of humanity, least of all something as foundational as religion.
Should bloodlust and sadism, in all their forms, be slowed and harassed at every opportunity? Wallahi, it will be my life’s major preoccupation, lest I quake in shame when I someday stand before God. But we ought to be wise enough not to burn down the Vatican for the cruelty of a handful of priests. This all-or-nothing, slash-and-burn kind of behavior will only succeed in alienating the wider body of well-meaning people of faith who would otherwise be our allies. Instead, may we target the evil, not the clothing it wears, and work as a human body to wash it from our Earth.
[i] The antitheists have tried to disguise the atrocities of Zedong and Stalin as “religious-like,” reasoning that the cults of personality surrounding these men were nearly religious in character. This is a distracting game of words. Both men panned religion as a concept at high volumes, militarized their respective cultures against all forms of worship, and most importantly, never claimed positions of divinity for themselves.
[ii] This is a subject for another article.