Excerpts from "Why We Laugh"
I was once asked why we Freethinkers took a delight in laughing at
the religious beliefs of other people. As a matter of fact, I was not
at the time laughing at religion or anything else, but simply arguing
that religion was untrue, and pointing out, by the way, the absurd
character of some of the beliefs in question. But I replied, offhand,
that as I hadn't any religion of my own to laugh at I was compelled, if
I wished to do so, to laugh at the religion of someone else.
On the face of it, the Freethinker, because he is a Freethinker,
does not consider religion to be either useful or truthful. To him it is
something that began in falsehood, and has been perpetuated by methods
more or less blameworthy, and which he is convinced, rightly or wrongly,
is still responsible for a deal of evil in the world. Why should he,
then, be asked to deal with religion in a way that all honest men and
women reserve for that which they really respect?
Actually the religionist is asking the Freethinker to treat religion
as though he believed it were true, or might be true. He is to sacrifice
_his_ convictions in order to gratify the irrational demands of other
To say that we must not laugh at religious beliefs because other
people take them very seriously is really stating the cause of laughter,
not furnishing a reason for gravity. If they did not take them seriously
there would be no occassion for laughter. It is not the belief itself,
but its setting that causes mirth.
A good thing will outlive laughter, a bad thing will succumb sooner
or later. Laughter is the great cure for fools - and the knaves know it.
There is nothing healthier than laughter. Physically, it aids health.
Mentally, it makes for sanity. It is the world's great purifier, not
only in religion, but in social and political matters likewise. So long
as people cannot laugh at an absurd practice or a ridiculous belief,
they are never out of danger. They are like the Madame de Stael, who had
given up the belief in ghosts without ceasing to be afraid of them.
The world has had many different sorts of religion, but it has never
had one that taught its votaries to laugh. For religion to have encouraged
laughter would have been a preparation for suicide.
One of the lessons history teaches is that nothing as surely kills
an absurdity as learning to laugh at it. Laughter is here the symbol of
liberation and the condition of progress. The Comic Muse flourishes but
amongst a progressive people, and if the wits are not always on the side
of progress, progress is always on the side of the wits. Aristophanes in
Greece, Lucian in Rome, Erasmus in Medieval Europe, Voltaire in the
eighteenth century - these are among the world's greatest liberators.
They freed people's minds by teaching them to laugh at superstition,
and superstition hated them with an intensity born of the conviction
that here was an enemy with whom no compromise was possible. The laugh of
the liberated mind is the death knell of injustice and superstition.
excerpts from "Why We Laugh,"
_Essays in Freethinking_,
American Atheist Press
ISBN 0-910309-32-9 (set)
The entire essay goes into greater detail, but even the bits and pieces
I selected above demonstrate the clarity with which this writer states
his carefully considered subject. Cohen was the third president of
Britain's National Secular Society earlier this century. All his essays
in the two-volume set make for excellent reading, in my opinion.