The Secular Life

Thriving Without Gods or Gurus

Latest in Atheist Comedy: "Critical and Thinking"

Interview with stand-up Ian Harris

Absurdities deserve to be mocked. Nonsense ought to be ridiculed. False assertions should be debunked. And whacky beliefs cry out for comedic critique.

And that’s why atheist comedians clearly have their work cut out for them.

There’s a long and impressive history of comedians taking on religion, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce, and from George Carlin to Sarah Silverman.

The latest stand-up comedian to join in the joviality: Ian Harris.

Ian’s newest television special, “Critical and Thinking” has just been released; it’s available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play and On Demand. It is smart, sarcastic, and really funny. With bite, snarl, and heaps of truth, Ian takes on the likes of Big Foot, ghosts, astrology, Oprah, God, and so many other things.

Given that we both live in LA, are both fans of Santa Cruz legendary punk band Vicious Midgets, and are both bald, I was happy to interview Ian about his latest show.

PZ: How did the urge or idea for doing “Critical and Thinking” come about?

IH: I had gotten back into comedy after a lay off of a few years. I had a daughter and did not want to be on the road anymore. When I started doing stand up again I approached it from the angle that i wanted to just talk about what I like to talk about. I no longer needed to make a living from it, so there was no need to have an audience or care what anyone else thought. I have been a skeptic and atheist my whole life, so that is what I personally find funny. After a year or so I had to idea of doing a fund raiser for CFI to get like-minded folks into a show tailored to them. I picked the date of the "Mayan Apocalypse" because I thought it would be a fun and interesting selling point. It worked and ended turning into a full TV taping, originally called "Live from the Apocalypse". It takes so long to get a show finished and on the air that I did not want to tie the show to a date and changed the name to Critical & Thinking because I just loved the play on words. The theme of the show is critical thinking, I am critical of the topics and hopefully by the end we are all thinking.

PZ: Do you think it is fair to mock religion in the same way one mocks belief in Big Foot or ghosts – are these really the same sort of phenomena?

IH: First off, everything if fair game. Nothing is sacred, especially the "sacred". And since the theme is critical thinking and I try to do all my jokes about things we believe without evidence, or at least in the face of scientific data they are exactly the same. There is actually probably more "evidence" of bigfoot or ghosts than there is of God. At least we have one bad 50 year old 8mm film of bigfoot and some questionable foot prints. What evidence do we have of any gods? A statue that cries tears and a warm, fuzzy feeling inside?

PZ: Are you yourself secular? And what does that mean to you?

IH: Absolutely. I understand secular as not having any religious or spiritual beliefs. I even go further. I am not afraid of being called an Atheist, which is the most misunderstood word. Even dictionaries seem to be written at times by people who don't understand the word. A-Theism just means to not have accepted any assertions of any gods, or to not have a god. I equate it to asexual. Asexual organisms are not against sex or mad at sex, they just do not have male/female sex or sex organs. When it is used in humans metaphorically it has a similar meaning, someone not interested in or does not have sex. I do not have any gods. I have not fostered a belief in gods, or unicorns, or fairies, etc. the only reason it exists as a word is because the majority of people do have belief in gods, so it is used as a definition to understand a position on the issue of existence of gods, in contrast to the norm. Like all atheists, if presented with hard factual data, empirical evidence of a god, I would change my belief. That being said, I also am basically an anti-theist as well, which means I actually believe to a high probability that there are no gods.

PZ: It seems to me that there are a lot of secular comedians who make fun of religion—but is it ever the other way around? Are there any religious comedians who mock secular folks? Are there even any religious comedians out there, at all?

IH: Most comedians are questioning by nature. There are a solid handful of comedians who make fun of religion that are not atheist, just not fans of religion or specific religious institutions. There are also a higher percentage of atheists per capita in comedy due to the nature of what we do. That being said, there are a few comedians who do an inverse of what I do and base their whole act around their religion and in that try to make fun of atheism or secular society, but in my opinion it is not funny. Now of course I am going to say that, I disagree with their premises. Of course devoutly religious people will probably think I am wrong, but I think it is true for other reasons. Comedy is generally based in pain and suffering, often anger or a feeling of being on the outside looking in. Comedians tend to break down life and look at things we all see or do in a unique way. Comedians are rebellious by nature. It is our job to point out inconsistencies, wrong doings, etc. and make people think and laugh about them. The experiences are generally universal and the best comedy is honest and based in reality. So for me it is hard to come at comedy from the view of the popular crowd, who has little to no adversity (especially in regards to Christianity in America). What are you going to complain about or make jokes about? Plus their intellectual viewpoint has no backing, so it is inherently dishonest. Not to say the comedian is being dishonest. I am sure they believe they are being honest, but they have not evidentiary leg to stand on. So let's look at this: You are the oppressor, 80-90% of the population, money, power; the cool kids with the nice house, the good looks and the sweet car... the "popular crowd" AND your views are not based in fact. What are you going to talk about? How you beat up the nerdy kid because he doesn't fit in and won't admit that you have magic powers? It's the same reason conservatives aren't funny. Superior social position with inferior ideology told from a position of power, to me it is just a formula that isn't funny.

PZ: Many people think of atheists as being angry. Thoughts?

IH: See above, ha ha. No, really, I think there are both valid and invalid reasons for this. First, many atheists are angry. We are one of the last groups for which is socially and legally ok to discriminate against. There are still states where atheists can't hold office. Substitute "atheist" with any other group or minority and that becomes clear. Then you look at statistics that show direct correlation between atheism and education, atheism and intelligence, atheism in the world's best scientists, etc. Now I am not saying that atheist are necessarily smarter or better educated or any of that (though I don't really have to), but the fact is that the majority of atheists are educated, highly intelligent, professional people and 93+ percent of all scientists are atheists... but we can't be governor in 13 states? That is insulting and downright stupid policy. Laws get made that allow religions to be forced down our throats even though we have the First amendment, e.g. Hobby Lobby, or the Ten Commandments in courthouses, God on our money, etc. It is unfair, illegal, and just plain discriminatory. So yeah sometimes we are angry. Second, I think people perceive the idea of atheism as angry because they see it as a defiance of everything they believe. It is a big F.U. to who they feel they are as a person. Everything they feel in their core. What they were taught by their parents and grandparents, etc. their history and culture and we say, "nah we don't believe that". To them that is saying "you are an idiot and everything you 'know' is B.S." They know that they have no evidence to back them. That is why they have faith. that is the definition of faith, "a belief in something without evidence". When you have no evidence on which to back your beliefs their is an insecurity that comes along with every discussion. So when an atheist simply says "I don't believe that" that evokes an emotional response that they are being attacked, hence the atheist is the angry mean guy out to undermine their harmless beliefs by calling them stupid.

PZ: One of my favorite parts of your show was when you talk about trying to explain Christianity to your daughter. How are you raising her—in terms of religion (or its absence)?

IH: She gets to live in reality. With the wonders of the natural universe and the appreciation of a finite time of living with the people you love. Funny enough when she was 5 we did the whole Santa Claus thing, cause we may be atheist, but we are not robots. We believe in fun and wonder and all of that. Plus we used it as an exercise in critical thinking. She eventually evaluated the evidence as it came in over the years and this last year realized there was no Santa. She was cool with it. Back to the story. She was 5 and I picked her up from school. She was laughing her butt off and said "Hey Dad, did you know so and so (leaving out the kid's name) believes in God, but doesn't believe in Santa Claus! I mean we have evidence for Santa Claus. He brings use presents every Christmas. What the hell has God ever done?" So she eventually saw more evidence that Santa was most likely Mom and Dad and changed her belief in Santa, the way I feel adults should with gods.

PZ: Personally, I find critiquing or debunking Christianity is pretty safe—but I’m scared to go after Islam. Do you feel that as well?

IH: I certainly wouldn't do it in an Islamic country as I think there might be actual laws against that. Funny, many American Christians seem to despise Sharia Law and Islamic countries for how they force Islam on people, but openly lobby for similar laws here that favor them and NEVER seem to see the parallel. I think in America it is safe to do whatever you want. Hopefully we can keep it that way, but we will see with this American Taliban attitude. I just don't really care. Controversy is great for comedy and if someone really wants to seek me out on stage and gun me down or get physical over an intellectual idea being told by one man on a comedy stage what can I do about it? It certainly wouldn't help their cause and it would immortalize me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phil Zuckerman Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and the author of several books.

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