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The Madman's Speech

by Tim Madigan

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 2.

To Bash Or Not To Bash

The debate raging within Secular Humanist Bulletin as to whether or not we should "bash" religion seems to be overlooking an important point - just why is it that humanists have a predisposition toward ridiculing religious practices? For many of us, there is a therapeutic component involved. This came home to me a few years ago, during a luncheon at a Free Inquiry seminar. One of the people there began to tell a series of irreverent jokes, which had us all in stitches. His capper was the following: "Did you hear that Salman Rushdie got another death threat because of his latest book - Buddha, That Fat Fuck. A woman at the table went into convulsions of laughter. Admittedly it was a funny - albeit vulgar - joke, but it didn't seem to warrant such an effusive response. Even the joke teller was bit nonplussed. When she finally calmed down a bit, she told us all that she had never in her life heard such blasphemous assertions, nor could she have even conceived of telling them herself. A professor at a prominent university, she was a newly-professed humanist, and it was her first time being in the company of so many self-proclaimed nonbelievers. The freedom to express such views, without needing to worry about the sense and sensibility of others, was a new experience. "I could never have enjoyed these jokes if my husband was here," she explained.

I have spent many nights - more than I care to remember! - quaffing various beverages and swapping irreverent comments with iconoclasts throughout the U.S. and even foreign lands (don't ever encourage a person from Finland to tell jokes about religion - you'll be there all night). Those who most appreciate such happenings almost always tend to be people who were once devout believers. The overall attitude is one of "Did I really once believe that?" I think that such open expressions are a healthy way of distancing one's self from sometimes painful memories, and of asserting one's independence of mind. Surely the most ardent readers of Farrell Till's "Journeys to the Twilight Zone" are those who were raised as biblical fundamentalists. If the truth be known, one of the marks of camaraderie of all groups is to make unfair and oversimplified assertions about non-members. Catholics tell jokes about Protestants, Jews about Muslims, Hindus about Jains, and vice versa. In the words of Ambrose Bierce, impiety consists of "your irreverence towards my deity." Humanists are just a bit more ecumenical in their disparagings.

Still, the sort of things one might say amongst cohorts should not always be said in mixed company. Last month I took part in a conference on Buddhist philosophy - I did not tell the joke mentioned above. In some ways, the debate going on in SHB is due to its dual nature: it is both a newsletter that allows humanists to interact with each other, and a public forum to express the humanist philosophy. Cheekiness and classiness are dancing cheek-to-cheek, and sometimes the wrong types of cheeks show forth.

What to do? Perhaps we need to be more sensitive, both to the affronts our columns might make to devout religious adherents like the professor's husband, and to the needs of many humanists to vent their frustrations against dogmatism in a cathartic way. The best approach is to keep this dual purpose of Secular Humanist Bulletin (a public face and a private chatroom) always in mind. We columnists also need feedback. If you think we've crossed the line, let us know. But please be specific with your critiques - you shouldn't engage in Bulletin Bashing, either!

On another note, the Spring 1996 Bulletin mentioned that late 20th Century technology has finally come to the Center for Inquiry. I was able to put away my Radio Shack TRS-80 and move on to a state-of-the-art computer. When I ran this column through the "Spell check" function, my last name was not in its dictionary. The alternate words offered were "Madman", "Madison" and "Madonna." If I were in a superstitious frame of mind, I might suppose that the first gives some validity to the title of this column, while the second recognizes the influence of James Madison, the founding father most supportive of church/state separation. I'm not so sure about the third: it's either calling me home to the Mother Church, or leading me further astray down the path of wicked materialism and hedonism. I'll bank on the latter interpretation.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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