Humans use comedy and laughter in many ways. We do it to deflate tension and mask fear, to mark boundaries of who is in and who is out. We do it to deflate ego and tackle pomposity. Laughter is the only weapon, sometimes, that the disadvantaged have against the powerful. It can be tremendously subversive, but also culturally bonding. Laugher is dangerous, so how we relate it to that most serious of subjects – religion – is an interesting question.
It is natural to fear ridicule, and as religion tends to be very personal, the mocking of religions can translate into the mocking of the faithful. Where the humour is about pointing and laughing at the silly people, this can feel alienating, and like your most sacred things are a joke to others. Pagans get a lot of this, in the media. This is in part because we look different and are an easy target, a bit like morris dancers. I happen to think most men in bells look silly, but I love morris dancing nonetheless. That which is funny adds colour to life, which is a good thing. I think the pointing and laughing is good, in an odd way. All religions are prone to pomposity, which is inherently foolish, and to costumes and rituals that become all about show and lose their substance. The laughter of irreverent outsiders can do a lot to keep us focused on what really matters, and to keep us honest.
Really good comedy depends on insight. I am better placed than a non-druid to make druid jokes, because I know the silliness we, and our ancestors of tradition get up to. If I use it for comic effect, I may do something productive. Jewish culture is full of jokes about Judaism and Jewish people, offered in a self-depreciating way to the outside world. That fascinates me. I have learned from it, and the main effect has been to improve my understanding and respect. I am aware that jokes about Islam result in death threats, sometimes. This makes me wary of comedy about Islam, but if we ever get the equivalent of ‘The Imman of Dibley’ onto the TV, I will know that a wonderful, cultural revolution has occurred. Irony, parody, and sophisticated word play comedy depend on knowledge, and on the audience knowing as much as the jester. To be jokeable about, is to be understood, at least a bit. The day I hear a mainstream comedian making cracks about Druids, is the day I know the world is really taking us seriously.
Where laughter is shared,, groups and individuals bond. Laugher breaks the ice, breaks down social barriers, and a shared joke gives common points of cultural reference and a sense of belonging. Jokes within a community, about itself, can therefore be important markers of belonging. Religion serves a function in terms of cultural belonging and a sense of place. Laughter and comedy have a role to play in that, and if we resent the giggling at sacred things, the shooting down of sacred cows, the laughter at expense of doctrine and leadership, we miss out. It is healthy to make jokes about religions. Fearing laughter is not healthy, I think.
Challenges to faith are not a bad thing. When the laughter comes from the outside, that can feel like an assault to pride, dignity, and all that we value. But like anything that tests us, it also gives us a chance to walk our talk. For me as a druid, the tradition of satire is an important one. If someone makes a joke at my expense, or the expense of my faith, my religious position is to try and come up with a better one, or a stronger way of laughing back. Each religion has its own ways but I have no doubt each can contribute to how we handle laugher coming in from the outside.
Laughter, when it hits hard, is the most amazing loss of control. It’s also more socially acceptable than a wild excess of weeping, or lust, or anger. When laughter takes hold, tears stream, bodies rock, motor control goes. Extreme laugher makes us weak and vulnerable, in a physical sense. We can therefore only do it when we feel safe. It takes us out of ourselves, something is broken down when we are overcome in this way. I believe that laughter, like all other powerful emotional events, has the potential to be a religious experience in its own right. Why should all religion be po-faced and melancholy? Surely god can be as present in a giggle as in solemnity?
The sacred is bigger than us, pretty much by definition. The only things we hurt with laughter are fragile, human egos. If there are gods, they are not human. Mostly, we do not laugh at the gods, we laugh at the strange things it occurs to people to do in the name of deity. Sometimes we laugh because that’s better than weeping. When we laugh, we are human. When we laugh, we are not killing each other. Warm hearted laughter is not the beginning of aggression. Hate is a cold, and joyless thing and those who hate will find it just as intolerable to face the gigglers. If we can laugh at ourselves, and the things we do, the odds are, we aren’t going to kill anyone, and given the history of religions worldwide, that would be a good development.