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1 Humor, Philosophy, and Religion by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen.

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Presentation on theme: "1 Humor, Philosophy, and Religion by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen."— Presentation transcript:

1 1 Humor, Philosophy, and Religion by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen

2 A Philosophical Encounter 2

3 A Chronological Sampling of Philosophers’ Statements on Humor Plato, a classical Greek philosopher (424-348 BCE) conflated what we now call humor with laughter. He looked mainly at the laughter of ridicule and viewed it as an emotion in itself, rather than evidence of something more complex. It therefore fell under his general objection to emotions, which he said “override rationality and self-control.” 3

4 Contributions from Other Early Scholars Who Pondered on the Role of Humor ARISTOTLE (384-322 BCE) was a Greek tutor to Alexander the Great. He thought that comedy results from people who are worse than the average. They do not cause pain, but are like a mistake in being unseemly or distorted. He nevertheless gave advice on how to make people laugh. Set up an expectation and then “jolt” the audience with something different. CICERO (Born in 106 BCE) was a Roman orator and author. He wrote that the most common joke is when we expect one thing and something else is said. Our disappointed expectation makes us laugh. But when something ambiguous is thrown in, listeners have to stop and figure out the joke and the effect is heightened. 4

5 More Early Philosophers SENECA (4 BCE-AD 65) was a Roman advisor to Nero. He counseled “Bear yourself with wit, lest you be regarded as sour or despised as dull.” He added, “Those who lack playfulness are sinful.” And those who never say anything to make you smile, and who are grumpy with those who do, are “rough and boorish.” Of course there were people thinking and talking about humor over the next several centuries, but we do not have records of their thoughts until the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. 5

6 St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) This well-known Italian Priest called a happy person a “eutrapelos,” and defined the term as “a pleasant person with a happy cast of mind who gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn.” René Descartes (1595- 1650 A.D.). T his French scholar wrote, “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” He said that people laugh at those who are inferior to them. He explained that the laugh is at obvious defects, because it is satisfying to see others held in lower esteem than ourselves. Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804). This East Prussian philosopher wrote that “Laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” NOTE: In a way, this is opposite to the epiphany that today we expect as the punch line of a joke. 6

7 William Spencer (1769-1834). This British poet wrote that we laugh when our minds are surprised by recognizing similarities between great and small things. He called it a “descending incongruity.” William Hazlitt (1778- 1830) This British writer observed that “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be. We weep at what thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters; we laugh at what only disappoints our expectations in trifles.” Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) This Danish philosopher wrote “The tragic apprehension sees the contradiction and despairs of a way out,” while the comic vision faces the same contradiction but sees a “way out.” In many situations, “the comic perspective can be more imaginative, more insightful, and wiser than the tragic perspective.” 7

8 Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO8x8eoU3L4 8

9 Early Punishments for Laughing as reported by Professor of Religion, John Morreall From the monastery of Columban in Ireland: He who smiles in the service…six strokes; if he breaks out in the noise of laughter, a special fast unless it has happened pardonably. From leaders of the Essenes: Leaders of this early Jewish monastic group imposed a penance of thirty days for those who “guffawed foolishly.” 9

10 Laughter in the Bible is associated with: Hostility, Foolishness, or Joy as in these examples HOSTILITY: Consider Psalm 59: 4-8 which implores God to “have no mercy on villains and traitors….But you, O Lord, laugh at them and deride all the nations.” FOOLISHNESS: Consider Ecclesiastes 7:3-6, which reads, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad….The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” 10

11 Is This Foolishness or Joy? Genesis 17:17, reads that when God tells Abraham at age 99 that he and his aged wife Sarah will have a son. Abraham “fell on his face and laughed.” On hearing the news, Sarah also laughed with disbelief, and “when God confronted her, she compounded her foolishness by denying that she had laughed” When the child was born, Sarah and Abraham named him Isaac, which means “to laugh.” 11

12 Laughter and Joy Consider Psalms 126:2, “When the lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. Also consider Luke 6:21 where Jesus says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 12

13 Silent Monks Singing Halleluia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCFCeJTEzNU&feature=related 13

14 John the Evangelist on The Importance of Play John Morreal, a contemporary Professor of Religious Studies, tells about the time people were scandalized at finding John at play with his disciples. John asked one of those criticizing him, who happened to be carrying a bow, to shoot an arrow. When this had been done several times, John asked the man whether he could keep on doing so continuously. The man replied that the bow would break. Whereupon the blessed John pointed to the moral that “so, too, would the human spirit snap were it never unbent.” 14

15 Stone carvings like this Mayan Frieze, are usually related to answering THE BIG questions of life. Is there room for humor in religious statues? 15

16 MODERN PHILOSOPHERS Henri Bergson, French Philosopher (1859-1941) Bergson claimed that when we suppress our “elan vital” and manage our lives with logic, “we act in rigid, mechanical ways, treating new experiences merely as repetitions of previous ones.” He concluded that laughter comes from the surprise of suddenly seeing “the mechanical encrusted on the living.” Are we being too literal if we apply his observation to today’s humor that centers around competition between humans and computers? 16

17 17 Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Austrian Neurologist, Father of Psychoanalysis “Telling jokes is like dreaming, a way to let repressed feelings into the conscious mind. Because we express our hostile or sexual feelings rather than repress them, we ‘save’ the mental energy we would have expended to repress those feelings. That saved energy is vented in laughter.” He popularized the terms “tendentious humor” and “Freudian slips.” An example of his definition of “the comic” would be one of Rube Goldberg’s drawings of a fantastically complicated device to do some simple task, such as watering a plant. At first we would try to understand how each part of the machine moves the next part, but then acknowledging that the drawing is just a cartoon, we would stop trying to figure out how it works, and we would smile or laugh.

18 18 John Morreall, Contemporary American Scholar in the Department of Religious Studies at William and Mary He points to the psychological differences associated with having a Comic Vision vs. a Tragic Vision of Life. He also lists these Social Differences and says that most “new” religions promote the Comic Vision. Anti-Heroism vs. Heroism Pacifism vs. Militarism Forgiveness vs. Vengeance Social Equality vs. Inequality Questioning vs. Acceptance of Authority Situation Ethics vs. Duty Ethics Social Integration vs. Social Isolation

19 In virtually all cultures, religion plays a role in the philosophically important events of life: Births, Weddings, Funerals, and the overall establishment of Cultural Values. We know people take these things seriously, but humor can also be found around the edges. This historical photo from Alleen’s family shows great seriousness. To make the wedding portrait “picture perfect”, the bride is sitting down because she was taller than her husband. Also she is not smiling because she was missing a tooth. The letters behind the portrait are filled with “serious” advice to the couple’s oldest son. 19

20 Conrad Hyers, Contemporary Biblical Scholar Hyers sees the Story of Jonah as a satire on a reluctant prophet. In many stories about Jesus, Hyers also finds wit, imagination, and an openness to people that is characteristic of someone with a sense of humor. 20

21 Christmas II--Digital Story of Nativity & Christmas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZrf0PbAGSk 21

22 22 TIBETAN BUDDHISM Laughter and Open Mindedness When John Cleese asked the Dalai Lama why in Tibetan Buddhism people laugh so much he responded that laughter is very helpful to him in teaching and in political negotiations, because when people laugh, it is easier for them to admit new ideas to their minds.

23 23 Zen Buddhism John Morreall writes that Zen masters use “koans” to break people’s attachments to incongruities, for example, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” He adds that “The most comic vision among traditional religions is in Zen Buddhism and Taoism, the most tragic vision is in certain forms of Judaism and Calvinist Christianity. Virtually all the New Religions of the past fifty years have embraced the comic vision.”

24 Mainstream American Religions A clergyman confided to us that he thinks that the people who need to hear “Fire and Damnation” sermons are those who don’t attend church. He believes that the people who make an effort and come to church need to have their spirits enriched with stories of love and humor. We thought of this when we saw the portable trailer shown in the next slide. 24

25 This “FEAR GOD” message is painted on a trailer that supports an itinerant preacher. Does the difference in tone relate to what the mainstream clergyman told us about sending different messages to those who come to church and those who don’t? Or could it relate to Morreall’s idea about “Comic” vs. “Tragic” vision? 25

26 Samples of Humor from the Pulpit: Which message is most likely to inspire you to contribute after a severe windstorm damages the roof of your church so that $4,000 is needed for repairs? The Clergyman divides the $4,000 (plus a little extra to make up for the cheapskates) and sends a formal letter and an invoice to each family in the church asking them to submit their share by the end of the month. The Clergyman, as part of his Sunday sermon, says that “Unfortunately the recent storm damaged the church roof and $4,000 is needed. Fortunately the money is available. But unfortunately it is at the moment scattered through the church in the pockets of the members.” 26

27 Bloopers from Church Bulletins It is said that “To error is human, but to forgive mistakes in church bulletins may be divine.” Why are so many mistakes noticed in Church Bulletins? Several websites accept and reprint examples online. Shipoffools.com is a British site, while the Joyful Noiseletter is a publication edited by Cal Samra, from Portage, Michigan. Here are just a few examples: Ladies may leave their clothes in the basement between 6:00 and 8:00 on Tuesday evening. At the going-away party for the pastor, the congregation was anxious to give him a little momentum. You are all invited to prayer and medication next Wednesday. Attendees are invited to socialize over “coffee and mice pies.” 27

28 Religious Humor as Part of Political Identification In the 2008 primary election, Mike Huckabee frequently made jokes or allusions related to the Bible. It was an effective way for him to identify with his conservative base. But when National Public Radio polled the people in his audience, they found that only one of those questioned was able to get all of the references correct; nevertheless everyone recognized them as “Biblical.” When Huckabee was later told that it was almost a statistical impossibility that he could get the Republican nomination, he replied, “I didn’t major in math. I majored in miracles.” 28

29 Religious Humor for Group Identity In the 2012 primary elections, when Rick Santorum accused Mitt Romney of “Not being Mormon enough,” hundreds of Mormons sent messages into an unofficial Mormon website. While many of the “jokes” were funny only to “insiders” (those intimately acquainted with Mormonism) others described actions that would “work” for several protestant religious. For example, Mitt Romney is so Mormon that-- …at press conferences the reporters will have to put away their own chairs. …he will install basketball hoops at the inaugural balls so there will be something to hang the decorations on. …White House dinners will be potluck affairs. …Foreign service advisers will wear white shirts and always work in pairs. 29

30 A Sunday School Story from the Arizona Desert Two little kids, a boy and a girl, lived on adjoining Arizona ranches. Every Sunday they would walk into Wickenburg for Sunday School, even though they attended different churches. This particular Sunday, there had been a Saturday night rain, and the two came across a gully that was in flash flood mode. They didn’t dare go through the water for fear of ruining their Sunday clothes. But they hated to have wasted all that walking, and so they decided to get undressed and carry their clothes across on their heads. All went well and when they got to the other side, they began drying off the best they could before getting dressed. The little boy looked at the girl and in great amazement said, “I didn’t know Baptists and Methodists were that different from each other!” 30

31 Mr. Diety: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qzf8q9QHfhI 31

32 Samples of “Benign” Jokes Used by Clergy to Amuse Their Congregations A gracious lady was at the post office mailing an old family Bible to her brother. When she was asked, “Is there anything breakable in here?” she responded, “Only the Ten Commandments.” Ministers use this quip to encourage people to move to the front: People want the front of the bus, the back of the church, and the center of attention. A young boy approached his father and proudly told him “I know what the Bible means!” When the father said, “What?” the boy responded, “That’s easy, Dad!... It stands for ‘Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.” 32

33 33 Because death and funerals are so sad, many people now look for jokes or light moments to bring into funerals or obituaries. When Yuri Nikulin, the “Russian Charlie Chaplin” died in 1997, his favorite joke was recounted as part of his obituary. “An American actor railed at his New York Tailor, ‘God needed only seven days to create the universe and it took you 30 days to make a pair of trousers?’ ‘Yes,’ answered the tailor, “But look at the world, and then look at the trousers.’” When Andy Rooney died in 2011, his obituary included comments he made as part of reporting on the inauguration of Barack Obama. He told viewers that “ Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 swearing-in was the first to be broadcast on radio.” Then Rooney added, “That may have been the most interesting thing Coolidge ever did.”

34 Folklore as Part of Religion We were surprised when we lived in Afghanistan in 1969 to hear humorous stories told about Mullah Nasrudin. Now that the Taliban is trying to enforce a strict version of Islam, such stories have probably disappeared because the tension is too high. But when we lived there, we heard such stories as those on the next slide, which were a subtle way of protesting the authority of the Mullahs. 34

35 Sample Stories about Mullah Nasrudin, who is a comic figure that sometimes allows people to hint at their resentment of the authority that the Mullahs hold. It is dark and the Mullah fell into a freshly dug hole left by workers repairing a road. Townspeople had gathered around and were stretching their hands out to the Mullah, saying “Here, give me your hand and I will pull you up.” Mullah Nasrudin stubbornly ignored them until a wise man came along and said, “Here, take my hand and I will pull you out.” As he pulled the unhappy man up from the hole, he explained. “Mullahs are used to TAKING, not GIVING!” A more ornate story is about how the Mullah tricked his congregation so that for three weeks in a row he did not have to give his Friday sermon. 35

36 Differences Between Mythology and Religion Some scholars have observed that myth- ology is more playful, and so it is appropriate for people to create new myths and stories. But with religion, such creativity is considered sacrilegious. Who determines what is a myth vs. what is religion? 36

37 “It’s Turtles All the Way Down” Lots of old stories try explaining the “miracle of the creation” by explaining that the world is resting on the back of a turtle. The answer to the question of “What holds up the turtle?” is “It’s turtles all the way down!” Here Don holds a string of such turtles hand-sewn by women in India. We bought the artifact at an art museum and have no idea whether the creator was being humorous or serious. 37

38 38 History of Five Religions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-sIF78QYCI


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