The F-Word

I broke up with my girlfriend a while ago. It was very painful – we had different religious beliefs: she was an atheist and, at the time, I thought I was God.

Many years ago, I was a standup comic who mostly did weird little conceptual bits. I only had one joke – that one. It got good reactions, maybe because it takes a moment to decipher: “She’s an atheist, he thinks he’s God, so . . . Ah!” Figuring out a joke gives us a sense of triumph; we laugh partially at our cleverness in deciphering its mystery.

That bears a relationship to religious Faith. Religion takes life’s greatest mysteries – Who are we? What do our lives mean? Where are my tennis socks? – and provides answers. When we take a leap of religious Faith, we’re pleased that we’ve figured out life’s answers, especially compared to people who believe those other ridiculous reli-gions (ridiculous because they’re not ours).

The problem is religion doesn’t actually help us solve any mysteries; it just asks us to accept someone else’s explanation. It’s as if you didn’t like my atheist joke until I said, “Trust me, it’s funny.” (Trust me, it’s funny.)

My area of expertise is comedy, so what the (you should excuse the expression) Hell am I doing in a book about Faith? Well, a form of faith is central to humor.

All jokes – and all comedy (and all narrative fiction, for that matter) – begin with a gimme: that a priest, a rabbi, and a gecko would go into a bar or, in a slightly different context, that a prince would hesitate before killing the king who killed his father. Accept-ing a premise is called suspension of disbelief, which is another way of saying Faith.

There’s a contract between artist and audience. In comedy, accept the premise and you’ll get a laugh. In religion, accept a higher power and you’ll get eternal life, emotional support, and answers to all questions. (This may explain why there are more religious people than standups.)

It’s interesting that all surveys about the religious beliefs of comedians (note: there are no surveys about the religious beliefs of comedians) show a significant number of atheists and agnostics. My explanation of this (nonexistent) data is that skepticism is the Mother’s Milk of comedians. A great man once said, “Comedy is life viewed from an angle.” And I agree with me; it’s almost impossible to view the world credulously, then make fun of it. Religions look at humankind and say, “This clay made of God can, by following our precepts, attain a form of divinity.” Comedians look at humankind and say, “This clay, made of God, farts.”

The reason farts are funny (admit it!) is that they’re an implicit takedown of our preten-sions to divinity. Yes, humans can dream – we have souls, we achieve achievements – but we also poop, puke, and pee. In other words, we’re animals. (Do you object to being called an animal? Hugh Hefner points out the alternatives are minerals and vegetables.) And the sight of such gross creatures pretending to greatness is hilarious.

But not to religious people, for whom humanity’s failings are tragic – proof that we need God’s grace. For believers, Faith is a remedy; for atheists, it’s a smoke screen obscur-ing as shameful the essence of being human: our fallibility.

For religious people, humanity’s failings are tragic – proof that we need God’s grace. For believers, Faith is a remedy; for atheists, it’s a smoke screen obscuring as shameful the essence of being human: our fallibility.

Atheists believe that when a believer says, “I prayed and God told me to do X,” it’s the same as an atheist saying, “I thought hard about it and decided the right thing to do was X.” How do you know when you pray that you’re not just talking to yourself?

Faith. Belief.

That’s not good enough for atheists, who say there’s no proof God exists. And don’t give me that “Every sunset . . .” crap; it could be Satan, or the Wizard of Oz, or the earth’s orbit behind that sunset. (Hint: #3.) Believers say there’s no proof there’s no God, but author Arthur C. Clarke noted there’s no proof there’s no Zeus.

In “blind faith” the word blind is superfluous; Faith means accepting without proof. But Science demands proof, in the form of reproducible results. We don’t take the law of gravity on Faith.

If an atheist admits there could be some enigmatic, transcendent force that runs through everything, believers pounce: “That’s God!” Whatever. Semantics, man. But I can believe in that force without putting my Faith in it.

(But) If the Bible’s right that humans are made in God’s image, it means that people are powerful and can use that power to give their lives morality and meaning. Graham Chapman of Monty Python said, “A murderer is only an extroverted suicide.” Maybe atheists are just introverted believers.

I believe that life is mysterious and complex and difficult, and I’ll do my best to get through it honorably, with faith in my friends and loved ones and heart and mind to guide me. Because, ultimately, I believe that to lose your Faith is to have Faith in your-self.

(This excerpt is an adaptation from David Misch's essay in Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists by Victoria Zackheim, reprinted with permission of Beyond Words Publishing/Atria Books, Hillsboro, Oregon.)