A response to inane criticisms of “The Kings of Atheism”

A response to inane criticisms of “The Kings of Atheism” May 19, 2016

Adam Lee over at the Daylight Atheism Patheos page has written an article lambasting the in-discussion movie Kings of Atheism, featuring Bill Maher and other comedians. I readily clicked on this article as the title suggests it concerns one of my largest philosophical conundrums: how we as atheists should regard our “community” and whether or not such a thing can exist based on a lack of belief in an idea — and furthermore, whether or not such a community can have representatives or leaders.

The article Lee writes, however, seems less focused on the status of kingship than on what he sees as the sexist and racist attitudes of the film. Bemoaning the white male predominance in the film, Lee writes:

After all the messy public fights we’ve had over race and gender diversity, you’d think big-name atheists would have learned something by now, but apparently not. It demands serious cluelessness to propose, in 2016, a “Kings of Atheism” movie that features yet another uniform lineup of white faces.

To begin with, Lee fixates on the title of the film and misses that it is a satirical homage to the famous Kings / Queens of Comedy tours: as the documentary is featuring major atheist comedians, it seems a perfectly apt title. Compulsive reactions concerning an imaginary hierarchy of representation in the atheist community seem wasted by this explanation. Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist was the first to comment this, beating me to the punch. He was responded to lamely by another poster who says:

A comedian should know that a joke has failed if it has to be explained.

The joke doesn’t have to be explained simply because you don’t get it, as elitist as that may sound.

Secondly, if one wants to make an atheist documentary that features atheist comedians, the opportunity for diversity is challenging, at best. Of the fifty best-ranked stand-up comedians on Netflix, only eleven of them meet the criteria of being non-male or non-white or both, and almost all of them are religious, including Katt Williams and Trevor Noah, whose anti-atheist remarks are well-known. Of those few who are non-religious, their soft tones on the subject of religion seem to make them ill-fitting for a documentary that, if led by Maher, is likely to be loudly anti-theistic.

Hannibal Buress is outspokenly non-religious but seems to view religion more as a point of comedic ridicule than a target of political and philosophical grievance — or the kind of anti-theism which is no doubt going to be a point in Kings of Atheism. Aziz Ansari, who “is not religious but has nothing against” major monotheisms, likely isn’t firebrand enough to fit in the aggressive narrative this documentary will probably create. Furthermore, the list of atheist comedians on Wikipedia gives us six who are not white men, one of whom is dead and a couple of others who are residents of other countries and not of particular popularity in the US. Of the rest, three very notable names are absolutely reasonable choices for inclusion in the documentary: Janeane Garofalo, Paula Poundstone, and Julia Sweeney.

Again, it may be that their public statements on faith are not antitheistic enough for inclusion in such a documentary, or that they weren’t available, or — and this is a primary point — they might even be in the damn thing. Quite unmentioned by Adam Lee (I’ll assume by obliviousness rather than bias), the releases announcing the Kings of Atheism documentary list Seth MacFarlane, Sarah Silverman, and Ricky Gervais as “potential” participants. Furthermore, Maher made a public request for those interested to suggest the names of comedians they would like to see involved with the production. Of the incredibly small list of notable atheist comedians who are non-white and non-male, Mr. Lee should take the opportunity to suggest them by name — if he can. I hasten to add that of his extraordinary generalized complaints about the whitewashed masculinity of the potential cast, he simply didn’t bother to suggest reasonable alternatives. I have done my best in fairness to do so, and would love to see any of those women involved. I hope Mr. Maher considered this an official request.

For Mr. Lee and others who would rather be angry about a problem then advocating a solution, it seems that the true source of grief shouldn’t be with this documentary but the incredible lack of atheist comedians outspoken on the subject, and of those comedians a remarkable lack of diversity. As with many problems of representation in free markets, a good deal of the responsibility lies with ourselves. If we want to be a part of the change, give female comedians higher ratings than you already do. Watch more of them. Share the jokes made by Hannibal Buress as often as you do those by Louis C.K., Anthony Jeselnik, and Jim Gaffigan. I am all about diversity in all aspects of life, but it is disingenuous to expect one documentary team to magically create it out of thin air, particularly when we are dealing with political points for which what people think is the subject, not what they look like.

(Image: YouTube screenshot licensed as labeled for reuse on Google)

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