Monday, March 31, 2014

Comedians and Quarterbacks: Alternate Divergence from Background Belief Patters

Note: I am teaching a series in philosophical theology this quarter at the UC Davis campus ministry we are affiliated with.  I have draft posts that have spun off from each of the first three talks.  So I’ll try to post them here.

The number of comedians that are not only non-religious[1] but aggressively anti-religious is pretty remarkable.  Most of them have ‘Christianity is dumb/evil/absurd’ bits…and sometimes multiple.  The list of comedians with anti-religious bits is too long to exhaust including those I love (Louie CK,[2] Chris Rock[3]), those I like (Michem, Axis of Awesome) and those I don’t care for (Ricky Gervais,[4] George Carlin).

On the other hand, the number of quarterbacks (in particular and athletes in general) that are religious is also pretty remarkable.  Athletes in general and quarterbacks in particular, seem to be disproportionately people of faith.  And I feel like that poses a really interesting question:


Why do these two populations seem to diverge from the statistical preferences of a random sample?  Is there something inherent in the professions or the type of people that excel at them that distorts their metaphysical preferences or plausibility structures?  It is actually a question I have given more thought than it deserves.  And I have come up with five hypotheses.

The “Dumb Jock” Effect

The most obvious solution to this is that comedians are intelligent, rising to fame based on wit and creativity…and athletes are not.  Athletes are affirmed for physical prowess their whole lives and are not required to develop critical reasoning skills.  I suspect anyone who has given this question any thought has probably settled pretty quickly on this explanation.

But I don’t totally buy this.[5]  I play sports…badly.  And despite my substantial physical limitations, my game is actually intellectually limited.  I am bad at sports because my brain cannot process large data sets quickly.  My game is not limited by my physical feebleness but by my mental feebleness. 

My very modest physical prowess is actually more prowessy than my spatial recognition software. 

The amount of data that Kurt Warner and Drew Brees process in moments is astounding to me.  There are non-trivial ways in which Kurt Warner is more intelligent than Ricky Gervais.  And why would we think that the kind of intelligence that makes you clever would provide a keener insight into reality than spatial reasoning.[6]  And why are either more impressive that the kind of pragmatic intelligence associated with engineers (who are disproportionately religious) or biologists (who are disproportionately not). 

The “Every Day is a Miracle” Effect

Essentially, every NFL player has experienced a miracle.  The probability of succeeding (or even sticking) at the professional level of sport is so low, that it might follow God has taken a personal interest and does unlikely things on the behalf of someone who does.  But the same argument could be made for comedians.  While the compensation is not nearly as rich, it is arguably harder to emerge as an A-list comedian since we require so few of them.  What happened to CK is statistically more unlikely than what happened to Drew Brees.  Every day of Louie’s life is more improbable and, more potentially miraculous than any day of Tebow’s.[7]

The “Make People Laugh for Attention” Effect

We could argue that comedy often, fundamentally, comes from a place of despair[8] or attention seeking.    And we could make the logical leap that these activities emerge from backgrounds or brain states that are not compatible with Christianity.   Now I don’t have great reasons to reject this, but I don’t have any real reason to accept this either.  It doesn’t seem parsimonious.

The “Taboo Subsidy” Effect

Why is so much comedy about sex?  Because it’s easy.  Taboo sets up emotional tension and a punch line delivered into the milieu of taboo releases more endorphins than those earned by the linguistic cleverness of a well crafted joke.  Let’s call it the ‘taboo subsidy.’  So the religious affiliation of successful comedians could be a matter of ‘directional selection’. 

Comedy selects for those who dip in and out of taboo with relish and skill.  So maybe it is not so much that comedians are disproportionately anti-religious as it is that mocking religion makes us mildly uncomfortable and puts us in the brain space that easy comedy works.[9]  It is a cultural evolutionary argument and I actually think it moves us forward.  But I think the most compelling explanation is still on the table.

The “Peer Effect”

Many Democrats implicitly believe that there are more smart people in Massachusetts than in Mississippi.    And if you really investigate unspoken (and usually, unreflective) Republican epistemology, some accident of geography has populated, Alabama with a higher percentage of clear thinkers than California.  But when ideology correlates with a situational artifact, it should immediately be suspect.[10]  When beliefs are culturally or spatially distributed we need to question their transmission.

I think the best explanation for the statistical deviations from the overall population in both these sub samples is episimological feedback…or what Peter Berger calls ‘plausibility structures.’

Why are comedians disproportionately irreligious?

Because comedians are disproportionately irreligious. 

There was a founder effect (which I suspect can be traced back to the ubiquitous veneration of Carlin among the current generation of humorists) that is transmitted by peer effects.  And, likewise, quarterbacks have their plausibility structures set in communities that are disproportionately characterized by faith (which, presumably, could be traced back to a similar stochastic founder effect).   

Communities have rewards and penalties for beliefs. 

They are environments of ‘stabilizing selection’ for beliefs.

‘Peer effects’ are underrated in epistemology and if we don’t give them their due, we can end up thinking that beliefs are matters of the intelligence of populations.  We end up evaluating which population is more likable to determine which belief is true,[11] rather than wrestling with the actual content of the world views. 

The pursuit of truth doesn’t require the rejection of cultural feedbacks, but recognition that they are not the unique preview of “the other guy’s” beliefs. 

It is not brave or stark for a comedian not to believe.  They are conforming to the plausibility structures of their community.  And their community is selecting for skepticism.

And so, when Dawkins breaks out the study that found that the National Academy of Sciences has much lower levels of conventional religious belief than the general population, he invites us to imagine that the smartest, most intellectually honest sub-sample of the world’s population dismisses religion.  But he fails to tipping his hand to the fundamental question of correlation or causation. 

His stratification is confounded by an implicit correlation.  Scientific communities have epistemological feedbacks.  They have cultural (and sometimes more tangible) rewards and penalties for beliefs.  Peer effects matter.  Plausibility structures are powerful.  And the more uniform a population is, the more powerful they are.

This post was written while listening to Radical Face: The Branches[12]

[1] John Stewart falls in this category.  He is clearly non-religious and takes pains to deconstruct religion (usually respectfully and occasionally fairly), but he’s not an a-hole about it.
[2] The undisputed reigning champion.   My ‘man crush’ on Louis is exceeded only by the one I have on Russell Wilson…which is surprisingly fitting for this post.  The two men who currently capture my imagination include a comedian and a quarter back.
[3] I once tried to use his rant about Levitical code in a message despite the occurrence of 16 expletives in 90 seconds.
[4] I honestly cannot tell why he is funny.  He might be the least funny celebrity I have encountered.  I can only think of one time I have even been entertained (let alone amused) but RG…and it was totally ad lib.  But I’ll link to it, because it is fun.  The point is that this is funny because it leverages taboo in a fundamentally fresh way.  Elmo is culturally pure.  His innocence is an unrecognized cultural taboo, and Gervais s^&#s on that purity, and we laugh.  But he has never made me laugh by the pure sublimity of his observation or linguistic cleverness. 
[5] I don’t totally reject this either. I just want to press it a little and see if maybe it is insufficient.
In fact, it doesn’t really bother me all that much when intelligence correlates with religious skepticism.  To explain this I usually ask a question: If God exists and wants us to seek him, would it be fair if those he created intelligent had some sort of advantage?  We tend to think that intelligence makes people better at everything, but I’m not sure why it would be an unqualified spiritual advantage.
[6] I think you could make an interesting case that the hyperactive spatial reasoning required to play quarterback might lead one to perceive world as a place where things are highly interconnected.
[7] Along these lines  Chad Harbach make the argument in – The Art of Fielding  that sports place so much emphasis on very thin stochastic advantages, that it drives people to metaphysical (or chemical) assistance…"I played in the minors for nine years, batted twice in the majors, and I'll tell you something.  Pretty much everyone I shared a locker room with ended up becoming either an alcoholic or a born again Christian.  Booze or God, that's what this game does to you.  The name of the game is failure, and if you can't handle failure you won't last long."
[8] Note the well documented correlation between comedians and death by self-harm either intentionally or by careless self abuse.
[9] Another of my favorite comedians Jim Gaffagan has pointed this out.  He claims that his style of comedy is particularly difficult because he does not  leverage taboo, but rather crafts hilarious narratives about things that are decidedly ordinary (e.g. Hot Pockets and Cinnabon).  I think he is right.  He is more talented because he doesn’t need what is essentially a ‘taboo subsidy’.
[10] Note: this does not make any of these things false.  Obviously, I believe Christianity is true despite a substantially lopsided geography (though, there are probably more professing Christians numerically in India and China (4%*2 billion=80 million) than in Western Europe).  But all world views are subject to these special and social correlations which should be a call to self skepticism and an invitation to evaluate motives and assumptions.
[11] People tend to adopt the beliefs of people they want to be like…but my favorite statement of this is actually from a fictional work (Red Mars):
John: "The only part of an argument that really matters is what we think of the people arguing.  X claims a, and Y claims b.  They make arguments to support their claims with any number of points.  But when their listeners remember the discussion, what matters simply is that X believes a and Y believes b.  People then form their judgment based on what they think of X and y."
Maya: "But we're scientists! we’re trained to weigh evidence."
John: "True.  In fact, since I like you, I concede the point."
[12] Seriously, “The Crooked Kind” is unreal.


Justin Bower said...

I was all set to rush to the end and make some combination of the peer and taboo arguments, but then you went and did it incredibly more elegantly than I. I would say that, as you touched on the the peer section, there is an equivalent/opposite of the taboo effect working for the quarterback. Just as the comedian generates tension and release with crossing the taboo line, the quarterback acting as the idealized leader, faith and field, acts as an organizing/morale raising force. In both cases the specific posture, no matter whether it's personally held to be true or not, is an archetype behavior for that specific role. The comedian is there to push the boundaries, to deconstruct; the quarterback is there to reinforce them, and provide a point of accretion.

stanford said...

Nice, Justin. I had not imagined a symetrical tabooish explanation for QBs but I think it is very well considered.

stanford said...

I found this interesting and on topic: