Satire Is Older than the Two Monotheistic Religions

200px-The_gesture_svgOne sometimes hears the argument that we should respect religions because they have long traditions with which people in those religions have lived for generations. Therefore, we should not make fun of people whose metaphysics are still millennia behind the rest of us. Religion can be wonderful. It teaches people to love one another, to live in peace, to create caring communities. Most people who are religious are lovely people, but like with most things of this nature, their religion is probably not the only thing that makes them lovely. The Greeks did not have a monotheistic religion and their religion was not what we would really even recognize as a religion. There wasn’t even a sacred text. And yet they managed to give birth to us and our culture. Despite this, they had lovely qualities.

If the Greeks had something close to a sacred author, it was Homer. Playwrights like Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles might come next, but there was very little sacred about them. The Greeks would hold theatre festivals where the satyr play was one of the competing categories with tragedy and comedy. These would teach them essential things about themselves. The satyr plays were probably the throwaway stuff, because only one has survived. But that play, Euripides’ Cyclops, mocks the Homeric epics and is quite ruthless. That’s one of the fundaments of our western culture: the art of giving yourself the middle finger. The self-criticism it entails has built western civilization and that principle is older than either Christianity or Islam.

Another person has needlessly died. This time in Denmark. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it seems to me that for each middle finger that fundamentalists cut off, five more will rise. I’m as baffled as most people, I think, at my own reaction. I’m furious and have none of my usual liberal understanding towards the perpetrators. But then I remember that a fundamental value of the thought that has formed my thinking has been attacked. It’s not freedom of speech, really. It’s the right to be obnoxious, the right to call people on their bullshit, the right to say “Fuck you!” when someone tries to limit your freedom to say “Fuck you!” However we look at it, the self-administered middle finger is one of the fundamental gestures of our culture. It’s not going away any time soon.

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