In Memoriam: George Carlin – by Writer@Large

George Denis Patrick Carlin (May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008), comedian, author, actor, and atheist.

We’re losing a great and important generation.  Call them the 20th Century Atheists—people like Isaac Asimov (1992), Carl Sagan (1997), Douglas Adams (2001) and Stephen Jay Gould (2002).  They’re a modern generation, born and raised in the 20th century, who were vocal and proud of their rejection of religious superstition before the Internet gave the rest of us some spine.  They have served as role models for us, the next generation, we with our weblogs, message boards, and e-zines that allow us to say things much more easily and to a much more open audience.

And now George Carlin, another of these proud atheists, has passed away at the age of 71.

Carlin’s religious views were a fairly regular part of his comedic material, yet were not so widely recognized.  He was not a face of nontheist activism, nor a promoter of skepticism, nor a champion of evolutionary science.  Because his atheist views were part of his act, it was easy to overlook them as “shock” material, something said for laughs, but not really believed offstage.  The first round of mainstream news obituaries reflected this, being mixed in their recognition of Carlin’s religious views. Most of them focused, rightly so, on his comedy routines.  They all mention the Hippy Dippy Weather Man (“Tonight’s forecast: dark!”), and of course his Seven Dirty Words (shit, piss, fuck, cunt, tits, cocksucker, and motherfucker, in case you forgot).  These obits were far less likely to mention his atheism.

The widely circulated Associated Press report , for example, did not mention Carlin’s religious views at all.  It noted only that Carlin’s humor “could still be in your face as he ridiculed God, joked about televising suicides and did things like simply ending a routine with a recitation of every synonym for penis.”  It reads, in context, as though he just made God jokes to rile the audience. Many American and foreign papers drew material from the AP report, and followed the AP’s lead in avoiding mention of Carlin’s religious views.

A few reports actually went in a different, and bizarre, direction.  United Press International served up a quote where Carlin described what he wanted heaven to be like.  It was a sarcastic comment, in context, where he said that what would be heaven to him would be “to watch it [the Earth] spin itself into oblivion … Tune in and watch the human adventure … That’s what I want heaven to be.” No context for the quote was provided, and a casual reader might be left with the sense that, behind it all, Carlin was musing about an actual heavenThe Los Angeles Times said nothing about Carlin’s opinions on religion in their obit, but chose to run a publicity photo of him wearing a t-shirt with Jesus on it—an inappropriate choice, considering Carlin’s views.

USA Today, on the other hand, was one of the most explicit about Carlin’s irreligion.  In its Carlin obituary , it noted, “The blue-collar Irish Catholic evolved into an atheist whose religion was the power of speech.” In addition, one of the paper’s entertainment writers, Susan Wloszczyna, wrote a separate editorial which opens:

Let’s be upfront about this. George Carlin might have been a comedy god to his disciples and fans. But for nearly 50 years, he practically made a career out of not believing in God.

So don’t go all sappy and commit the sin of saying that one of the most influential and controversial American humorists of our time, who died from heart failure at 71 on Sunday, now has joined some celestial Friar’s Club in the sky, laughing at our foibles from on high with the brilliant likes of Richard Pryor and Henny Youngman.

As the notorious curmudgeon would so bluntly put it, “Bull (bleep)!”

Reuters , to its credit, also made explicit mention of Carlin’s views.  They cited a 2001 interview where Carlin bluntly noted that “I don’t have any beliefs or allegiances. I don’t believe in this country, I don’t believe in religion, or a god, and I don’t believe in all these man-made institutional ideas.” But accounts like those from USA Today and Reuters were exceptions, rather than the rule.

Was the mainstream media obligated to mention Carlin’s atheism?  Certainly not.  As he himself noted in a 1991 interview, his comedy tended to revolve around, firstly, “English language and wordplay; secondly, mundane, everyday observational comedy — dogs, cats and all that stuff; and thirdly, sociopolitical attitude comedy.” Religion would fall into that third category, but only as one of uncountable subjects he joked about over the years.  The media was mourning the loss of an entertainer, not an atheist.

Still, for the nontheist community voices like Carlin’s are important, so it is also important that we recognize the loss.  His material on Frisbeetarianism or praying to Joe Pesci were little seeds in the ear of the American consciousness.  People who would never pick up a copy of The God Delusion would laugh as Carlin labeled clergymen members of the “bullshit department” or flatly asserted that “There is no Humpty Dumpty, and there is no God .”  Some people use logic and reason to argue against faith, while others attack it from moral and ethical grounds; Carlin skewered faith through mockery and sarcasm and, like all the best comedy, though blunt truth stated in uncomfortable (but funny) ways.

Carlin was so much more than merely an atheist to his fans.  But for myself, as for many who counted him as a member of our community, his atheism was important and his words were welcome.  Like Sagan, Adams, and all rest of the 20th Century Atheists, Carlin said aloud what many of us were thinking privately but that, until the Internet brought us together, we couldn’t talk about with those around us.  His voice will be missed.

[As a final note: the famously insane Christians of the Westboro Baptist Church announced plans to picket Carlin’s funeral (I can’t find a news report that says they did).  I think Carlin, were he alive, would get a kick out of that.  I also think that he would have a few choice words for them.  Seven, in fact.]