Before you watch this fascinating video of Steve Colbert interviewing -- and utterly bamboozling -- bestselling atheist Sam Harris (The End of Faith), read this post at Althouse: "Colbert and the dissonance between religion and comedy."
If I had not read this post, and the Colbert interviews touching on religion that it links to, I would have assumed, like the friends who are visiting me right now, that Colbert was purely making fun of religion, parodying a fundamentalist believer in Biblical inerrancy. "After all, he was on 'The Daily Show'!" So he must be a straight-up liberal humanist, right? Not exactly. Ann described a Colbert interview with Paul Begala:
Begala reached in his back pocket and pulled out a copy of the New Testament that he's been carrying since 1979. [ . . . ] and says he highlighted John 3:16 and handed it to Clinton. Begala hands the opened book to Colbert, points to the verse, tells Colbert to read it [ . . . ] Colbert takes a slight glance at the book, flips it shut, looks straight at Begala and says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that those who believe in him shall not die but have eternal life." Begala says, triumphantly, "Four and a half seconds!" And Colbert says "That's the Christian sound bite."
Begala wants to use the New Testament to prove a point about how he got through to Clinton. I felt that, reciting the verse, Colbert was not being the Colbert Report character but that his own religion was dictating that he had to say the verse as a demonstration of his own faith, and it wasn't right to fool around with that. I can't say why I feel so sure. The Colbert character would, I think, have been more pleased with himself to know the verse. You'd have felt the preen. I experienced this moment as a startling statement of faith, the kind of thing you don't normally see on TV.
Ann quotes at length from an interview Colbert did with "Fresh Air's" Terry Gross, in which he talked about the "tightrope" it was for him to do "This Week in God" on "The Daily Show," because he's a churchgoing Catholic and people in the comedy world are always asking him, "Yeah, but do you believe that stuff?" "What's funny to me" Colbert said then, "is what people do in the name of religion."
Now watch him interview Sam Harris. (Windows Media Player required.) Harris begins his standard rap about how "we're all atheists with regard to Poseidon." Colbert sternly overrides him, insisting that not all gods are created equal and "My god can kick your god's ass." Harris seems nonplussed. He starts to talk about those three crazy religions, plural, that believe their Books were written by God and contain no errors. Colbert interrupts him mock-aggressively, barking that we're not talking about three books here: we're talking about one -- the Bible. People who think some other book is the last word aren't "crazy," says Colbert: "They're wrong!" He goes on to say the Bible is inerrant because -- it says it is! Comfortable laughter from the audience.
Colbert hectors and all but shouts down Harris, shutting him up, in a parody of a religious right-wing talk-show host. But if you've read the Althouse post, you know there's at least a double twist of irony here, if not a veritable dobos torte or puff pastry of sincerity and parody. Colbert is something far more subtle than a fundamentalist, but on some level he means what he's saying, and is making fun of himself for meaning it by impersonating a fundamentalist's absurdly over-the-top way of saying it. No wonder Harris is baffled: it's impossible to tell where Colbert is really coming from. If you assumed he was mocking religion itself and therefore agreed with you, you'd fall into a trap.
By contrast, Harris seemed very literal-minded, plodding and straight-ahead. If you assumed the rationalists were the smart ones, all I can say is -- watch out.