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There Such a Thing as Public Belief?: How Stand-up Comedy Shifts t he Relationship between Truth and Authority Today I want to argue that would b e h elpful to re-conceive of what it means to b elieve. Im going to propose that to b elieve is not to have a private, internal feeling but is necessarily to do a public and external action. This proposal has arisen out of my research on religion in contemporary British stand-up comedy. In the course of it, I interviewed a Christian whod once b een an audience member at a gig where the s tand-up was a ttacking different religions. The comedian started on Protestantism, saying And protestants b elieve. It was at this point, so I a m told, that my interviewee shouted, somewhat drunkenly: Go on then! Tell me what I b elieve. The audience a ll went oooo. And the s tand-up faltered. Both this interviewee, and a friend of his, d escribed this moment to me as a turning point when the stand-up lost his authority. The audience heckled him more and more until h e had to walk off stage. My interviewee felt very glad h e had heckled the comedian b ecause, whilst unchallenged, the comedian had the authority to publicly d efine what h e, and all other Protestants, believed. I found the relationship b etween authority a nd belief here intriguing and so I decided to probe further. The relationship came up in many of my interviews. On the one hand, there seemed to b e a sort of official level of discourse. Stand-ups thought it wrong to use their authority on stage to coerce p eople into b elieving something d ifferent. And religious audience members thought it wrong to challenge a s tand-up whilst h e ridiculed religion b ecause they should not interfere with the s tand-ups right to say what h e b elieved on stage. This implies that belief is a very private thing. And authority should n ever come n ear it. Belief is for each individual to d ecide on their own. Any role for external authority in belief would compromise the integrity and autonomy of the individual. The d efinition of the verb believe implied in a ll this is, as my d ictionary puts it, whether we feel sure of the truth, or think something is true. Therefore, b ecause the Christian creed starts: we b elieve we treat it as a set of claims about the world. Now many Christians dont feel all of these propositions to b e true. Therefore they are lying when they say we b elieve But, occasionally in the interviews there was a lso a recognition, that p eoples beliefs are important for wider society. And this s eemed to b e how p eople acted too. Why else would stand-ups so often ridicule creationism? There are other cheap laughs out there. If b elief is of public importance, then is b elief in some ways public? I d ecided to explore this idea further by looking at whether the way p eople acted in and around stand-up gigs actually justified a different understanding of b elief: one that is not about private internal states, but public external actions. My thinking went something like this: Stand-up relies on the audiences compliance and involvement. The audience can therefore continually legitimate the s tand-up, even if they dont think all h e says is correct. Therefore we might s ay that when the audience do this, they are publicly b elieving what he or she says. The last bit is the most counter-intuitive and contentious bit of my argument but we n eed to work through the first two p oints in order to get there.

i) So first off: the stand-up relies on the audiences compliance and involvement Stand-ups use jokes, and jokes ask for a response. They invite one to laugh and so one can either laugh or not. Stand-ups a lso often command p eople to do things. Al Murray demanded that the whole of Salisbury theatre get up on its feet to sing incy wincy spider. In the same way, a church s ervice asks for a response. One can either say the creed or not. In both cases the audience (or the congregation) are continually involved. This is not an incidental fact. Because both stand-up a nd a church s ervice rely on the congregation to respond in order to proceed. In a church s ervice if no-one said the creed well its almost inconceivable. It would amount to mutiny. Laughter and obeying the stand- ups commands are a b it like saying the creed. If enough people refuse to do it, then the stand-up will be forced off stage. This is not a particularly rare occurrence in stand-up. Stand-up is like a ritual in that it relies on the participation and compliance of the congregation in order to go ahead. Now h eres a contention: laughing and cheering in a stand-up gig is more like saying the creed than it is a kin to listening to a sermon. A s ermon demands no response except an amen at the end. In the same way, a play d emands only a round of applause at the end. But saying the creed requires p eople to say it all the way through. It would be quite conspicuous if no-one said the b it about the virgin birth. Equally, a s tand-up show d emands laughs and cheers and audience involvement all the way through. It is very conspicuous when no-one laughs a t a joke. So whilst the occasional one can go a wry, generally each specific joke demands a laugh or a cheer. ii) The audience can therefore continually legitimate the stand-up, regardless of what they think about the comedy Now rituals like stand-up a nd saying the creed, dont rely on p eoples intentions or thoughts to go ahead they rely on their actions. There are many times, and ritual is p erhaps the situation par excellence, when what we internally think about the situation has very little relation to whats happening. Suppose I b et you fifty p ounds that pinky-spink would win the grand national. Now Im a dreadful gambler p inky-spinky is a dreadful horse who loses spectacularly. So I turn around and say I wont pay: b ecause I n ever intended to keep that bet an so it wasnt really a b et a t all. Im quite sure you would n ot a ccept this excuse. One can have no intention of keeping a b et and s till make a bet. It doesnt matter what you think, it matters how you a ct. Similarly the whole audience can think the stand-up is hopeless, but laugh loudly and the stand-up show will go on. The whole congregation can be thinking internally that the creed is a load of old nonsense, they can not intend to live their life as if it were true, but as long as they say we b elieve then they have still s aid that its true. And thats all the ritual n eeds in order to go ahead. As long as the congregation s ay its true then the creed has still b een said. iii) Therefore we might say that the audience are publicly b elieving what the stand-up says This is the tricky and counter-intuitive b it. To b elieve in most dictionaries is not just to feel sure of the truth but a lso to accept something to be true. But theres a difference b ecause I can publicly accept that outer space exists, even if I d ont feel sure that it actually d oes.

Similary, I can a ccept the creed to be true, even if I dont think it is. Now accepting is an action like promising. To say that the congregation did not publicly a ccept the creed to b e true, is like me saying I didnt promise to put you up. Therefore the congregation cannot b e wrong when they say We b elieve. The interesting thing about stand-up is that it highlights very clearly that what p eople a ccept to b e true in one situation will not b e the same as what they accept in another. When a stand-up ridicules religion, many religious p eople often disagree with what h e or she says. But if the joke is good enough it will make them laugh and not challenge it. And so they have accepted it in that public s etting. Now when they are a t the pub, or in church, they will not accept what the s tand-up said about Christianity. But in that setting they still accepted it to be true. As such, b elief is a lways related to what authority we accept at any one moment. The link b etween accepting someones authority and believing what they say, s eems hard to accept. But a lmost a ll our b eliefs are tied in to a ccepting someone elses authority. Often I dont feel sure that outer space exists. How could I? The concept is pretty hard to imbibe. But in most s ituations I a ccept it to be true. This acceptance is n ot s eparable from my acceptance that scientists and astronauts have greater authority to d ecide what is true h ere than I do. To say I didnt believe, would be to directly challenge that authority. However, in some other situations, particularly when with wacky New Age friends, I might not accept this to b e true b ecause there I can forsake that authority. And b ecause of this variability the verb to b elieve might b e better put in the present continuous. When accepting something to be true, it might be interesting to say I a m believing not I b elieve. In saying that the creed is true, I am publicly accepting that it is. I am publicly b elieving in the creed. In laughing a t a s tand-ups negative d epiction of religion I am accepting that to b e true. I am publicly b elieving this d epiction. Believing, in my work, thus appears to be something public and external. The question then is: is belief always public and external? Many s ociologists a nd anthropologists would want to say that the b elief in an autonomous s elf, u naffected b y external authority is an illusion. Is therefore our understanding of b elief as a p rivate, autonomous realm of d ecision- making also a fiction? iv) So it remains for me to ask: What would b e the implications of this? Stand-up is not claimed to b e, nor recognized as, a ritual. But if the stand-up is good, it has just as much p otency as many very powerful rituals. Does this mean that s tand-up is actually a realm in which we end up b elieving a ll sorts of things we wouldnt normally, s imply because the stand-up can win h is authority through laughter? This may b e d isquieting but the extent to which authority is intertwined with what we believe is p otentially disquieting. Such a public a nd variable conception of b elief should a t least make us pay considerably more a ttention to the s tructures of authority that underlie all our b eliefs. Academics can p erhaps pretend to b e a loof from these power plays. But in a talk like this, you might argue, Im augmenting a given position of a uthority with various p oorly d eployed rhetorical strategies in a d esperate attempt to get you to accept my anthropological account of stand-up, religion and b elief. The question n ow is whether your thankfully quiet

acceptance of my authority to pronounce on these matters will last any longer than the official time Im allowed to speak: which ends. now