85. Atheism and the Comedy Jesus Show

Guest: Troy Conrad is a comedian, writer, actor, producer, and former college teacher who comments on the hypocrisy of religion through the Comedy Jesus Show.http://www.cvdistributes.com/media/images/covers/CM_08_tn.jpg

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Announcer: On this episode of Skeptiko comedian and creator of the Comedy Jesus Show, Troy Conrad.

“We can’t just rest on a bunch of facts and expect that to be food for the soul. Even though it may not be proven that we have a soul, I still think it’s important to feed it.”

Announcer: Stay with us for Skeptiko.

[Theme Music]

Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko we are going to return to a topic that I just find fascinating and that’s Atheism, and particularly the interplay between Atheism and Christianity, that anti-theism of Atheism being usually against Christianity, although in recent years they’ve kind of turned their aim also to Islam because that seems to be another really easy target.

The topic is very interesting to me, maybe because I was raised Christian in a Greek Orthodox church, but like a lot of people, got to college and came to question a lot of the dogma and doctrine that I had been fed as a child. So in my search within the Atheist community I came across today’s guest, Troy Conrad, who puts on a very funny show called, “The Jesus Comedy Show,” and you’ll hear much more about it.

Not surprisingly, the show’s become very popular with the new Atheist crowd, the Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett crowd. But I was very pleased and interested to find that there’s a lot more depth to Troy and his view of Atheism than the standard spiel  you get from the new atheists. So stay with me for a very interesting dialogue with — Jesus.

Jesus: “I’m going to answer your questions. It’s going to be just like prayer except you get a real answer.”

[Laughter]

Jesus: “I am black. I have to show up white in America or no one will listen, okay?”

[Laughter]

Jesus: “We gave every single planet three challenges. Nuclear technology, religion, and Celine Dion. Who would have known they would abuse any of them?”

[Laughter]

Jesus: “Frankly, I don’t know your President. We don’t have a ‘special relationship.’ His prayers go right into my Spam folder.”

[Laughter, Applause]

Jesus: “Dear Jesus, was professional wrestling real in Biblical times? Okay, here’s the weird thing. Yes, it was. Everything starts out good and then corporations come in and fill up.”

[Laughter]

Alex Tsakiris: Hi, I’m joined today by Troy Conrad, the producer and star of The Jesus Show, a satire that depicts the life of Jesus as a stand-up comic who has returned to tell us all another version of the Good News. Troy, welcome to Skeptiko.

Troy Conrad: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, Alex.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s a real pleasure to have you. You know, I just was doing my usual kind of surfing around the Web and have been exploring Atheism lately, and ran across your site and then was able to dabble in it because you have a number of YouTube videos up there. Was able to dabble into some of your work and just first and foremost, I love comedy and it’s just really, really, really funny stuff. It’s great stuff. So tell us a little bit about your background, about your bio which you sent me which is very interesting. How you came to do the show, a little bit about what Atheism has meant to you and how you came to it.

Troy Conrad: Yeah, well basically the Comedy Jesus Show started sort of accidently and at the time I was still a very Agnostic person, coming from a background of selling Bibles door-to-door, this was right when I was in college. I grew up Fundamentalist so I was kind of a shoe-in for this. I embraced Christianity quite a bit, more than my parents did, and I got really into religion and I used to be very preachy. I used to be very indoctrinated into the “rock music is evil” vein. And so that was my passion when I was a youngster.

When I was in college someone recruited me. He was from the John Burke Society actually, and he recruited me to go to Bowling Green, Kentucky and sell Bibles and encyclopedia supplements for Thomas Nelson. They’re the world’s largest Bible publisher. I did that 80 hours a week for a summer in Bowling Green and that was when I was 20, 21. Not until many years later, here I am, after that experience was sort of the beginning of questioning things and I became Agnostic. When I got into comedy I was still that way.

And then I got hired – when I started performing as Jesus I got hired to perform at the American Atheist’s Convention. I had all the misconceptions that probably 90 percent of America have about Atheists. I thought Atheism meant absolutism. I thought it meant just a reverse form of fundamentalist dogma. I really didn’t understand it. It took me about six months after I was performing this show to really understand what Atheism was. And went, “Oh, well of course I’m an Atheist.” And now I’m at that point where I don’t understand why most people can’t just admit that they don’t believe in the fairy tales.

Alex Tsakiris: And why don’t you dig into that a little bit and tell us, what was that process? Or what you understand American Atheism to be? Anti-theism and maybe, I guess one area you might talk about is what theistic figures are you anti-against? I mean, because a lot of people get into this and they always raise the objection, “Okay, what about Buddhism? What about you know, Taoism? Are you as an Atheist closed to other representations of that higher consciousness, intelligence, and how do you feel along those lines?”

Troy Conrad: Oh, yes, see, you know what? I don’t consider Atheism – in it’s pure form anyway – any type of philosophy that has animosity towards spirituality. I think maybe there are Atheists – well I know there are Atheists who do have that animosity. Like, whoa, just throw it all out. Buddhist, Taoism, you know, those seem to me more philosophy than religions and don’t have so much of an emphasis on “you must obey this deity.”

And so when it comes down to it, it’s this, to answer your question, I’m still Agnostic and so is every Atheist I’ve ever met on some level. And so that keeps me grounded and humble and able to have conversations because nobody really knows, right? Even Richard Dawkins, you know, says he’s not 100 percent fully known – nobody does. So taking that Agnosticism and then applying it to Atheism, we don’t know so why choose something, some magic fairy tale, to believe in? Unless that’s where you’re at in life, you know? I understand people are. So I hope that answers the question.

Alex Tsakiris: Oh, I think that does. It’s a very refreshing point of view, actually. I think that on this show that’s what we’ve tried to explore, really in a roundabout way. My opinion is that you have to stay fresh with science and the cutting edge of science because it’s constantly in the process of revealing what we don’t know or what we want to understand about nature and reality as best we can. So I think it’s a moving target and for that reason we all have to be humble like you say, and we have to be open and we all have to be doubters. We all have to be skeptics in the truest sense of the word.

Troy Conrad: Yeah, and I have to say that that doubt, just having a conversation with people who are – there are so many people who are on the fence and they don’t understand. You know, I would have never wanted to even look into Atheism if all the people that I met at that first Atheist conference had been very, you know, “well, how can you be so stupid to believe in God?” None of them were like that.

I know there are lots of people like that, but none of them treated me that way and everyone was very – I thought the humility is an appeal. And everyone embraced science but without that arrogance that turns people off. You know, obviously I was leaning more that way already but there are so many people who, if you tell them, they’re like, “No, of course I don’t believe in God, but I don’t know, either. I just haven’t picked one.” I think people respond to that. It sort of opens up something for them.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. Well, and I think you know, in the same way that you say there’s doubt in the heart of every true freethinking Atheist, I think there’s doubt in the heart of every true believer, really. I think that doubt is healthy. Now before I get into some of the science that I think drives me toward looking at what may lie beyond the kind of dopy religion that we run into all the time, and the kind of idiotic conversations we have about Jesus and the things that you bring up in your very funny comedy show, I wanted to kind of talk a little bit about the show and ask you a couple of questions.

Maybe in that persona that you have, what does Jesus think about things as they are now? What does he think about pro wrestling and some of the other really funny bits that you have there?

Troy Conrad: Well, yeah, the show is sort of — for people who aren’t familiar with the show, a very big portion of it is Jesus on stage answering questions, all improvised. So there’s a few shows where I do them where people just yell them out. The other ones they write them down, pass them up, I don’t see them until – I don’t see the question, I don’t plan anything.

I just pull them out and answer them honestly, and I’m in character, so I’m doing it from the perspective of Jesus returning and the Jesus that I’ve created is a Jesus who hates the entire concept that people still believe in all the crap that was going on way back then. That that’s still carried forward so long. So he’s very frustrated, he’s like, “Really? The Bible? There have been so many other books since then.” And so he’s giving his opinions on all these different subjects and yeah, someone asked about wrestling and to be honest, I don’t even always remember what my answers are.

Alex Tsakiris: Now I’m even more impressed if that’s improvisational because the couple clips I saw were just hilarious. And I also direct people to a couple other really funny videos you had on. I really liked “Astrology Expelled,” which is kind of a take-off of course on “Expelled,” and there’s some really, really funny pieces in that.

Troy Conrad: Yeah, that was fun. You know, all these videos, this is what is interesting, okay? I just had a friend – my wife and I have a friend who died. He was a lawyer. He was a very big lawyer, and he was a dude who made a lot of difference in his life and one of the things that they said at the funeral was that he was always a really frustrated person with social issues. So his whole life he worked so much for free to change these social issues.

And that’s so often how I feel, so when you see something like “Suspended,” which is basically an exact satirical/parody of the movie – of Ben Stein’s ridiculous movie, “Expelled,” and then we just applied astrology to it. That’s out of frustration. That’s created out of me waking up like wanting to punch through a window but I don’t ever do that. I sit down and I create a short film or video or you know, I put it together, I cast, I call my friends. I go, “Hey, guys.” I call other really great satirical improvisational actors, I Christopher Guest style it, right? And we do these projects and you know what? Afterwards everyone goes, “Ah. You know what? That makes a lot of sense. I feel a little bit better.” Everyone feels a little better about the madness of the world.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. Well, you know it’s funny because I guess I think the madness kind of cuts both ways, too, you know? I mean, I think “Astrology Expelled” is really funny. I think Ben Stein’s movie goes way in the wrong direction, but I think at the heart of it there’s a truth at the heart of it that we’ve explored on this show. And that’s that the scientific mainstream is very, very slow to move and very, very slow to explore any kind of controversial area. So if we take intelligent design, it’s just such a hot-button issue.

If we just take that out of it, I’ve certainly in the work that we’ve done here, found a lot, a lot of confirming ideas that confirm the idea that mainstream science becomes very introspective and very closed to the existing paradigm and very closed to new information. That, I guess, would lead into some of the topics I wanted to talk to you about. And I don’t know how far you want to go into this, Troy, but it sounds like you know, you’re really an intelligent guy and you’re staying on top of this.

What I want to understand from an Atheist’s perspective, someone who’s kind of looked at the evidence, how do you deal with some of the disconfirming scientific evidence that kind of might be pointing to the idea that even if the Jesus idea isn’t sellable or the Mormon idea isn’t sellable, that underlying that there might be an ontology of this spirituality that is more correct than Richard Dawkin’s one?  And by that I mean, so let’s just – all that’s a bunch of bullshit until you kind of give an example, so the example I throw out is like, the near-death experience. How do you take the fact that science is finding out that in some way we don’t understand, consciousness does seem to survive our bodily death? What do you do with that if you’re an Atheist?

Troy Conrad: Uh, that’s a great question and I’m really super-excited that you asked about this. This is what I love to talk about. I call myself “a Gods-loving Atheist” a lot of the time. I’m very into Howard Bloom who is an Atheist, who also has a very amazing spiritual perspective on things. He’s one of the most amazing – I guess you could say – omnivore, genius, scientist – and you know, I think that there is so much that we don’t understand and I think that awe of it all is what drives passion for living and passion for wanting to explore human spirituality. I do like that word. I don’t have any problem with saying spirituality and I know that some Atheists do, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily the mainstream of Atheists that view it as.

I love exploring whatever I can, you know? I was talking with someone the other day about this. Someone said, “You know, because I know that astrology is all stupid.” He goes, “What? I like to read my horoscope. I know this doesn’t mean anything,” he goes, “But I like to start my day making it mean something.” And I think that that’s the point. Every human being, it’s up to them to make their life mean something and make the things around them mean something.

I just think that often going with a really out-dated system is dangerous, and I’m talking specifically about you know, the main two that I sort of focus on in the show which is Christianity and Islam. I think that they can basically just be used as badges for really horrible, evil behavior even though they’re set up to be good and peaceful and build community. They still all have elements that let people eventually, if things are bad, we don’t see this all right now. We’re starting to. They eventually can let you kill someone and not feel so bad about it. That’s the big problem, right?

Alex Tsakiris: Right. I mean, I would definitely agree and I’d go one step further and explore whether or not the divide really between – supposed divide between science and religion and the way that we’ve kind of divided up the playing field – really makes it harder for us to make that next step that you’re kind of alluding to, and really explore our own spiritual journey, whatever that is, and wherever that may lead by experience, by science, whatever. We’re prevented from doing that because we’re stuck in stupid with a discussion that we already have because the starting points are really stupid.

And it’s pushed – not only has it pushed religious folks into kind of accepting a lot of ideas that if they’re really examined in the light of day don’t make any sense.

But I think it’s pushed scientific people into this same kind of corner in terms of a materialistic paradigm that denies so many experiences that all of us accept as being well, probably real, you know? We have a lady who passes and she’s been married to this guy for 50 years and the guy says, “I woke up that night and I saw her clear as day, and she came to me.” You know, these death bed visions. They’re common in just about every family. That’s just one small example.

But we live in a world where science is kind of forced into a corner where they have to deny and deny and deny all that stuff and put a big taboo label on it and not explore it because there’s this kind of implicit agreement that we have to deny Christianity, Judaism and Islam so strongly that we can’t allow any little crack in the door, otherwise everything will tumble down. And of course that’s not the case.

Troy Conrad: Thank you for saying that because I think that’s amazing and when we do close everything off and say, “I’m not going to let anything in except hardcore, triple-checked fact and reason. And I’m not going to talk to anybody who doesn’t espouse hardcore, triple-checked fact and reason. Yes, of course that’s what we’re here for is – well, that’s what scientists are here for is to check everything, have that life. But what a meaningless life that can be, right? When people take it to an extreme. And so if we don’t generate and create something, and then what does it all mean? We can’t just rest on a bunch of facts and expect that to be food for the soul. Even though it may not be proven that we have a soul, I still think it’s important to feed it.

Alex Tsakiris: I agree. And to not deny the potential existence of it. You know, it’s funny. I was just having this conversation last week with a couple of pretty high-level scientists up in the Bay Area, and one guy kind of meandered into this one topic I thought was really interesting. He talked about the mystery that we’re talking about, and how we’re uncomfortable with this idea but it’s really a fact when we observe the history of science. And that is that we’re moving towards more mystery, not less. So we say, oh, all this great science and technology we have and we’ve accumulated what it’s really done, is it continues to perpetuate more and more mysteries.

And not just the mystery of consciousness, which we’re all acknowledging is like this huge, huge mystery. But even the mystery of matter, you know? And now we’re finding that dark energy and dark matter comprise the vast majority of the universe, so now you know, we’re just saying, hey, everything that we thought we knew, we thought we were observing, is probably four, five, six percent of the entire universe. It’s just can we ever get comfortable with the idea that as we’re progressing, we’re really moving into greater mystery, not less.

Troy Conrad: Yeah. And that’s the whole – and that’s the beauty of it all. I think when people really embrace that and say, “Yeah, I don’t know what it is. I’m still – like, we have no idea.” You know, like when you’re a kid and you really stare at the stars out there for the first time and you really are at that age where you can think about things. That feeling is an amazing thing. I think as we grow up we can often lose that. I think a lot of the Atheists that I’ve met still embrace that quite a bit and have that. And I know some religious people who have awe and that excitement.

I think that just makes things sometimes more confusing for me, but what I do in the Jesus Show to address that is, Jesus shows up and he’s basically speaking to Earth and he says, “You’re all contestants on a reality TV show. A celestial TV show called, “Last Planet Standing.” And he’s basically gelling people together on Earth, saying, “Hey, you’re all on a show together. You’ve got to figure out a way to make this planet survive another year.”

And he shows a map of all the planets that lost on this round. It’s a picture from the Hubble. And in my mind, I wanted that to be part of the show because I think it gives people a little bit of a bigger perspective of things that may be there. Their ideology, you know? And that’s in a way saying, “Hey, there’s more out there, Horatio.” I think that’s actually Shakespeare said it.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] Yeah, that’s excellent. That’s excellent. So Troy, it’s been really fun. What else is coming up for you with The Comedy Jesus Show? Where are you going with that? And what new videos are you working on?

Troy Conrad: Well, the live DVD did get distribution and so it is out in all the stores. It’s on Amazon and Netflix and people can actually buy it on comedyjesus.com. That is going great. So now that that’s there, I’m doing less live touring because I did so many international tours and I’m kind of done with a lot of the live stuff. I’m working on the feature film right now, which also got distribution. That should be out in early 2010. The next video I’m working on is the Hey, Pastor. Pastor Anderson. He’s the guy who is praying for the brain cancer death of our President.

Alex Tsakiris: [laughs] I hadn’t heard of that one.

Troy Conrad: And you’ve heard of him?

Alex Tsakiris: No, I had not, no.

Troy Conrad: Okay. He’s a pastor out of Tempe and he’s been getting some press lately. He also is basically, he uses the word “faggot” I guess 100 times a sermon and that’s actually part of his out-loud sermon and part of his prayers. So I’m doing a video where Jesus is listening to the morning prayers on an I-Pod like basically that’s how Jesus gets prayers. And then he runs into this guy’s and basically concludes that he’s definitely gay. So that’s how that happens. So that’s the next video. We’re shooting this week. People can always watch the videos on YouTube. Just type in “comedy Jesus.”

Alex Tsakiris: And you come right up, don’t you?

Troy Conrad: Yeah, it comes up. It’s easy to find. Just go to Google and type in “Comedy Jesus,” and it all comes up pretty easily. It’s been a really fun journey. And I’ve got to say thank you for getting in touch and doing the interview. I always love to talk. It’s fun to talk serious for a while because there’s a lot of madness out there and I address it through comedy, but this has been a really, really great interview. So I’ve got to say thanks.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, thank you. You know, when I first contacted you, I wasn’t quite sure but I just had this intuitive sense that there was this depth there and you certainly have delivered. I think it’s just awesome to explore all these topics under the umbrella of Atheism because I think you’ve taken it in a way that is just incredibly refreshing and really deep. I mean, there’s so many places to go with the kind of openness and world view that you have, so in that sense I never considered myself an Atheist but I might have to kind of re-examine that label.

Troy Conrad: [laughs] Yeah. Well, you know, it’s not quite as scary. Again, it took me six months to even like – six months after a very long, rational thinking life just to sort of understand that. So you know, it’s also a very strange term and I’m kind of with Sam Harris on this that I don’t think it’s the greatest word in the world, a great label always to have, but I’m at a point of understanding now where I don’t really have a problem with saying it. It’s just that it has a lot of meaning to the other person that it’s said to and I think it almost always requires a follow-up conversation.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, right, right. Okay well, thanks again for joining us, Troy. Best of luck with The Comedy Jesus Show.

Troy Conrad: Thanks a lot, Alex.

Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Troy Conrad for joining me today on Skeptiko. If you’d like more information about this show or any of our previous shows, be sure to check out the Skeptiko Web site. That’s at skeptiko.com. You’ll also find there a link to our forums and an e-mail link for me.

Well, that’s going to do it for today. I have a number of interesting interviews coming up. If you like this topic I have more to come. Some interviews with Dr. Bob Price, a very scholarly and well-informed Atheist, as well as Dr. Gary Habermas, a very scholarly and well-informed Christian. So much more on this topic as well as some other very interesting interviews coming up, including Dr. Michael Persinger and I think many of you who are interested in near-death experience will find that very interesting.

So much more to come on Skeptiko. Stay with us. Bye for now.

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