Skeptic Friends Network

Save Password
Forgot your Password?
Home | Forums | Active Topics | Active Polls | Register | FAQ | Contact Us  
  Connect: Chat | SFN Messenger | Buddy List | Members
Personalize: Profile | My Page | Forum Bookmarks  
Home Rationally Speaking N. 53, September 2004: Monty Python's Guide to Philosophy
Skeptic Forums
Skeptic Summary
The Kil Report
About Skepticism
Fan Mail
Rationally Speaking
Claims List
Skeptic Links
Book Reviews
Gift Shop

Server Time: 05:16:14
Your Local Time:

Rationally Speaking
science,philosophy,scientific method, natural selection
Printer Friendly Printer Friendly Version of this Article... Bookmark Bookmark This Article...

N. 53, September 2004: Monty Python's Guide to Philosophy

This column can be posted for free on any appropriate web site and reprinted in hard copy by permission. If you are interested in receiving the html code or the text, please send an email

Are secular humanists a bunch of dreary negative Nellies? Monty Python and Massimo say 'no'.

Secular humanists are often accused of not espousing a “positive” philosophy, of simply denying the existence of the supernatural while resigning themselves to a meaningless and joyless life. Indeed, I was once a guest on a radio talk show together with Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer, when the host incredulously observed that we seemed to be pretty happy people “for being skeptics.” I don’t know where this stereotype comes from, other than the deeply entrenched prejudices of people who think that there is meaning in life only if somebody up there shows a keen interest in the details of their sexual practices.

But I know how to once and for all debunk the myth: let us briefly examine the obviously humanistic philosophy embodied in the work of one of the most happy-going groups of people I’ve ever come across, the British comedians collectively known as “Monty Python” (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin). My analysis will be confined for the moment to the Monty Python (henceforth, MP) songs, leaving a detailed study of their movies and TV productions to a more appropriately academic venue.

Every philsophical analysis needs to start with good questions, and MP does just that in the appropriately titled The Meaning of Life (from the homonymous movie):
Why are we here? What’s life all about?
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
And as any good philosopher would do, MP does not provide us with simplistic, canned, answers, but rather with alternatives to seriously ponder:
Is life just a game where we make up the rules…
Or are we just spiraling coils,
of self-replicating DNA?
Which shows an understanding of both the problem of relativism in morality and of Richard Dawkins’ concept of the selfish gene.

Monty Python does appreciate alternative, even religious, viewpoints, as we can evince from several passages of “Every Sperm is Sacred” (again from The Meaning of Life):
I’m a Roman Catholic,
and have been since before I was born
And the one thing they say about Catholics,
is they’ll take you as soon as you’re warm…
You don’t have to have a great brain…
You’re a Catholic the moment Dad came.
Which implies a view of sex that one can find developed at length in several Encyclicals by various Popes, or can be clearly summarized in MP’s system as:
Every sperm is sacred
every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate.
However, one could argue, make fun of God all you like, but in the end isn’t it rather obvious that He is responsible for the beauty of creation, arguably one of the most important things that gives meaning to our life? This is, of course, the well known argument from design, presented at length, for example, by William Paley in his 1831 book, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Naturally, David Hume had already debunked the argument in his 1779 volume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume pointed out that one needs to consider not just the good stuff that God allegedly made, but also the rest. Which MP summarizes very eloquently (and in a lot fewer words than Hume) in “All Things Dull & Ugly”:
All things sick and cancerous,
all evil great and small,
alla things foul and dangerous,
the Lord God made them all.
Never was the argument from evil against the existence of God more aptly presented. But MP does not limit itself to what Francis Bacon called the pars destruens of their philosophy. They go on with a pars construens by elaborating an alternative viewpoint based on what one could think of as the cosmic perspective. Consider, for example, “The Galaxy Song” (from The Meaning of Life):
Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown…
Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
and revolving at 900 miles an hour…
In an outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour
of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.
But why — you may ask — would astronomy matter to our sense of everyday life? Obviously, because it helps to:
…remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure
how amazingly unlikely is your birth.
Which doesn’t mean the cosmic perspective avoids scathing social criticism:
And pray that there’s intelligent
life somewhere up in space
Because there’s bugger all down
here on Earth.
Despite such apparently negative view of humanity, the optimistic character of Monty Python’s brand of secular humanism emerges most clearly in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (from the movie Life of Brian). Consider, for example, the following exortation:
If life seems jolly rotten
there’s something you’ve forgotten
and that’s to laugh and smile
and dance and sing.
So much for humanists being a joyless bunch! And the song doesn’t lack deep philosophical forays, as in:
For life is quite absurd
and death’s the final word…
Enjoy it — it’s your last chance anyhow.
Not to mention this quintessential, and rather mathematically accurate, summary of human life:
I mean — what have you got to lose?
You know, you come from nothing
you’re going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!
Something to ponder, the next time that road rage is about to overcome you because yet another jerk in an SUV cut you off without using a turning signal.

Read or Add Comments about Rationally Speaking

Massimo’s other ramblings can be found at his Skeptic Web.

Massimo’s books:

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science

Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science

Back to Rationally Speaking

The mission of the Skeptic Friends Network is to promote skepticism, critical thinking, science and logic as the best methods for evaluating all claims of fact, and we invite active participation by our members to create a skeptical community with a wide variety of viewpoints and expertise.

Home | Skeptic Forums | Skeptic Summary | The Kil Report | Creation/Evolution | Rationally Speaking | Skeptillaneous | About Skepticism | Fan Mail | Claims List | Calendar & Events | Skeptic Links | Book Reviews | Gift Shop | SFN on Facebook | Staff | Contact Us

Skeptic Friends Network
© 2008 Skeptic Friends Network Go To Top Of Page
This page was generated in 0.03 seconds.
Powered by @tomic Studio
Snitz Forums 2000