WASHINGTON -- In my racket, there's a serious occupational hazard: becoming a nasty individual. That's because humor so often involves mockery and ridicule -- you get your laughs at the expense of others. So you try to stifle the urge to be hostile, unless the impulse is so emotionally overpowering that, like a sneeze, it is medically unwise to stifle. For example, I cannot safely contain the observation that Mitt Romney's stiff, inscrutable smile has all the warmth and charm of a man wincing on the toilet.
Likewise, I hereby try, but fail, to resist advising idiot new parents that instead of piercing their newborns ears with bling, it would be just as effective, and classier, to write girl on her forehead with a Sharpie.
Controlling this nasty impulse is a constant challenge to the Modern Humourist, especially when under provocation.
Recently, my daughter returned from the Department of Motor Vehicles emissions inspection station, livid. The back seat of her otherwise tidy car had a dusting of dog fur on it, which the examiner told her he found distasteful. Cheerfully, my daughter explained that the occasional transfer of fur from dog to car is unavoidable when you live with three large dogs and also happen to be a veterinarian. No matter. She was flunked on an unrelated technicality and sent home with instructions to vacuum her back seat before returning.
Would it be so wrong of me to publish this mans name here and point out that he resembles, physically, a sebaceous cyst? OK, probably. Probably wrong. But you see my dilemma.
My biggest provocations, though, tend to come on issues of religion. I do not believe in God, but seldom write this because of the mail it engenders. The more fervently religious the letter writer, it seems, the less inclined he is toward charity. A recurrent theme of these letters is that I must be deviant, a criminal, and/or a general louse, on the theory that a person who doesn't fear hellfire has no incentive to refrain from, say, stealing panties from laundromats or beheading chipmunks for fun. I once got a three-page lecture from a man of the cloth solemnly offering to pray for me -- not that I get into Heaven, but that my punishment in Hell be less lacerating than I deserve.
See, the Modern Humourist wants to respond to these things, but holds his tongue. Its tactical. He knows snideness will sound bad. What he needs is more elusive: not opinions, which are cheap and easy, but unchallengeable facts that he can present dispassionately to make his point without seeming snide.
So it is that, just a few days ago, I opened an email from a friendly reader, linking me to a recent study published by the American Psychological Association. It concluded that the less logical and more intuitive a person is, the more likely he is to believe in a deity. The wording was euphemistic, but when I drilled down into the study, it became clear to me that by more intuitive, the scientists really meant dumber.
For example, test subjects were asked to solve this riddle: A bat and a ball cost $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Religious people were more likely to leap intuitively to the wrong, if seemingly obvious, answer of 10 cents. Nonbelievers tended to reason harder and get it right.
I clicked on another email. It was from a different reader about a different scientific study. Researchers at Duke University have concluded that people who report a born-again religious experience tend to show more physical evidence of ... brain atrophy. I could not believe how the universe seemed to be conspiring on my behalf.
Alas, the next thought that leapt into my head was, There IS a God!
Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten(at)washpost.com. Chat with him online on Tuesday, August 28, at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group