Reading Time: 3 minutes

(Post 5 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

10:00 am EDT

When I saw the photo above, it made me deliriously happy. It probably makes you happy too. For the full effect, click to enlarge it. Go on, I’ll wait.

Mirror neurons are partly responsible for our reaction — monkey see happy, monkey be happy. But I have an added reason to like it: these fine people are responding to something I said. Something I said made them all feel like that.

It was at the Freethought Festival in Madison a few weeks back, and the line that slew them so nicely is also found in this blog post from 2008. What makes me happiest of all is that I was making an actual point at the time — not just killing, but educating them as they die. It’s my favorite mix. So I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that this photo is now my computer desktop. The big-ass version.

One of the most perfect moments in Julia Sweeney’s stage show Letting Go of God captures the (literally) intoxicating thrill of getting a spontaneous laugh in real time:

All of our brains are on drugs all of the time. We give ourselves hits: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and vasopressin. The next time all of you laugh, I’ll get a hit of adrenaline through my veins, and if you don’t when I expect you to, I’ll get cortisol instead and I’ll feel anxious.

I always thought I was a person in my family who escaped addictions, but now I realize that I am up here on this stage right now partly because… I am an addict. [Audience chuckles.] Ooh, thanks. [Big laugh.] Oooooo!!!! [Insanely big laugh]

I started my writing career 11 years ago with a satirical novel and followed it up with another. When I started my blog in 2007, I tried to keep weaving comedy and education together, and I did pretty well a lot of the time.

Then in 2009, I started Foundation Beyond Belief. Running a charitable organization that’s trying to make the world a better place and give humanists a positive way to express their worldview is incredibly satisfying. I can’t begin to describe how much. But it’s also pretty earnest work.

When you’re writing to entertain, you run each word and sentence through a quick filter — How can I make that funnier? But for most of the projects I’ve done in the last three years, including the Foundation and Voices of Unbelief, my filter has been set to a nearly opposite setting: How can I make that clearer?

Humor introduces ambiguity and plays with it. As often as not, it looks for a less clear way to say something, and the ambiguity opens the laugh. Clarity is the kryptonite of humor. So it’s not surprising that I’ve recently started to feel the funny part of my brain atrophying. And not just on the page — I’m not even as silly in real life as I was a few years ago. That’s begun to feel like a real loss.

Then something terrific happened. A project has come along, out of the relative blue, that doesn’t just allow the combination of humor and education I love but demands it. And sure enough, since I’ve been working on it, I can feel this part of my brain coming out to play again. It’s the best thing that’s happened to my head in long time.

I’ll announce the project when I start getting a hint that somebody is out there and awake with me this morning! Time to break the silence, you lurkers. Note that I’ve added FB comments as an option.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.