Christopher Grenda on Religious Satire during the Enlightenment (and Today)
Date: February 18th, 2013

Can satire be used to prompt religious reform?  Prof. Christopher Grenda, an associate professor of history at CUNY- Bronx Community College, discusses his recent research on satire during the English Enlightenment (c. late 17th and 18th centuries).  Chris tells us how he stumbled onto this research topic and then we spend some time discussing what satire is relative to other forms of humor such as parody and irony.  Our conversation uses several contemporary instances where satire has led some individuals to get into trouble, including humorist Mark Steyn who was brought up before a Canadian Human Rights Commission for his satirical writings.  We then move backwards in time to the English Enlightenment.  Chris lays out the historical context of what is happening in jolly old England in terms of politics and religion.  It is a time of great ferment, with the early Stuart monarchs trying to consolidate their power at the time when religious dissent is arising.  Early satirists such as Charles Blount (a Deist) and Ralph Wallis (an orthodox Christian) become some of the first writers to critique the Church of England for its seemingly corrupt practices.  Our conversation then takes various historical turns (not always in sequence) as we discuss other authors such as Thomas Paine, John Witherspoon, David Hume, and Anthony Ashley-Cook (a.k.a. the Third Earl of Shaftesbury).  We explore the different ways in which each of these writers used wit to lampoon the powerful ecclesiastics of their day, and Chris provides some memorable and surprisingly cutting quotes from their works.  Chris mentions that satire becomes increasingly “democratized” with the spread of literacy and printing technology, and how this affects the style of writing in order to reach new and different audiences.  Throughout the podcast, we also learn about how the authorities responded to such satire and how many of these literary figures had to use pen names or circulate their missives underground.  We close with some thoughts on satire in the contemporary world and how our present society may be a bit less tolerant of such dissent than in the past.  Recorded: February 12, 2013.


Prof. Christopher Grenda at CUNY.

The Right to Ridicule” by Ronald Dworkin in the New York Times Review of Books.

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America, by Chris Beneke and Christopher Grenda.


Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.

One Response to “Christopher Grenda on Religious Satire during the Enlightenment (and Today)”

  1. Patrick Henry says:

    What is the difference between satire and sarcasm? When people say s/o what do they mean?

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