Not Nothing Creating Nothing: The Dos and Don’ts of Religious Humor

by: Miranda Hovemeyer 

Charlie Chaplin once said, “My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh, but my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”

I believe this quote especially rings true when dealing with using religion in comedy.

As a seminary student, improvisational comedian, and producer of interfaith comedy shows, I’ve come to learn a lot about what makes a good joke and what doesn’t.  It’s a touchy subject, religious humor, and one that can do a good deal of hurt and damage if not treated carefully.  If you’re going to attempt to use religious humor, there are ways to do it in a peaceful, friendly and inviting manor, and there are ways that hurt feelings and burn bridges.

A few weeks ago, the interfaith website “Patheos” posted a sarcastic joke about Atheists on their Facebook page.  It reads as follows:

“Atheism, The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.  Makes perfect sense.”

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This is a perfect example of a way in which religious humor can be injurious and can actually undermine the efforts of the speaker.  As a Humanist who has dedicated her life to creating lasting interfaith peace through dialogue and relationships, I found Patheos’ attempt at humor to be divisive, uninformed and just overall pathetic.  I thought that Patheos’ mission was to “bring together faith communities, academics, and the broader public into a single environment, and is the place where many people turn on a regular basis for insight, inspiration, and stimulating discussion.”

I don’t understand how the above quip on Atheism serves any of these goals, or adheres to their values.  I also thought that Patheos aimed to “Participate in the global dialogue on religion and spirituality through responsible, moderated discussions on critical issues across religious traditions.”  I don’t understand how their quote about Atheism, let alone any of the other religious “jokes” they post on Facebook claims to go along with their ideals of “responsible, moderated discussion.”  I understand that this may be some sort of attempt at humor, but humor loses all of its value and message when it is used by one faith group to target and belittle another.  Being a Master of Arts in religion student and Interfaith Youth Core alumni who focuses on how comedy can be used as a tool of interfaith dialogue, I am embarrassed and hurt by Patheos’ failure and attempt at humor.  I clearly am not the only person who feels this way.  Listed in the comments section below the “Atheism” quip are the following:

“Wow. Way to perpetuate understanding and tolerance, Patheos. Tolerance as long as your beliefs aren’t being called into question isn’t tolerance. This is a horrible image that perpetuates hate and misinformation and you’re a bag of dicks for posting it.” – Carrie Tupper

“I love God and dislike this post.” – Eric Williams

“If you want others to be respectful of your beliefs start by being respectful of theirs. (I wonder what your atheist bloggers think of this post?)” – Robin Wagner Manrique

“Patheos, I thought your purpose was to promote understanding. am hoping this is a joke, but lacks the relevant anatomy of a joke: mainly a punchline.” – G. Lee Bell

I’m glad I’m not alone in my shock at what has become of Patheos.  Using humor and different forms of comedy does NOT help further the message of interfaith unity when it aims to “make fun” of another religion.  Good, healthy interfaith unity comes from using comedy as a vehicle that allows us to laugh at ourselves and our own religious traditions and to realize that we have a lot more in common than we thought we did.  Not to further separate us, as Patheos has done.

The way I’ve sought to create interfaith dialogue through humor is by working with the FUNATICAL: “We Come in Peace” comedy tour.  FUNATICAL consists of a group of comedians from different religious traditions and cultures who seek to bring communities together through laughing at our commonalities, and not focusing on our differences.   It’s easy to try and make jokes about the differences between Christians and Muslims, and Atheists and Jews.  Anybody could do that.

What these talented comedians venture to do is point out the things we never knew we had in common, and this is where the real funny lies.  Their comedy is inviting and valuable, because it makes the audience realize that they’re not so different from their neighbor.  It allows the audience to laugh together at how silly and worthless our fear of the other is.  It does not seek to denigrate any religious tradition for the sake of a laugh.  Most importantly, it makes everyone feel good, and laugh together, not at the expense of one another.   Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox says it best, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you:  Weep, and you weep alone; For the sad old Earth must borrow its mirth.  It has trouble enough of its own.”

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