Humor is in the Eye of the Beholder

How religious people react to humor is often far more damning to the religion than the humor

While I didn’t see the Book of Mormon musical, I do find the Mormon religion story rather funny: After Jesus died, but before he went to heaven, Jesus stopped in the United States. Mormons know this to be true because the story was chiseled on gold plates, and buried in Palmyra, New York. In 1827, the angel Moroni led Joseph Smith to the gold plates and a magic stone. When Smith put the magic stone into his hat and buried his face in the hat, he was able to translate the gold plates from Egyptian hieroglyphics into English.

I don’t think it offensive to ask Mormons if they believe this story. I don’t think it offensive to ask Catholics if they literally believe each Sunday that they are eating the body and drinking the blood of someone who died and rose from the dead. I also don’t think it offensive to ask Christians, Jews and Muslims if they believe in talking snakes, or a 600-year old man who gathered pairs of all animals in the world and put them in an ark he built, after which he watched everyone except his family and animals drown in a flood.

Some in each religion will say they believe the myths in their own religions, while others will laugh them off as made-up fairy tales. Some will take offense when anyone says their fables sound preposterous, while at the same time finding preposterous the fables in other religions.

What is humorous or offensive is in the eyes of the beholder. I don’t distinguish religious satire from political satire or other forms of social satire. I find all the stories above funny, and I’m not the least bothered by someone who laughs at my lack of belief in supernatural deities or an afterlife. I take it as an opening for dialog.

People I like most don’t take themselves too seriously. How religious people react to humor is often far more damning to the religion than the humor, itself. Muslims could have treated the Danish cartoons of Muhammad as a teachable moment about their faith, or protested peacefully. Claims that Islam is a peaceful religion were not hurt by the cartoons, but by the ensuing violent reaction to them.


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Read More Articles

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.