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

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

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.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

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.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

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

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.