Why are religious jokes so funny?

A Christian web magazine is launching a competition to find the most offensive religious joke. Although some people are shocked when faith is the butt of humour, why are so many others amused?

Ship of Fools, an online magazine which describes itself as the “Private Eye of the Christian world”, is looking for the funniest, and most offensive, Christian jokes.

In the face of legislation it fears will limit what people can joke about in a religious context – a claim strongly rejected by ministers – it wants to provoke a debate about what is humorous and what is offensive.

“It’s vital we have such criticism at the heart of our way of life and religion,” says co-editor Stephen Goddard, who thinks an interactive debate is healthy for Christianity.

“But no-one knows quite where humour goes into offence, because one man’s joke is another man’s offensive comment. We’re trying to find the theology of humour – how to understand humour from a Christian perspective, and we’re giving people the chance to judge their own views by other people’s.”

But why is religion so often a source of comedy? Mr Goddard says it because there’s a black humour to the Bible stories.

“The prophets did crazy things to draw the attention of people to repentance and a return to godly ways, like dragging dogs through the streets or sitting on a pillar for 40 years. Religion tends to draw certain extreme people, which can be very good material for humour.”

Other religions have their own unwritten rules when it comes to holding faith up to ridicule.

Pearly gates

Comedian Arthur Smith says religion is the biggest subject in the world, with the idea of a big man conducting events.

“It’s quite funny. And there’s the absurdity of the after-life. How many jokes start with ‘Arriving at the gates of St Peter… ‘ It’s like ‘A man goes into a pub… ‘ as a classic line.”

But he would steer clear of ridiculing other religions because he says he’s not from that tradition.

Not so fellow comic, Mark Steel, who says he has huge respect for some aspects of religion but there are no boundaries for what is fair game. “The way a comic’s mind works is if he thinks ‘That’s offensive’, then he says it.

“There are a million different reasons for comedy, but one is to prick pomposity. And when it comes to self-righteousness and pomposity, religion has been the unchallenged winner for the last 5,000 years.”

Despite the popularity of television comedy such as Father Ted, not everyone would agree that religion is a valid source of humour at all.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, says The Vicar of Dibley has occasionally offended by poking fun at Christianity.

And before the BBC broadcast Jerry Springer – The Opera, in January, it received 47,000 complaints in anticipation at the way Christian themes were treated. Weeks earlier, a play in Birmingham was cancelled after protests by Sikhs.

But Steel says he has the answer.

“When I speak to Christians who are offended by what I say, I tell them ‘If you’re right, I’m going to burn in hell for all eternity. Isn’t that punishment enough? You want me to be banned as well?'”

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July 5, 2005

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 6, 2005.
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