Not just a joke: Studies find religious humor can break through prejudice, build social ties

“People say, ‘You won’t make jokes about Muslims, will you?’ I say, ‘Well, there are two reasons I don’t make jokes about Muslims. The first reason is, I don’t know anything about Muslims. The second reason is, neither do you.’”
–Irish comedian Dara O’ Briain

Jokes about religion should be left to the professionals, according to a comprehensive new study of religion and humor.

Nearly four in five Norwegians said in a recent national study that it is OK for a comedian to make fun of religion.

But the study findings also indicated others should exercise greater care about what they make fun of, and who they pick on:

• Just 24 percent said it is OK for politicians to make fun of religion.
• Less than one in six said it is proper for teachers to tell religion jokes in the classroom.
• And more than twice as many respondents said it is more problematic to make fun of Islamic symbols than it is to tell jokes about Christian symbols.

The survey is part of a larger project involving several Scandinavian studies on religion and humor. The research comes just a little more than a decade after a conservative Danish newspaper stirred global tensions by publishing cartoons mocking the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.

This new wave of research on religion and humor is presenting a different picture to the world, one where concern for free speech is balanced by a sense of responsibility to not use humor as a sword to inflame hatred.

Findings indicate support, in areas from popular culture to public opinion, for a more nuanced approach to religious humor that has the potential to break through the polarization in the West over perceived threats from immigrants and religious minorities.

Even popular television shows and men’s magazines appear to be getting in on the jokes.

Mocking the weak

Research has shown that humor that makes fun of marginalized groups, such as homosexuals, obese individuals, religious minorities and women in the workplace, tends to provide social approval to prejudiced individuals to openly express their biases.

In one U.S. study, for example, participants higher in anti-Muslim prejudice tolerated discrimination more after reading anti-Muslim jokes than after reading anti-Muslim statements or neutral jokes.

“The veil of disparagement humor as ‘just a joke’ and its pervasiveness in popular culture make it an insidious means of promoting expressions of prejudice,” study researchers stated.

In Scandinavia in 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons presenting the central prophet of Islam as a terrorist offering virgins for acts of violence. That resulted in boycotts and violent protests around the world. More than 200 people died, according to reports.

The latest studies, shared earlier this month at the biennial meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Lausanne, indicate a less hostile approach to religious humor, researchers indicated.

In one study, sociologist Pål Repstad of the University of Agder in Norway found the depiction of religion in TV and radio comedies becoming more positive over time.

For example, the KLM comedy trio popular in the 1970s and 1980s would not hesitate to satirize religious healing or turn a shepherd’s crook with a cross on top upside down for use as a pogo stick.

This year, the TV show “The Vicar,” featuring comedian Bjarte Tjøstheim, portrays a caring cleric not wanting to offend anyone while dealing with modern issues such as same-sex weddings and asylum seekers wanting to camp out in his home.

The character reflects efforts of the majority church to be inclusive, Repstad noted. But he also observed, “As pastors’ power has decreased in society, the need for harsh and biting satire has decreased correspondingly, and humorists dealing with church and clergy will probably depict clergy more nuanced.”

In a separate study of religious humor over time in Vi Menn, a popular northern European men’s magazine, researcher Ann Kristin Gresaker found Muslims were treated similarly to Christians in Playboy-style cartoons where everyone is obsessed with sex in ways that objectify women.

So, while Christian clergy undress women in their minds, in a fairly typical Muslim cartoon, one man says to another, “I’m so bored, do you want to swap … harems for a week.”

What is noteworthy, however, is that the Muslim humor in the Oslo-based magazine did not have such a focus on terrorism, Gresaker said.

Building bridges

“I’ll meet some someone, and I’ll be like, ‘Hi, my name’s Gibran.’ “Oh, nice to meet you Muhammad.’ ‘How in the world did they get my middle name? It’s amazing.’” –Muslim comedian Gibran Saleem

Some religious humor can promote prejudice, but research also has found that it can build social ties and bond diverse people together when it serves as an engaging way to introduce people to different cultures.

Making people laugh enables many comedians, including an increasing number of Muslim comics, to satirize prejudice and promote both a sense of common humanity and an understanding of how bias affects the lives of one’s neighbors.

One hopeful finding from the national study in Norway is that each group, from regular service attenders to atheists, said the best strategy for religious comedy is for each belief group to engage with humor in positive ways.

The second most favored approach was to be open to religious humor enabling oneself “to see things differently.”

The strategy at the bottom for all groups was simply to condemn religious humor.

In comparison to practicing Christians, religious minorities were particularly supportive of what researcher Pål Ketil Botvar called the transformational approach of participating in the dialogue with the best of one’s own humor.

The bottom line: Mocking the weak and vulnerable is easy.

Comedy that reflects our common foibles and humanity can make it harder for movements demeaning religious and ethnic groups to gain traction, research suggests.

Image by Amitai Sandy, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han), via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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