When ‘Religious Jokes’ Cross a Line

By Wendy Thomas Russell | August 22, 2013 | 8 comments

On Facebook, you see a lot of religious memes. They are posted (and reposted and reposted) by religious people with genuine reverence.

On the Facebook group for secular mothers that I belong to, you see a lot of religious memes, too. Only they’re posted ironically, and for the express purpose of being skewered. The contrast can be refreshing.


Now, to be fair, the group is much more about connecting with a like-minded community of women. Most posts seek parental advice or share the latest on someone’s health scare or fertility problems or battle with cancer. But there are jokes to be had, too. Lots and lots of jokes.

It’s a good group.

But sometimes, in good groups, bad things happen. And a few days ago, there quite the dust-up around a member who posted a picture joke that ended up offending a good number of people. I didn’t see the joke myself — it was taken down before I logged on — but the controversy continued into a follow-up post that I did see.

From what I gather, the picture depicted the Last Supper (original, right?) and featured a joke about the cost of the Last Supper and who would be footing the bill for all that food. The joke was apparently a play on the stereotype that Jews are cheap. And it used that word, too: Jews.


Tempers flared immediately.

It was offensive, people said. It promulgated a harmful stereotype.

No, said others, it was totally benign. And, plus, plenty of religious jokes are posted and tolerated on the site. Why not this one?

But it didn’t poke fun at a religion. It poked fun at an ethnicity. That’s different. 

It was funny. Sorry it offended you.

It was harmful. And you’re not really sorry.

And so it went.

Finally, the member took down the joke.

The controversy interested me on a couple of levels. On one side, I had to roll my eyes at this idea that poking fun at religious groups is A-okay, while posting jokes about other groups — ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation — is not. Talk about a sweeping double-standard.


But then there was this ridiculous notion that because some people thought the joke was funny, the joke deserved to be seen in that light. In short, this woman didn’t mean to offend people, so why were people so bent out of shape?

The whole thing reminded me of the whole “rape-joke” controversy last summer. Remember that? When comedian Daniel Tosh was talking about rape jokes at the Laugh Factory and a woman in the audience heckled him by saying, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” And he responded by saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

Well, as you can imagine, that thing blew up, too — BIG TIME. Tosh got hammered by feminist groups. Meanwhile, tons of big-name comedians lined up to defend Tosh’s right to tell jokes about rape. They turned it into a censorship issue.

In the midst of the ongoing debate, a woman named Lindy West, a comedian herself, printed her response on the website Jezebel. And talk about nailing it. First off, West is a funny, funny lady. Second off, West is smart, smart lady. In a nutshell, her point was this: Comedians have every right to say whatever they want, make whatever joke they want, no matter the subject, no matter how dark. Will it offend someone? Of course. Most jokes would offend someone. But just as comedians have the right to tell any joke they want, WE have the right to respond any way we see fit. If we want to stand up and say, “That is a joke that harms women,” and call for that person to be fired from Comedy Central, then that’s what we should do. It’s not about the subject matter; rape jokes can be funny. So can jokes about molestation and cancer and race and ethnicity and religion. It’s about the specific joke. We’re not talking about government censorship; we’re talking about audience regulation. Democracy.

Religious_fc7036_2240321I’m not, as my friends can attest, easily offended. I love edgy humor, the edgier the better. Shock value is a value I admire. But just because SOMEONE finds something funny — or that someone told it TO BE funny — doesn’t mean it’s a good joke. Or that they should telling it. Sure the line is hard to see sometimes; but we are human beings. We should care enough to look for it. And if we don’t, we should be prepared to be, forgive the expression, bitch-slapped.

In the end, Tosh got scolded in a very effective way. He was the object of national criticism, apologized to his fans on Twitter. Democracy.

In the end, the Facebook user got scolded in a very effective way, too. She took down her joke and dropped out of the group.

God Bless America.


  1. Khadijah says:

    Sometimes jokes are funny. Sometimes they are not. Some people are more sensitive than others. I’m not a big fan of jokes around important issues. I would not joke about gas victims of Syria or dead children. I stay away from jokes about religion. I mean, one thing is that there are so many things you can joke about or find humor. Secondly, I think the culture of joking (intended I think to offset the seriousness or hopelessness or stress of the situation) too much distracts from actually solving the problem. And then lastly its all funny and games until someone gets hurt or killed by an extremist who cant take a joke. Of course violence is unacceptable but by then the damage is done and irreversible.

  2. Rich Wilson says:

    I recently objected to a chart-meme with ‘data’ that demonstrated an inverse correlation between IQ and “importance of religion”. It also use the ‘R’ word, which is another one that sets me off. I found the IQ data it used, which was a heavily criticized book that had most of Africa with an IQ in the 70s-80s.

    Sure, that’s rational. We know how religious people and Africans have IQs that are a standard deviation below average…

    But my objections were mostly ignored, and I just couldn’t take a joke, or hadn’t learned that I didn’t have a right to not be offended.

    I think a large part of it is that none of us want to consider we’ve been wrong. Once we’ve made our choice, any argument against our position just makes us double down.

  3. Don says:

    “But it didn’t poke fun at a religion. It poked fun at an ethnicity. That’s different.” Something that’s always seemed odd to me is that Jewish people are considered to be both an ethnic and a religious group by a lot of people. Why are they also an ethnic group? They look like white people to me (for the most part, anyway).

    • Kevin Butler says:

      Good post.

      Don, Jews are considered an ethnic group in addition to a religious group because they are genetically distinct due to their isolation throughout the history, which (to be crude) led to a lack of breeding with other populations for thousands of years. That’s why you have certain diseases that are much more prevalent in Jews such as Tay-Sachs. I know because I have Jewish heritage and was instructed by my wife’s doctor to get a genetic test before having a child for that very reason.

      Finally, a religious joke —- A Jewish man goes to his Rabbi and tells him: “Help me, Rabbi. My son has turned Christian and was even baptized! What should I do?” The rabbi replies: “Don’t worry about it. I’ll go pray to God for an answer. Come back and talk to me tomorrow.”
      So a day passes and the man returns and asks the rabbi, “So, what did God say?” The rabbi replied, “He said he can’t help you. He has the same problem.”

  4. Don says:

    I’ve always thought that this Louis CK bit concerning rape is pretty damn funny. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4hNaFkbZYU

  5. Cassandra says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said here. His name is Daniel Tosh, though- not Brian. And he didn’t lose his job. Tosh.O is still going. :):):)

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

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