To say that religion and humor make for strange bedfellows may be stating the obvious! Yet one cannot escape the other; they are “mutually attracting phenomena” (Schweizer 2020, p.162). According to Christian writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton, “Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in choosing your neckties, but in anything important such as death, sex, and religion, you must have mirth or you will have madness.” (as cited by Terry Lindvall, 2015). Institutional religion and religious dogma leave no room for ambiguity since they are founded on absolute moral truths, certainty of belief and conformity to a higher spiritual authority and order. In contrast, humor thrives on ambiguity and transgression, on pushing boundaries, on challenging and questioning social norms and moral truths. Unlike the somewhat universal appeal of religious faiths and religious beliefs and in contrast to laughter, which is part of human nature, humor does not universally translate well across time and space. Something that was funny a few years, decades, or centuries ago will not necessarily have the same comic appeal or be viewed as funny today. Humor is also relative and culturally embedded so it is very personal. We laugh together but we laugh at different things. Like beauty, humor is in the eye of the beholder, as Sister Vassa Larin points out in her podcast on religion and humor (Episode 106, 16 February 2017).
Despite these fundamental differences, religion and humor both have a “redemptive value” (Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, as cited in Gardner 2020, p. 162), especially laughter, in dealing with the incongruities of life and the human experience (Berger 2014). Just as religion offers a spiritually comforting sense of certainty in a chaotic world, humor offers a light-hearted comedic approach in trying to make sense of the world. Religion and humor both hold a great deal of power, positive and negative. Just as the force of religious conviction and belief cannot be overestimated, “within a well-delivered joke lies power,” as the late US comedian Dick Gregory aptly said in 2017. They both have a great potential to magnify differences and inflame sensitivities but also to express frustration in a more nuanced way and help defuse tension. Religion and humor can help us disengage from our own problems and prompt us to go beyond the bubble of our everyday reality. They invite us to think about the world in a different way. Religion and humor are both relational and community-based: a religious idea and a joke can each foster mutual understanding, help build bridges, maintain our connection to others and increase a sense of community. But inversely religion and humor can also exclude and belittle the “other,” legitimize and sanction prejudice, implicitly or explicitly, and thus magnify differences, tear people apart and divide.
What seems to prevail is a highly cautionary and suspicious view when religion and humor intersect, not least because of the legal and sometimes violent conflicts that have erupted over various forms of humor crossing religious boundaries. Accusations of blasphemy have been triggered after joking and laughing about religion that has been perceived as inappropriate and offensive. We mention here the fierce backlash of only two well-publicized cases after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons and the release of the comedic film Life of Brian by Monty Python. Such conflicts have questioned the limits of freedom of expression, especially as it pertains to religious sensitivities, and have solidified the view that religion and humor are incompatible.
The Intersections of Religion and Humor
Given the fraught relationship between them, why should we look at the intersections of religion and humor? To start with, as humor studies scholar Christie Davies aptly said, “Jokes are a thermometer” (2001, p. 300); they reveal prevalent social, cultural and political attitudes and moods. Religion and humor intersect in various ways and in different domains and this raises a series of questions. First is the question of whether there is humor (and its corollaries of laughter, lightheartedness, etc.) in sacred texts, including the Bible. Related to that is the question of whether humor can be found in the world’s religions, including in religious texts, the sacraments, religious practices and lived religion, that is in the different ways believers and clergy engage with, practice, express and communicate religion in everyday life. Second is the question of what impact religious affiliation and religiosity may have on humor creation (making a joke and having a sense of humor) and appreciation (understanding and laughing at a joke) which is shaped by a variety of factors, such as one’s world view and beliefs, including religious beliefs. The work of Vasilis Saroglou and others on humor creation as well as Karl-Heinz Ott and Bernard Schweizer on humor appreciation offer some interesting reflections. Third is the question of religious humor, i.e. humor about religion including joking and laughing about religious figures, sacred texts, religious practices and religious believers. We will primarily look at the first and the third question.
Related to the first question of whether humor can be found in religion and in sacred texts is also the issue of whether we can observe relevant patterns and differences in the comic visions of the world’s religions. Are certain religious traditions more open to humor and its corollaries (e.g. laughter, merriment, cheerfulness)? John Morreall’s analysis in Comedy, Tragedy and Religion (1999)compares in somewhat binary terms the comic and the tragic dimensions of Eastern and Western religious traditions. To push this thinking further we also have to consider how sacred texts have been interpreted across several centuries to produce a variety of visions and attitudes towards humor at different times and in different socio-cultural, political and religious contexts (Gardner 2020). Eastern religious traditions, including Buddhism (as is often exemplified by images of a laughing Dalai Lama) and Hinduism, but also Confucianism and Taoism, seem to inherently appreciate comic laughter and be particularly imbued with what Morreall calls “anti-tragic” visions and “pro-comic” features. As we move into the realm of the Western monotheistic religions, there is a broader range of anti-tragic/pro-comic and pro-tragic/anti-comic features. In Judaism, humor features in the Talmud itself but more importantly it has also functioned as a political and psychological coping mechanism of resistance and survival in the vicissitudes of the Jewish people. In Islam, while the tragic and comic visions may not be present explicitly, there are distinct principles on permissible types of humor, joking and laughter; yet the comedic and satirical practices in the Muslim world and its restrictions vary across Islamic contexts according to different religious sensibilities, social norms, political regimes and legal frameworks.
In Christianity, the range of anti-tragic/pro-comic and pro-tragic/anti-comic seems to be very diverse across the variety of Christian strands (Catholicism, the Protestant churches, Orthodox Christianity, etc.). In terms of the presence of humor in the scriptures, the prevalent view is that humor and its corollary, laughter, but also sarcasm, can be found in many passages of the Old and New Testament, as several religious (theologians) and secular scholars have demonstrated, including Rev. James Martin, S.J., Bernard Schweizer, Terry Lindvall, Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, and Sister Vassa Larin. The Christian view of humor and the “theology of laughter” that has taken shape since the second half of the 20th century, rests on five basic principles, outlined by Bernard Schweizer in his volume Christianity and the Triumph of Humor: “Christianity has a long and regretful history of denunciations of laughter; humor plays a vital role in the life of the faithful and Christians should not curb their laughter; laughter is a gift from God since it is equivalent to joy, and joy is a divine attribute; the Bible is replete with humor and God has a sense of humor; and there a two kinds of laughter morally good and bad laughter, or ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ laughter” (Schweizer 2020, p. 31).
As Sister Vassa Larin recently pointed out during our informal conversation a couple of months after the 2023 IOTA conference in Volos, lightheartedness and humor are both divine qualities. Arguably, the resurrection is God’s ultimate and “most extravagant joke” and can be considered as an archetypal Christian joke albeit with an underlying profoundly positive message: the triumph of life over death, of good over evil (Donnelly 1992, p. 1). Moreover, the early Christian risus paschalis tradition of so-called “Easter laughter”, which also features in the Greek Orthodox tradition on Easter Monday when jokes and humorous stories are exchanged as part of the joy of Easter celebrations, stands in contrast to the serious and solemn spirit leading up to Easter. Yet, if God’s sense of humor does not always stand the test of time, the humorous and sarcastic passages in the Old and New Testament are not necessarily funny (or even appropriate) today, they are concrete examples of the type of humor that can be found in the Christian scriptures.
Even though it is a work of fiction with multiple levels of analysis especially about questions of truth, Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, provides a few pointers on Christian Medieval theological interpretations of the meaning of laughter. According to the story, the Benedictine abbey’s eldest and most learned blind monk Jorge de Burgos rejects that Jesus ever laughed and the idea of laughter all together as “weakness and corruption” (p. 507) that prevents man from accepting the idea of a single and unquestionable truth. He thus laces with poison the pages of Aristotle’s second Poetics book with his views on laughter in an attempt to eliminate laughter by eliminating the book itself (Donnelly 1992).
Since Medieval times and in contrast to such views, contemporary “Christianity has yielded, more or less willingly, to the forces of humor” (Schweizer 2020, p. 164). In his book, Bernard Schweizer provides an in-depth overview of numerous contemporary examples of humor, including irreverent humor, about Western Christianity. Especially in Western Europe and North America, there are countless examples of contemporary genres of humor, including comedy and cartoons, making jokes that target Christian faith, practices, believers and clergy. Yet, there seem to be few cases of recent large-scale public outcries and backlash or formal accusations of blasphemy and when those instances do take place, they are usually initiated locally by certain religious and political conservative groups.
Humor and Orthodox Christianity
In comparison to Catholicism and the various strands of Protestantism in the West, is there a distinctly Orthodox stance on laughter and vision of humor? One could claim Orthodox humorlessness precisely because Orthodox Christianity and humor seem to make strange or unorthodox bedfellows given the Orthodox faith’s foundational stance as a faith that follows and conforms to a more original, true and authentic Christian dogma and practice. This Christian Orthodox claim to authenticity suggests a degree of seriousness, coupled with a certain reluctance to change with the times. This outlook also suggests a probable incompatibility with humor, joking and laughing about religion. The presumed Orthodox lack of openness or resistance towards humor can also be substantiated by the regressive current of moral conservatism, focused on preserving traditional family values against the perceived growing threat of secularization, that seems to have taken hold in the last two decades. This critical development also encompasses cultural aspects that seem to further strengthen the Orthodox traditionalist ethno-nationalist downturn that began in the 2010s. In the current culture wars, Russia is at the helm and aspires to be a moral leader for Christian moral conservatists around the globe, as Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlaner discuss in their book The Moralist International. Russia in the Global Culture Wars. Yet,issues of biology (i.e. procreation and sex), marriage and family values, which have become the key litmus tests of the Orthodox faith against the morally corrupt values of the West, seem to overlook the fact that the same western values of human rights that are so vilified, were conceived and founded and are deeply immersed in Christian values, as Sister Vassa Larin pointed out during our recent conversation.
Yet, Orthodox Christianity is not a monolithic bloc. It is important to distinguish at least the Orthodox diaspora (including those who are cultural or nominally Orthodox, thus who identify with the faith and its cultural traditions but are not necessarily religious) from the mostly, but not exclusively, ethno-nationalist Orthodoxy of traditionally Orthodox majority home countries, as Father Dragos Herescu distinguished during the IOTA conference in 2023.
Sister Vassa Larin, who belongs to the ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), also known as ROCA (Russian Orthodox Church Abroad), and her personal trajectory is a case in point. During our conversation, she expanded on her initial light-hearted and humorous comment that Orthodox Christians tend to be dead serious when they talk or teach about matters of faith. As a priest’s daughter having always been around lots of priests, bishops, and other clergy, she observed that they all joke and laugh quite a lot. Presumably there are members of the Orthodox clergy and Orthodox theologians and advocates who use some form of humor in their work and mission. But when it comes to giving a sermon or teaching catechism or speaking publicly about faith-related matters, Orthodox monastics or clergymen tend to be dead serious. Sister Vassa did not believe that the dead seriousness of Orthodox discourse was conducive to the mission work she wanted to engage in after her decision to leave academia. She wanted to share the light of the Orthodox faith and be inside the world, rather than inside a monastic community. She began her work on online mission, initially on YouTube, where she embraced a “theology with a smile”. Her black religious habit acted as an obstacle so she also used humor, including self-deprecating humor, to be able to come across as more accessible, less severe, and thus build bridges in order to connect with the audiences she wanted to reach and negotiate her unique position in the Orthodox community. Using humor she fashioned a “parody of herself” with her black religious habit, as illustrated in her Orthodox comic strip from a few years ago, The Adventures of Sister V and Crew. Overall, she has received both positive feedback and negative pushback, including the comment that she was “unhinged”; “I am not a door”, she aptly and responded humorously! Sister Vassa is not the only Orthodox liturgiologist, scholar and author to use humor in her online mission work of catechism and religious education through her platform Coffee with Sister Vassa.
So, how does humor about religion fare within Orthodox Christianity? There is no official Orthodox stance or pronouncement on humor and on what constitutes permissible or sanctioned forms of humor, as is also the case in Christianity as a whole. This, however, does not negate the fact that there are Christian views, including presumably some Orthodox assumptions, on what constitutes good, soft, positive or tasteful humor and laughter that “build up,” that “expose cant and hypocricy” (similar to what is called “punching up” humor in humor studies) versus bad, hard, negative or tasteless humor and laughter that “tear down,” that “belittle the marginalized” (“punching down” humor), as articulated by Rev. James Martin, S.J. in his book Between Heaven and Mirth (2011, p. 23). The subversive and transgressive figure and religious archetype of the holy fool (yurodivy or iurodivyi in Russian) in Russian Orthodox Christianity is relevant here. The idea of holly foolishness originates in ancient Eastern Christianity, Byzantium and Medieval Russian Orthodoxy where it survives to this day with contemporary figures of holy fools. In Russian literature, the figures of Bishop Tikhon and Abba Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Demons and Brothers Karamazov seems to represent and capture some key character attributes as the speaker of unwanted insights reminding us that “self-conscious holiness can’t be holiness,” as Rowan Williams aptly shows. The figure of the holy fool pretends publicly to be an unruly stupid and insane fool who crosses the boundaries of social conventions (just as a modern comedian would do today). According to Sergey A. Ivanov’s pioneering volume on the subject, holy fools lead a secular and socially embedded life that appears ordinary and yet they pretend to be insane fools inviting public ridicule. Turning the traditional concept of a saint on its head, behind the apparent foolish madness hide the gifts of humility, revelation, prophecy, allegiance to God and to the truth of the gospel, thus inner sanctity and spiritual insight.
The Question of Blasphemy
Blasphemy is a useful lens through which to examine attitudes towards religious humor. If we look at contemporary Russia the picture that emerges is one of a highly restrictive environment for religious humor and freedom of speech more generally. This is partly due to Russia’s anti-blasphemy laws and legislation making it illegal to insult the religious sensibilities of believers or offend religious institutions, namely the Orthodox Church. Indicative examples include stand-up comedian Alexander Dolgopolov who in 2020 was formally investigated and had to temporarily flee Russia after making jokes about the Virgin Mary and Jesus. There have also been incidents of social media users facing criminal action for religiously themed posts, images and memes that satirize religion and the Orthodox Church. For example, according to a BBC report, Maria Motuznaya, Daniil Markin, and Andrei Shasherin each separately posted several memes and images with religious themes and were subsequently accused and charged of hate speech, insulting believers’ religious feelings and discrediting the Orthodox Church. In 2021, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reportedly stated that: “You can’t joke about what is sacred for the Russian people, you can’t joke about the war, you can’t joke about religion, you can’t joke about—well, about some very, very heroic, but painful pages of our history […] everything else is up for making jokes, but elegant and nice ones,”
The Case of Greece
Against the current situation in Russia and through the blasphemy lens, Greece presents an interesting case. The affair of the Father Pastitsios Facebook page was a turning point in Greece’s blasphemy legal regime which targeted anyone who was critical of the Orthodox Church or of religion in general and placed restrictions on the freedom of expression thus raising concerns over self-censorship. In 2012, Philippos Loizos (at the time, in his late twenties) created a Facebook page that parodied the Greek Orthodox monk Elder or Father Paisios who is revered as a prophet and believed by many Orthodox Greeks to have performed numerous miracles and prophecies; he was canonized as a saint after his death in 1994. Loizos used a play on words to change the monk’s name from Father Paisios to Father Pastitsios the Pastafarian after the popular Greek pasta dish pastitsio. He posted images showing Father Paisios’ face covered in the pasta dish and the pasta-shaped dreadlocked hair of Rastafarians, inspired by Pastafarianism, also known as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Loizos’ aim was to satirize the unquestioning worship of Father Paisios, who, as he claimed, represented anti-western, xenophobic and intolerant ideas and was linked to derogatory statements on women. He also wanted to expose the gullibility of blind faith and worship. Even though the Greek Orthodox Church remained officially silent, several conservative Orthodox groups and individual citizens mounted a public mobilization campaign. Following about 100,000 complaints, Father Pastitsios’ Facebook page was reported to Facebook. An official motion was submitted to the Greek Directorate for the Prosecution of Electronic Crime ordering the suspension of confidentiality in order to obtain from Facebook the details of the owner of the Facebook page. Representatives of the far-right group Golden Dawn also tabled a question in Parliament and Loizos was ordered to suspend the Facebook page which he did. Yet, Loizos was subsequently arrested on the charge of malicious blasphemy and religious offence. He went on trial in January 2014 and was sentenced to four months imprisonment but was acquitted in 2017 after appeal. In this case it was ultra-conservative (far-right) political and Orthodox groups, rather than the Greek Orthodox Church, that mobilized and proclaimed themselves as guardians of Greece’s Orthodox values, pressuring the state to take legal action against the creator of the Pastitsios Facebook page.
Another incident took place in 2013 when Greek artist Dionysis Kavalieratos was charged on blasphemy charges, again. filed by an ultra-conservative Orthodox group whose religious sensibilities were offended by three Christian-themed sketches that were on display in a private Athens art gallery. The artist was acquitted, partly because the exhibition where the offensive cartoons were displayed was a private and not a public space.
As Effie Fokas and Panayote Dimitras (Greek Helsinki Monitor) highlighted, a unique feature in the Loizos case was the application of Greece’s blasphemy law and the fact that the Facebook page creator did not commit an act of blasphemy against Orthodox Christianity or the Greek Orthodox Church and its members. Rather, he satirized and parodied an individual religious figure. The case was important because it helped accelerate the Greek campaign of the international End Blasphemy Laws movement to decriminalize blasphemy and revoke such legislation. In December 2019, as part of an overhaul of Greece’s criminal code, the law on blasphemy (Articles 198 and 199 of the Penal Code) was dropped. The Greek Orthodox Church and public outcries from certain conservative milieus have argued that preserving an amended blasphemy legislation (with a penalty of imprisonment of up to two years for maliciously insulting the Greek Orthodox Church or any other religion) would help safeguard the religious sentiments of believers and help protect the rights of religious minorities in Greece. Although unlikely, it remains to be seen if an amended blasphemy legislation may be introduced at some later stage.
An interesting contrast to the two blasphemy cases mentioned above is the case of humorous cartoons about religion that are regularly published in Greek newspapers even when the blasphemy legislation was still in effect. Greek humor studies researcher Vily Tsakona conducted in 2004-2005 an analysis of 250 religious cartoons, drawn from mainstream newspapers, about religion and the Orthodox Church of Greece, as well as political issues and political figures with explicit religious references. Yet, these cartoons did not provoke any public outcries in the name of blasphemy. As Tsakona argues, “religious cartoons are not by definition considered offensive or blasphemous; their uptake depends on the social context of their production and consumption” (p. 262). Greek cartoons often satirize clerics for their political entanglements and behaviors, politicians for their religious posturing when it suits their political agendas and often ordinary citizens as part of ongoing public discussions about political, social and religious issues. Yet, the cartoonists do not seem to push the boundaries of social and political criticism beyond what is socially permitted. “Cartoonists seem to strike a balance between voicing dissent with authority, respecting norms on the limits of humor and avoiding censorship by the media” (Tsakona 2011, p. 262). Since religion is accepted as part of Greece’s political reality and social fabric, cartoonists do not typically push the boundaries to the point of contesting Orthodoxy as the accepted system of beliefs, practices and moral values. This suggests that the relation between humor, religion and politics, at least for now, seems to be one of symbiosis that reflects the connection and the established norms between the Greek Orthodox Church, state and society. Given the repeal of the blasphemy law in 2019, it remains to be seen whether in the future the boundaries of this symbiotic relationship will be pushed further by cartoonists, other humorists and artists in Greece’s new reality.
Even if the Orthodox Christian faith can appear humorless and the Christian Orthodox world a religious and cultural sphere that is lacking a sense of lightheartedness and humor, the situation on the ground is more nuanced. Humor and its corollaries, including laughter, are present and manifest themselves in different degrees and in various contexts, including especially in the ways Christian Orthodoxy is practiced and lived individually around the world.
Even if there are no official Christian Orthodox pronouncements on permissible types of humor, joking and laughter, the application of anti-blasphemy laws and practices of censorship remain a reality. Yet the situation on the ground is far from uniform, just as there are many different ways in which Orthodox Christians practice and live their religion in Orthodox contexts or among the Orthodox diaspora. Humor practices and humor restrictions vary across Orthodox contexts and nations and depend on different political regimes and legal frameworks, religious sensibilities, and social-cultural norms. Further research in this field can be very promising and yield thought-provoking and fascinating answers on the different ways in which humor and laughter feature in Orthodox Christian practices and mission work.
 According to S. Brent Plate (2006, p. 60) blasphemy is about “impure crossings from one side of the sacred-profane divide to the other; about juxtaposing the sacred and the profane in times and places where they are expected to be kept separate; of twisting the profane so that it appears sacred, or making the sacred appear profane.”
 The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was a parody of religion created in 2005 in protest at the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to require the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in the state’s public schools.
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