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Faith and laughter: Do atheists and practicing Christians have different senses of humor?

  • Bernard Schweizer

    Bernard Schweizer (Ph.D.) is a professor of English at Long Island University (Brooklyn). His research interests include humor studies, heresy studies, travel studies, and gender studies. Dr. Schweizer has published several monographs and edited collections in these fields, including Radicals on the Road (University of Virginia Press, 2001), Survivors in Mexico by Rebecca West (Yale University Press, 2003), and Hating God (Oxford University Press, 2010). In addition, he has authored numerous articles for peer-reviewed periodicals on topics ranging from misotheism to modernism, from exile literature to cultural literacy, from Rebecca West to Graham Greene.

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    and Karl-Heinz Ott

    Karl-Heinz Ott (Dr. sc.) is a biologist specializing in bioinformatics. As a consultant for life science and nutrition research, he applies, designs, and improves experimental and computational methods to enhance the safety and efficacy of drugs and to provide better treatment options for patients. Dr. Ott’s brought his expertise in multivariate statistics, pattern recognition, and data visualization to bear on the survey data obtained for this present study, demonstrating that skills in computational science are transferable across disciplines.

From the journal HUMOR

Abstract

This study analyzes the reactions of practicing Christians and atheists to various kinds of humorous materials. The goal was to determine whether the presence or absence of Christian belief serves as a predictor for humor appreciation, specifically whether practicing Christians appreciate certain types of humor more (or less) than atheists do. Reactions by all study participants to 18 passages presenting various humor styles were dispersed from “not funny at all” to “very funny,” indicating the subjective nature of measuring humor appreciation. The results show almost no correlation between the presence or absence of Christian faith and the degree of humor appreciation. The only notable exceptions are that practicing Christians tend to react less favorably than atheists to the most blasphemous, disparaging kinds of humor, while atheists are somewhat less amused by good-natured religious jokes compared to practicing Christians. All other joke categories were judged similarly in terms of their perceived funniness by members of the two contrasting religious populations. The overriding determiner of funniness was found to be the inherent comical quality of individual jokes as well as, to some degree, the joke category from which humorous passages were drawn, rather than the presence or absence of Christian faith among the joke recipients. This finding contradicts a-priori claims about the supposed negative correlation between sense of humor and religiosity. The study further exemplifies adaptive statistical methods to extract significant trends and tendencies from empirical data obtained through an online survey.

About the authors

Bernard Schweizer

Bernard Schweizer (Ph.D.) is a professor of English at Long Island University (Brooklyn). His research interests include humor studies, heresy studies, travel studies, and gender studies. Dr. Schweizer has published several monographs and edited collections in these fields, including Radicals on the Road (University of Virginia Press, 2001), Survivors in Mexico by Rebecca West (Yale University Press, 2003), and Hating God (Oxford University Press, 2010). In addition, he has authored numerous articles for peer-reviewed periodicals on topics ranging from misotheism to modernism, from exile literature to cultural literacy, from Rebecca West to Graham Greene.

Karl-Heinz Ott

Karl-Heinz Ott (Dr. sc.) is a biologist specializing in bioinformatics. As a consultant for life science and nutrition research, he applies, designs, and improves experimental and computational methods to enhance the safety and efficacy of drugs and to provide better treatment options for patients. Dr. Ott’s brought his expertise in multivariate statistics, pattern recognition, and data visualization to bear on the survey data obtained for this present study, demonstrating that skills in computational science are transferable across disciplines.

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Appendix A: Passages used on the survey

  1. (“Finger Paint”) A Catholic sister is teaching finger painting to her first-grade art class. The sister walks up and down the aisles looking at what each of her students has painted. She stops over the desk of one little boy. “What are you painting, Billy?” Billy looks up and answers, “I’m painting the face of God.” “But that’s impossible,” says the sister. “No one has seen the face of God.” Billy turns back to his drawing and says, “They will in five minutes!” (James Martin, SJ)

  2. (“Jonah”) The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvelous; but it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle if Jonah had swallowed the whale. (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason)

  3. (“Camouflage”) I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day, but I couldn’t find any.

  4. (“Woody Allen”) If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever. (Woody Allen)

  5. (“Nazareth”) The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”…. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45–47)

  6. (“Scoundrel Christ”) [In the garden of Gethsemane,] Jesus went apart a little way and knelt down. “You’re not listening,” he whispered. “I’ve been speaking to you all my life and all I’ve heard back is silence…. God, is there any difference between saying that and saying that you’re not there at all? I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor followers’ eyes: ‘God’s great absence is, of course, the very sign of his presence,’ or some such drivel…. When the fool prays to you and gets no answer, he decides that God’s great absence means he’s not bloody there.” (Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ)

  7. (“Listening”) The priest asked, “So, Kevin, where are you from?” “Boston,” Kevin answered. Then Kevin decided to ask his revered spiritual director an important question: “Father, what would you say is the most important part of spiritual direction?” “That’s easy,” answered the priest, “It’s listening. Listening is the key to being a good spiritual director.” “Thanks, Father. That’s really helpful,” Kevin said. Then the priest asked, “So, Kevin, where are you from?” (James Martin, SJ)

  8. (“Temptation”) I can resist everything except temptation. (Oscar Wilde)

  9. (“Christ not Christian”) If Jesus were alive today, the last thing he’d be is a Christian. (Mark Twain)

  10. (“Eye of the needle”) And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19:24)

  11. (“George Carlin”) You know who I pray to? Joe Pesci. Joe Pesci. Two reasons; first of all, I think he’s a good actor. Ok. To me, that counts. Second; he looks like a guy who can get things done. Joe Pesci doesn’t fuck around. Doesn’t fuck around. In fact, Joe Pesci came through on a couple of things that God was having trouble with. For years I asked God to do something about my noisy neighbor with the barking dog. Joe Pesci straightened that cock-sucker out with one visit. (George Carlin, “You Are All Diseased”)

  12. (“Abraham”) And God said unto Abraham… “I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.” Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?” (Genesis 17:15–17)

  13. (“Corrections”) The Strindberg Room was packed with kibitzers, low-stakes blackjack players, and lovers of the slot. Enid couldn’t remember when she’d had so much fun. The fifth quarter she dropped brought her three plums; as if so much fruit upset the bowels of her machine, specie gushed from its nether parts. She shoveled her take into a plastic bucket. Eleven quarters later it happened again: three cherries, a silver dump. White-haired players losing steadily at neighboring machines gave her dirty looks. I’m embarrassed, she told herself, although she wasn’t. (Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections)

  14. (“Revolt of the angels”) A conversation between a rebellious angel and a Frenchman.

    Angel: “I have been told that you have fallen out with the Judeo-Christian heaven, which is where I came from.”

    “Monsieur,” answered Gaetan, “my faith in Jehovah is not sufficiently strong to enable me to believe in his angels.”

    “Monsieur, he whom you call Jahovah is really a coarse and ignorant demiurge, and his name is Ialdabaoth.”

    “In that case, Monsieur, I am perfectly ready to believe in him. He is a narrow-minded ignoramus, is he? Then belief in his existence offers me no further difficulty. How is he getting on?”

    “Badly! We’re going to lay him low next month.” (Anatole France, The Revolt of the Angels)

  15. (“Heart of Darkness”) He was a lank, bony, yellow-faced man, with big intense eyes. His aspect was worried, and his head was as bald as the palm of my hand; but his hair in falling seemed to have stuck to his chin, and had prospered in the new location, for his beard hung down to his waist. (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)

  16. (“Wonderful bargain”) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills. (Robert Heinlein, Notebooks of Lazarus Long)

  17. (“Self-crucifixion”) [After vainly trying to crucify himself, Yeshua asks for help.] Martin dropped to his knees, positioning a bloody spike between Yeshua’s exposed wristbones. He raised the mallet. He froze. “Look, everybody,” said Yeshua, “the man who would kill God, and he can’t hammer one lousy spike into one crummy rabbi. Do it, sir! Strike while the irony is hot.” (James Morrow, Blameless in Abbadon)

  18. (“No pun in ten did”) There was a man who entered a local paper’s pun contest. He sent in ten different puns, in the hope that at least one of the puns would win. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.

Appendix B: Confounding, bias, and sub-population balancing

The demographic distributions of age groups and education with respect to religion were found to be similar with some small but statistically significant differences. Ath in this study are more likely to have a college degree and fewer graduate degrees, and members of MO are more often holding high school degrees (Table 4). Age groups are similarly represented in each religious group. However, the youngest age group, 10–20 years, had a different religious affiliation distribution than the groups 20–40, 40–60, and >60. Respondents came from the US (119), Europe (47) and other regions (29). No confounding between religion and regional background was observed (pairwise chi-squared p-values are all greater than 0.1).

Table 4:

Distribution of education for the three religious groups and pairwise p-values from a chi-squared test.

Religion versus educationCollege degreeGraduate degreeHigh schoolTotalp-value (chi squared)
Ath19331062AthMO
MO134220750.11
pCr9456600.040.03
Total4112036197
Table 5:

Age distribution for the three religious groups and pairwise p-values from a chi-squared test.

Religion vs. Age10–2020–4040–60Over 60#N/ATotalp-value (chi squared)
Ath82821562AthMO
MO1039215750.85
pCr4311672600.500.50
Total229858172197

To explore any underlying trends and possible confounding, we converted the responses into the funniness score (F-score, see Methods) and used ANOVA analyses to explore whether differences in education or age would affect the response differences between the religious groups. The 18 responses, represented as F-score, from each participant for each question, constitute the participant’s “humor profile” for the different ANOVA analyses.

A repeated-measures ANOVA analysis accounts for individual differences in humor perception of each participant by using the 18 responses of each participant as the “repeated factor” and, grouping all individual participants according to religious subgroup, we did not find a significant difference between any of the religious groups with respect to their answers. Region and age were also not confounded with religion or humor. (Data not shown)

Similarly, using ANOVA models, (which treat the 18 answers as independent variables rather than a “signature” each participant), we find that only one question, (“Woody Allen”), is perceived differently depending on the educational background (Table 6). Education may also somewhat influence how different religious affiliations perceive both “Woody Allen” and “Wonderful Bargain”. A similar analysis reveals that the age group influences how “Abraham” and “Finger paint” are perceived. However, age group did not affect the results from religious grouping, and no other age-group related influence on the result nor on the perception and on the differences in religious self-identification were observed.

Table 6:

P-Values from a 3 way ANOVA analysis for each phrase.

Phrasep-value (Religion)p-value (Education)p-value (Religion * Education)p-value (Ath vs. prC)Ratio (Ath vs. prC)
Woody Allen0.060.000.020.002.25
Wonderful bargain0.100.770.040.002.07
Scoundrel Christ0.000.850.060.002.03
Finger paint0.300.930.750.010.64
Joe Pesci0.260.790.060.021.62
Christ not Christian0.250.630.780.041.69
Eye of a needle0.510.620.500.210.75
Revolt of the Angels0.280.120.240.231.29
Camouflage0.320.270.170.541.14
Self-crucifixion0.540.750.970.551.14
No pun in ten did0.720.770.920.760.94
Temptation0.170.120.850.781.06
Heart of Darkness0.330.810.200.820.95
Nazareth0.730.270.130.841.05
Listening0.520.600.540.870.97
Jonah0.680.660.880.930.98
Abraham0.820.210.890.940.98
Corrections0.410.680.190.981.00

Appendix C: Summary tabulation of joke ratings from all participants, separated for atheists, practicing Christians, and the control group

AllVFFSSHFNFN/A(All)Rank (all)
Joe Pesci437231242343393
Scoundrel Christ6284731533220214
Woody Allen295548352553076
Wonderful bargain235641353932909
Christ not Christian3458442314243027
Revolt of the Angels10364643471523612
Self-crucifixion1632464747924711
Abraham3153428605714918
Temptation51694321943611
Corrections4123934723616516
Heart of Darkness3213735544717015
No pun in ten did286046302943085
Camouflage2350602925102938
Nazareth14264235443621013
Jonah15575037221627910
Listening397046281313462
Eye of a needle8222023616315017
Finger paint23656234943244
4,676
AtheistVFFSSHFNFN/AnS(Ath)Rank (Ath)
Joe Pesci182310833731
Scoundrel Christ51413518723913
Woody Allen1117171253273
Wonderful bargain821121293115
Christ not Christian1416146573115
Revolt of the Angels214121615324012
Self-crucifixion79121415524211
Abraham5116231714217
Temptation2018146133662
Corrections141214191216816
AtheistVFFSSHFNFN/AnS(Ath)Rank (Ath)
Heart of Darkness151313151516915
No pun in ten did9171610913067
Camouflage7132111732899
Nazareth271015161218414
Jonah61613109826110
Listening1120111553273
Eye of a needle2365262012318
Finger paint2172412612908
4,669
Practicing ChristianVFFSSHFNFN/AnS (pCr)Rank (pCr)
Joe Pesci7191151622836
Scoundrel Christ141010221315517
Woody Allen5139151532489
Wonderful bargain510101221223311
Christ not Christian6141585122538
Revolt of the Angels110181016522512
Self-crucifixion39141715223710
Abraham13129112413718
Temptation162013743621
Corrections3157241116316
Heart of Darkness25138151716715
No pun in ten did723991113054
Camouflage9151661132935
Nazareth58145121620213
Jonah322149662827
Listening102516453523
Eye of a needle31086112217014
Finger paint1222159113532
4,420
ControlVFFSSHFNFN/AnS (Others)Rank (MO)
Joe Pesci18301011423553
Scoundrel Christ102416131220914
Woody Allen1325228523364
Wonderful bargain10251911913177
Christ not Christian1428159453325
Revolt of the Angels712161716724112
Self-crucifixion614201617226011
Abraham271113261616416
Temptation1531168413562
ControlVFFSSHFNFN/AnS (Others)Rank (MO)
Corrections81213291316416
Heart of Darkness111114241517215
No pun in ten did12202111923128
Camouflage7222312742979
Nazareth711181516823913
Jonah61923187229110
Listening1825199313571
Eye of a needle39612242115618
Finger paint9262313223286
Published Online: 2016-8-3
Published in Print: 2016-8-1

©2016 by De Gruyter Mouton

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