Humor and atheists

A paper presented at a conference looked at the emergence of the New Atheist movement and argued that it has used humor quite effectively in creating its public image, and that humor is in general quite effective in creating greater acceptance of marginalized groups.

In “How Humor Matters in Social Movements: Insights from the New Atheist Movement,” the researchers noted that the movement “represents a break from secular politics with its emphasis on coming out as atheist, generating atheist pride, and promoting activism by atheists to achieve diverse goals. Although the movement disavows proselytizing, it seeks to promote critical thinking and scientific reasoning, and routinely challenges the tenets of religious faith.”

Guenther, the lead author of the paper, and her co-authors found that humor is important to the New Atheist Movement in several ways:

  • It creates an opportunity to build a sense of collective identity among diverse participants.
  • It breaks the ice and relaxes people, which can be especially beneficial for newcomers.
  • It is a central part of the movement’s identify, and to atheistic identity more generally.

“To be an atheist is to be funny,” Guenther wrote, and is used frequently to highlight atheistic beliefs and establish boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

In a different paper, Guenther argues that atheists have also tried to combat the popular perception that they are a harmful presence in society.

In that paper, “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate Themselves from Religious Believers,” the sociologist found that atheists view religious believers as misguided, foolish, and even dangerous, in contrast to their understanding of religious non-believers as intelligent, thoughtful, and beneficial to society.

“In this way, atheists challenge dominant conceptualizations of atheists as immoral heathens and assert that atheists have value as people and as citizens,” she explained.

Since humor is at root iconoclastic, it makes sense that it would be use more, and more effectively, by nonbelievers than by believers.


  1. cosmicrays says

    > Since humor is at root iconoclastic, it makes sense that it would be use more, and more effectively, by nonbelievers than by believers.

    Said no Jewish comedian ever.

    I hope your blog post made you happy, Mano, because really, it is at its root othering dehumanizing phrenology.

    It’s tripe along the lines of any research that claims to find why conservative brains are scaredy cats, etc.

  2. mnb0 says

    MS, perhaps you should read a few things written by Bertrand Russell. He was way more funny than most New Atheists. If you ever learn to read Dutch you should try Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis. My favourite quote: “to derive a divine world from the concrete world requires a salto mortale.” More than 100 years old, so no copyrights.

  3. Mano Singham says


    I actually have read a lot of Russell. But this paper was about New Atheists.

  4. says

    I must have missed the part where the Prof said “no religious people could possibly be funny”. If anything, the fact that Jewish people – products of literally centuries of oppression – are known for being funny reinforces his final sentence.

    That presumes that the best humour is found in ‘punching up’, made by the less powerful about the more powerful. Of course, the more powerful tend to prefer the other kind (cf. Andrew Dice Clay, almost every standup TV show ever).

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