Dramatis persona*

helenhead Helen Chick

I've always wanted a bumper sticker that said "I'm a female, LDS/Mormon, Scout leading, geocaching, piano-playing, bicycling, mathematics educator with a PhD in maths ... and I VOTE"!

I think this makes me a minority group of cardinality 1!

* Since there's only one of me and "personae" is plural (I think), I've gone with dramatis persona.
January 2021
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Humour and religion (oh, and some maths as well!)

Disclaimers: I have already freely acknowledged on this website that I am a Mormon (member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). I think (hope) it is also evident from my posts that I have a sense of humour, although there are some types of humour I try to avoid. Your mileage may vary wildly with respect to this post, including that you may find it amusing when I actually intend much of it to be relatively serious!

A friend of mine, who happens to be a female minister in the Uniting Church, recently posted on facebook about having two Mormon missionaries knock on her door and how they had been somewhat dumbstruck (not in the Biblical literal sense!) and had backpedalled rather rapidly when she said she was a minister.

I was amused on reading this: I could imagine my inimitable friend, her encounter with some fresh-faced faithful enthusiasts who were male and patriarchally oriented, and their naive double-take to her response. I think it’s a funny story.

However, I was reminded about another story I once heard, about a person who had served “hash cookies” to a Mormon, knowing that Mormons don’t “do” drugs (including tea, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, harder stuff … with the exception of chocolate!).

I remember being surprised that people found this second story funny, because I didn’t and still don’t.

On realising this, I had to ask myself if I suddenly became humour-challenged between the first story above and the second. What is it about the second story that makes it unfunny to me?

I am going to investigate this by doing some logico-mathematical humour analysis. There is a proof technique in mathematics called “proof by contradiction” in which you assume the opposite of what you are trying to prove, and see what happens. In mathematics, the “what happens” is usually something that is impossible, and so you are forced to conclude that your “opposite” assumption was wrong. Here, things might not work exactly like that, but let’s see how it goes.

So, I will assume, in fact, that the second story is funny. Let’s also pare the story to the bare bones, and drop the specifics: essentially the story’s structure is “make somebody do something ‘wrong’ without him/her knowing”.

This means that there are numerous isomorphic versions of the story (remember “isomorphic” means “has the same shape”). These might be “Let’s feed a Jew a bacon buttie”, “Let’s put the clock forward on one day of Ramadan so all those Muslims break their fast early”, “Let’s slip some chicken into the vegetarian’s tofu sausage”, “Let’s spike the drink of our on-the-wagon friend”, etc, etc.

Since these are isomorphic to the original hash cookie story, which we’ve assumed to be funny, then these must be funny too. Well, are they? Are only some of them?

Assuming that at least some of them are funny to you (noting that, in mathematics, we have to be really careful about making assumptions in the middle of a proof!), is it only because they refer to someone who is “other” than you, so that the joke relies on “laughing at the ‘other'”. (It is important to realise that the otherness of the “somebody” in the second story is defined by the fact that he/she belongs to some group for which “wrong” activities can be identified). If so, then this certainly explains why I didn’t find the hash cookie story amusing, because I am in the “other” group.

However, I still find all of them unamusing, so for me, the unfunniness is not to do with my own categories of “otherness” … at least, not in this collection of isomorphic versions.

In fact, I think my problem arises because in all the isomorphic versions the victim β€” the “someone” who is made to do something “wrong” in ignorance β€” is unlikely to find the prank amusing because the thing that is “wrong” is a principle that is deeply important to them. This means that there is cruelty rather than generosity in the humour of the situation: not all involved can enjoy the joke. In contrast, in the first story I told, I can imagine both my minister friend and the Mormon missionaries having a good laugh about what happened, and even a good laugh together if the missionaries didn’t run away too far too fast!

Having unravelled my reactions to the two stories, I still have some questions for my sense of humour, though.

  • Is there an isomorphic version of the second story that I do find amusing? If not, is it just that, in general, I object to any sort of “laughing at the ‘other'” story? (I long ago decided that sticking “kick me” on the back of some poor unsuspecting soul is childish and not funny.) If there is such a humorous version of the story, why do I find it amusing? (What “others” and “wrongs” are funny to me? If there is a version that makes me laugh, is it because I do have a secret mean streak that allows me to laugh at certain victims or is there a completely different reason for why it’s funny?)
  • Are there isomorphic versions of the second story (perceived to be funny by some audience) with the someone coming from some more “mainstream”/”non-other” group (e.g., what’s the version of the second story when the “someone” is, say, an Anglican?)

Comments welcome, but please keep them G-rated. πŸ™‚

[I can’t help feeling that this post is going to bring in a whole new variety of spam comments from the spambots out there β€” most likely in the “not funny” category β€” which, for better or worse, you probably won’t get to see … unless they happen to be spectacularly witty.]

5 comments to Humour and religion (oh, and some maths as well!)

  • Dan

    It’s not particularly funny.

    However the intended humour lies in the fact that it is the individual taking revenge against the seriously irritating practice of knocking on peoples doors and trying to convert them. It’s a revenge thing.

    And all humor is cruel I would argue.

    • Helen

      Is there irony β€” for you, me, or even both of us β€” in the fact that your comment arrived in my spam?!
      (I think I’ve worked out why and hope I have fixed it.)

  • Fascinating….

    While getting lost in the maths (!!) I do agree that humour that comes from a certain maliciousness isn’t true humour. It is one group laughing at the misfortune of another, or by how they can be ‘fooled’.

    Interestingly we looked at this issue similarly on Sunday as our church talked about ‘blasphemy’, and how it is at core the attack on someone’s core values (which aren’t always religous). An example given was a case where a fast food chain had accidentally created a logo which looked the word for God in Arabic. It caused outrage and was immediately removed… Yet constantly as a Christian community our values and core beliefs are ridiculed regularly, and seen as fair game for humour. (and I dare say Mormons would have even more of their values ridiculed as in the case you mention). How come this is acceptable when for other faiths such as Islam or Judaism it is not? Or even to blaspheme against some of the core cultural values we might have (whatever they are…..).

  • LindaF

    This is all far too deep for a Friday evening! I think it’s duplicity – and the intent – that makes the second examples deeply unfunny. One person is deliberately deceiving another. True humour lies in shared wit, clever irony and affectionate appreciation of human foibles and life’s difficulties. Oh, I need more wine to sound more coherent!

  • Not funny in the abstract and appalling in practice.

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