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What Is Religious Satire?

By Lee Johnson
Updated May 17, 2024
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Religious satire is a form of humor that pokes fun at organized religion, usually with the intent that onlookers change their views about the subject or come to see some larger folly in the belief system being portrayed. It generally uses irony, ridicule, or sarcasm in an attempt to denounce some certain religious practice. Satire is usually considered a literary device, though the meaning of “literary” in this context is usually a bit broader than simply printed books. Some of the most traditional examples occurred in novels and short pamphlets, but the device is common today in films, television programs and nonfiction articles or essays as well. Many popular television shows and films have satirized religion, for instance. In most cases the subject of religion is somewhat sensitive, and even the best intended criticisms of it tend to lead to offense in at least some onlookers. As such, satirists usually need to be prepared for at least some pushback and potentially angered responses — though in many cases this is exactly what they’re hoping to achieve.

Understanding Satire Generally

Satire generally is done in an attempt to expose aspects of a certain topic that are seen by satirists as being foolish or problematic. Almost any facet or institution in human society can be the target, but in most cases the main subject is something that the author or artist sees as problematic. Writers and speakers usually use this device as a way of forcing people to see the perceived foolishness or ridiculousness of something. Jokes that poke fun at religion or mock certain aspects of it aren’t usually considered satire simply by virtue of being humorous. The distinction is nuanced in some cases, but usually comes down to overall intent and larger motivation.

Importance of Intent

In order to qualify as religious satire, a work needs to be primarily intended to denounce, expose, or deride what the satirist sees as foolish or reprehensible in order for people to change their views. Simply striving for a laugh or a knowing smile isn’t usually enough. In this sense, if somebody depicted a religious official as a comical character but didn't intend to make any statement about the religion as a whole, it could not be defined as religious satire. A piece of media only becomes satirical if it makes jokes about an underlying issue with the subject being satirized.

Who Qualifies as a Religious Satirist

In general, only people who have been published or broadcast at some point will be thought of as "satirists." Under the broadest definition, even somebody making a statement in a non-public setting about a virtually irrelevant small aspect of any religion could be classed as a religious satirist. Technically, his or her words or actions would qualify if they used irony, sarcasm, or flat out ridicule to denounce or expose an aspect of religion that the speaker believed to be in some way flawed. Ordinarily, though, the satire will focus on a relatively large aspect of the religion and is often broadcasted or published in the mass media. He goal is usually as much about content as it is about distribution.

Types and Formats

This type of satire can take many different forms, and throughout history it has. Some of the earliest examples targets ancient worship rituals, and were often presented through dramatic reenactments or oral poetry. Written pamphlets and short stories, usually using fictitious names for both the authors and the characters, have also been popular. Most modern satire plays on tenets of the world’s dominant religions, but this isn’t a requirement. As long as the subject is a legitimate religious belief and the intent is to expose something the speaker sees as foolish about it, it can qualify.

Likelihood of Offense

On some level all forms of satire are intended to get reactions out of people and to incite change, but the emotional response is often the highest when religion is the subject. Religion tends to be a sensitive subject and people who are firm adherents of a faith often see attacks on core tenets as deeply personal. Some people have been threatened or even killed for their role in religious satire. On the other hand, satire can bring attention to flawed or damaging practices, bringing about change or improvement. It can be means to opening dialogue between people of differing beliefs, but artists need to be careful to strike the right balance.

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Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Nov 16, 2013

@burcinc-- I agree with you. I think that religious satire actually encourages society to discuss religion in a more friendly way. Humor is a great way to distance ourselves from our biases.

By burcinc — On Nov 15, 2013

@ddljohn-- Don't take religious satire so seriously. It's true that religious satire aims to expose something that doesn't make a lot of sense. But I don't think that the intention is to offend or insult anyone.

Have you seen some of the Simpson's episodes like "Homer the Heretic," or "Lisa the Skeptic?" The former is about Homer not wanting to go to church on Sunday and starting his own religion. And the latter is about Lisa finding a skeleton with wings during an archaeological dig and trying to prove to the town that angels don't exist. Both episodes are examples of religious satire and I don't think that either are offensive.

The whole point of these episodes is to show different opinions about common religious beliefs and how certain beliefs can be illogical or undesirable. I think we need to stop taking religious satire so personally and try to understand the underlying message instead.

By ddljohn — On Nov 15, 2013

I'm one of those people who find religious satire offensive. I would never threaten someone for writing religious satire, but I won't read it either.

I think that religion is a very sensitive subject. I actually enjoy social and political satire a lot. But I'm not okay with religious satire. I don't deny that there can be parts of a faith that don't make a lot of sense to other people. But when someone is part of a religion, it's very personal and important for them to believe in it and follow its practices. That's why I would prefer it if people didn't use religious faith in satirical works.

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