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Hi Jayson,
I was reading your post about atheists today, and you seemed like you’d get a question I’ve been struggling with. Is salvation ever a laughing matter? To explain: we have a neighbour who is a self-proclaimed atheist (maybe there’s no other kind). He’s an awesome guy, rough-edged but a great person. Recently a tweet of his got tagged by some Christian twitter account, and he tweeted about how ironic that was, him being an atheist. So I sent him a meme with a picture of Jesus saying “I’M SMILING, BUT THIS IS AWKWARD.” His reply was that he almost peed his pants laughing (so I guess my work was done…).

The next time I saw him outside I called out to him jokingly “A-the-ist!” and we laughed about it all over again. But afterward I had a stabbing sense of guilt that you should never laugh about someone’s spiritual state in this way. Things like “what if he died tonight” and “you’re the only gospel some people will ever hear” and “what would the apostle Paul do” came to mind. It was like, “this is life & death and you’re laughing about it!!!!” What do you think about humour in a context like this? Am I overthinking it? Underthinking it?

Thanks!
Only Kidding

Kidding,

I have to admit that I laughed when I read your question. “Self-proclaimed” is such a funny adjective for an atheist and it tickled my funny bone. I mean, who else would proclaim someone an atheist? Is there a board that would give them the official title of “Atheist” after they’ve submitted valid enough arguments against theism? Does it require a royal to knight them? Anyway . . . it made me smile—I’m glad you noticed it, too!

I have so many atheist friends who I love and appreciate, and I’d say that 90% of those friendships have been purchased using humor as currency. Like you, each of those relationships have started with an invisible wall. That wall represents all of the stereotypes they have about me and all the generalizations I assign to them. The best thing one can do is simply acknowledge the wall exists, and a joke is a great way to do that.

With a couple jokes, you told your neighbor that:

  • You recognized the wall between the two of you
  • You could still be friendly in spite of it
  • You accepted him for who he was
  • You weren’t too stuffy to see the humor in the situation

If these issues you brought up were to delicate and serious for you to laugh at, you would have missed out on the opportunity build a rapport with him. In my opinion, this is a bigger crime than laughing about spiritual issues. Maybe your whole purpose as his neighbor is to tear down some of the clichés he has about Christians. I promise that, in this day and age, that’s a noble and worthwhile calling.

In some of my relationships with atheists, I find myself laughing at some pretty pointed stuff about Christianity (and my own intelligence). When I start getting defensive or frustrated, I need to remind myself that Jesus is a big boy who doesn’t need me to defend him. And while I don’t think of my relationships with my atheist friends as a “project” that will ultimately lead to their salvation, I do think their life is richer with me in it BECAUSE I AM A FRIGGEN SNOWFLAKE—and because maybe I can soften some of the jagged edges they’ve experienced with other Christians.

As for whether you should be making jokes about their spiritual state because “what if they died tonight,” relax. He calls himself an atheist. . . you didn’t make him an atheist or assign him the title. It’s self-proclaimed!

It’s no different than if you were standing behind him at a grocery store register, and as he’s putting his stuff on the conveyor you joke about the huge butcher knife he’s buying. If he trips on that knife in the parking lot, it’s not your fault because you made light of it. I get that you’re concerned about his spiritual state, but I assure you that you’re a lot closer to having a comfortable, meaningful dialogue since you made some jokes than you were before.

The only time I would question your use of humor is when it is building bigger walls than it’s tearing down. If you’re telling jokes that are intended to belittle your neighbor and his values, then yeah, you’re out of bounds. But you’re not doing any real damage to him or yourself by enjoying a jocular moment.

This isn’t limited to people with differing philosophies about God’s existence. Comedy can be a wonderful way to build bridges with people with whom you might not be able to find any common ground. A well-placed joke is an incantation that can disarm the most contentious relationship—and any spirit that would tell you otherwise isn’t God . . .

Humor is one of life’s most helpful tonics. I personally think we should drink it by the carafe.

Have a question you’d like me to address? Hit me up on my contact page!