Emo Philips’ 1985 comedy album E=mo2 features a famous joke about meeting a guy on a bridge. He shares that joke in this 1987 comedy performance:
In 2005 Philips’ joke was voted the best religious joke ever.
The only problem is that in my view the joke isn’t really about religion per se. Rather, it is about the social dynamics of fundamentalism and ingroup / outgroup identity. And neither of those topics is limited to religion.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the same basic joke tweaked for a different context:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “I have no reason to live.” I said, “Sure you do. Do you believe in science?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you an atheist or an agnostic?” He said, “An atheist.” I said, “Me, too! Soft atheist or hard atheist?” He said, “hard.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “naturalist.” I said, “Me, too! Reductive naturalist or non-reductive naturalist?” He said, “Reductive naturalist.” I said, “Me, too! Nihilistic reductive naturalist or non-nihilistic reductive naturalist?”
He said, “Nihilistic reductive naturalist!” I said, “Well then you have no reason to live anyway!” And I pushed him over.
Okay, so Philips’ joke can readily be translated for other groups, including atheists. But why does it matter?
Simple, pointing out that the joke is not limited in application to one group frustrates attempts to use the joke to reinforce chosen ingroup/outgroup distinctions. (E.g. “The religious folk are so close-minded. But we’re so generous and open-minded!”)
It also opens up untold new fields to which one can unleash an incisive and clever piece of humor cum social analysis. And that in itself is a good thing.
Finally, you’re more apt to think when you realize that you too could be the punchline. And while laughter is great, laughter plus thinking is even better.