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Sardonic Atheists and Silly Evangelicals: the Relationship between Self-Concept and Humor Style


Humor is widely used as a means of supporting group solidarity, but what determines the direction that this humor takes (i.e. its quality and targets)? I suggest that the answer lies in an interaction between self-concept, perceptions of outgroups and micro group culture. Aspects of self-concept that are central for a group’s identity work, especially how the group imagines outsiders, open possibilities for certain types of humor while closing off others. Then micro-cultural processes, heavily dependent on the exact persons present in a given interaction, influence the humorous forms used. This process explains why groups in roughly similar structural positions often make use of humor to generate solidarity in strikingly different ways, as well as why styles of humor vary, within limits, within groups. I provide illustrations of this process in two religious minority groups with very different humorous styles: atheists in the Bible Belt and evangelical Christians in Chicago.

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  1. 1.

    These theories stem from a stated desire to explore the relation between individual humor styles and common psychometric measures of individual well-being. Other scholars have questioned this framework and the instruments used to measure it (Heintz and Ruch 2015).

  2. 2.

    The names of all organizations and individuals are pseudonyms.

  3. 3.

    Recent estimates of the proportion of evangelicals in the Chicago area range from 8% (Grammich et al. 2012) to 16% (Pew Research Center 2015) of the total population. While county and metropolitan level measures of atheist populations unfortunately do not exist, the best state level approximation estimates that roughly 4% of Oklahomans self-identify as atheists (Pew Research Center 2015), and there is no evidence to suggest that the proportion of atheists in the area studied varies dramatically from this assessment.

  4. 4.

    It is common to have visitors in evangelical spaces (an example of which is described below), adding to the inherent ambiguities between insider and outsider status (Naples 1996). Nothing I observed indicated that people were significantly adjusting their humor styles because of my presence. I also did not notice any interactional markers indicating suppressed behaviors relating to humor (e.g. meaningful eye contact between insiders, suppressed laughter, apologies for inappropriate jokes, etc.).

  5. 5.

    Members of this congregation fit the most common theological and social science definitions of evangelicals (e.g. Balmer 1989; Bebbington 1989; Larsen 2007; Lindsay 2007). Lake Church is comprised of theologically conservative protestant Christians who emphasize the Bible, pursue an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ, believe that salvation is attained only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, attempt to convince others of their perspective, and have often had a personal conversion experience. Lake Church also has an extremely loose affiliation with a historically Baptist denomination that is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, but the connection is not advertised and many members are unaware of it. For most practical purposes, the church is evangelical non-denominational. There is, of course, wide variation in belief, practice and culture within the larger American evangelical community (Balmer 1989; Woodberry and Smith 1998) and that diversity is reflected in this study.

  6. 6.

    I distinguish in my writing between reported speech from fieldnotes and speech transcribed from recorded interviews. Text within double quotation marks designates exact quotations from conversations where the audio was recorded, with only minor revisions to facilitate ease of reading. Text within single quotation marks is used for reported speech from ethnographic fieldnotes.

  7. 7.

    Spiritual gifts are miraculous abilities believed to be given to some Christians (e.g. healing, glossolalia, prophesy, leadership, etc.).

  8. 8.

    This online free listing task was based on a convenience sample (N = 84) of people who visit the Prairie Atheists hidden social media page. In the task people were asked, “What words best describe x? Please list as many as you can,” where “x” was “religion,” “atheism,” “spirituality,” and “Christianity.”

  9. 9.

    “Fundy” is a pejorative term for a Christian fundamentalist.


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I would like to thank Nidia Banuelos, Courtney Bender, Michaela DeSoucey, Jan Doering, Alessandra Lembo, John Levi Martin, those present at my 2014 American Sociological Association presentation, and three anonymous reviewers from Qualitative Sociology for their very helpful feedback. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (Award number SES-1333672).

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Correspondence to Rick Moore.

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Moore, R. Sardonic Atheists and Silly Evangelicals: the Relationship between Self-Concept and Humor Style. Qual Sociol 40, 447–465 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-017-9364-9

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  • Humor
  • Self-concept
  • Interaction
  • Atheism
  • Religion
  • Evangelicalism