Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert— religious, atheist, or a-religious humor?

One thing I’ve liked about The Colbert Report (remember not to pronounce the t’s in your head!) The Daily Show and is that they fairly often bring up religion, nearly always poking fun at it. When I was still not-a-Christian-but-still-not-a-full-blown-atheist-yet, "This Week in God " (here’s another one that I hadn’t seen) in particularly made me feel like it was okay to make fun of religion — that it wasn’t off-limits to criticize the stranger parts of religions and the actions of their adherents.

So I’ve often wondered, what do Stewart and Colbert really think about religion? Not what they think will be a good punchline for a joke, but their actual beliefs? Are they trying to get people to question religion, or at least the more dogmatic aspects of it? I used to think they were atheists or agnostics but just didn’t want to come out and say so (and risk offending certain segments of their audience). But through the years, more clues have surfaced.

I no longer watch each show "religiously" as I used to (I used to participate in Colbert Nation’s forums on a daily basis), but still catch them from time to time. And one show I caught was when Jon Stewart interviewed former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor .

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In terms of this post, the key part of what Stewart says takes up from a line that Sandra Day O’Connor had mentioned earlier in the interview. Jon Stewart says

As a secular, godless humanist, I think, myself […] I’m an activist host […]

I think the second part is meant as a joke, but the first part doesn’t seem like it to me.

On the blog Unreasonable Faith was a post about a just-published interview with Jon Stewart in the religious magazine Sojourners (free registration required to view article) in which Stewart talks about his views on religion. A few quotes:

It may be true that the Hebrew prophets used humor […] to create social change, but it was also used by Borscht Belt social directors. We’ve got a lot more in common with them than the prophets. […] Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit.  […] People have always said to us, “You want it both ways; you want to be taken seriously but then not.” And I always say, “When do we want to be taken seriously? We’re just doing our show.”

So I think that answers part of my question: at least as Stewart is concerned, he’s not trying to get on a soapbox (although in some episodes, it seems he might on politics at least) but just saying what they think about current events, in a (hopefully) funny and interesting way obviously.

About religion specifically, Stewart said:

I have trouble with dogma more than I have trouble with religion. I think the best thing religion does is give people a sense of place, purpose, and compassion. My quibble with it is when it’s described as the only way to have those things instilled. You can be moral and not be religious, you can be compassionate, you can be empathetic—you can have all those wonderful qualities. When it begins to be judged as purely based on religion, then you’re suggesting a world where Star Jones goes to heaven but Gandhi doesn’t. […] When people say things like, “I found God and that helped me stop drinking,” I say, “Great! More power to you. Just know that some people stop drinking without it.”

So to me, it sounds like Stewart is personally agnostic or an atheist, but it’s not something that he wants to get on a soapbox about. If religion works for you, fine, but it’s not the only choice out there. To a large extent, I agree with this sentiment. But, at the same time, there are a lot of people who believe their Holy Book (Bible, Quran, or whatever) is 100% God’s truth and must be followed.

Most people who’d be likely to view The Daily Show probably already aren’t die-hard fundamenalists/orthodox followers of their religion, but maybe it does have an effect on the people who are less religious and don’t normally think about such things. But whether they’re trying to do so or not, Stewart’s show does a good job I think at showing people that religion has some crazy, and sometimes harmful, ideas in it.  It’s something you don’t come across very often in the mainstream media, and it’s definitely refreshing.

Colbert is a more complex situation, and this post is already plenty long. I’ll revisit him sometime soon (spoiler alert: "word" has it he’s a Sunday School teacher!).