Consider this answer:

What is the pejorative for people who only practice their faith while at the place of worship?

Whited sepulchres. This is what they are called in that noted work of fiction " The Bible", King James' Version.

Is this joke OK? If not, what should be done about it? Should it be flagged, edited, commented on, ignored?

I ask because I heard someone question this joke. I believe he has flagged it.

  • 6
    I did flag the joke and have posted my thoughts in an answer below.
    – MrHen
    Commented Mar 31, 2011 at 18:29
  • 18
    The joke is sarcastic and childish, and I say that as an atheist. It comes across as someone deliberately trying to offend or shock (which is why it's childish). Best lose it altogether, if you ask me. Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 15:49
  • As the asker of the question, I didn't particularly feel that was meant as a joke, but was intended as a canonical reference to the term denoting the persons I was asking about. It was not, however, denotative of the persons I was asking about.
    – mfg
    Commented May 3, 2012 at 17:10
  • 7
    "[T]hat noted work of fiction" is simply a gratuitous personal judgment that is unrelated to the question and the answer. Because it's gratuitous, it doesn't belong in the answer, even if the writer knows that everyone who reads it agrees with it. Gratuitous remarks, whatever their content, are inherently bad style and, in my opinion, should be avoided. Does anyone care that the author of this answer considers the Bible a work of fiction? Does it change the fact that the Bible says "whited sepulchres"? No and no are my answers. I don't think that the statement is a joke: it's not funny.
    – user21497
    Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 2:53
  • "mfg" That's pretty much the problem with the world today [Yes, grand over-generalization but hey I am God, woops, doing it already]. Although you didn't mean it as a joke and you didn't mean it to be denotative, it's how it is or can be read by others that determines that. Casual language can be incredibly demeaning to others, regardless of whether the original user "meant" anything by it. Words count. The actual words count a lot. Commented Jun 4, 2012 at 17:35
  • @MichaelDurrant: So you are saying we shouldn't take the subjective experience of individual persons into account too much when determining whether something is too offensive for print? Then I agree. Commented Jun 4, 2012 at 17:54
  • 2
    Maybe I'm childish, but I love it. I mean if an Atheist can't get a jab in once in a while, what's the purpose of even having a sense of humor? Hell, why don't we just outlaw joking as the next step to implementing the New Communist Era?
    – user19589
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 21:20
  • I don't see where the joke is. Is there any evidence to contradict this "joke"? Seems like an exceptionally objective statement to me, involving absolutely no "belief" whatsoever. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 22:43
  • 1
    @Aerovistae: The joke is that it casually dismisses any truth claims one could make based on the Bible as "obviously" not true. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 22:54
  • I don't mean to make an obviously off-topic debate out of this, but I just wanted to point out that if we're really being objective, such truth claims would by necessity have to be casually dismissed as not objective. Looking at it from a neutral standpoint, the Bible is indeed fiction. Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 0:40
  • 2
    @Aerovistae: Well, it is used by historians as a source of real data. In that sense it is not fiction. As to its mythical elements, "fiction" means "obviously not fact, made-up on purpose", and that is a caricature. Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 3:08

12 Answers 12


On the one hand, I guess I agree that if a significant number of readers find something offensive (whatever their reasons), and if as in this case it isn’t specifically needed for the sake of the discussion at hand, then it should probably be removed in the name of politeness.

But on the other, I would urge readers to try not to be offended by something like this!

When I hear other people making fun of beliefs that are important to me, I may argue back and defend my position; I may turn aside and mock their position in turn; I may just bite my tongue and shrug it off; I may even realise that they have a point, and that some things I believe actually can look a bit silly from another point of view! But as long as it isn’t causing anyone substantive harm, then as far as I’m concerned, they should be allowed to say it.

(Sometimes, offense can itself arguably be substantive harm — if eg it perpetuates prejudice towards groups who still do suffer consistently from discrimination. But I don’t think that argument can be made in this case.)

  • 4
    This. Couldn't agree more. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 12:17
  • 2
    I don't understand how we are supposed to measure something causing anyone substantive harm. Religion is a hot button. It always has been. If anything should get culled because of people being offended, why wouldn't this?
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 12:59
  • 9
    @MrHen: As I say at the beginning, I’m reasonably happy for that particular comment to be culled just for offensiveness, since it’s not particularly witty or relevant to the discussion. But if it were more relevant, then I don‘t think “people are offended” would alone be enough of a reason to take things down — it would depend on why people were offended. Racism is considered offensive, because it’s genuinely harmful; and the harm, not the offence, is the big reason to be strict about it. Swearing offends many people, but doesn’t really hurt anyone — so as other discussions here [cont’d]
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 18:07
  • 2
    [cont’d] have generally agreed, swear-words should be allowed, at least as part of a positive contribution to the discussion. Religion is certainly a hot button for offending people — but quite often, as in this case, the offense is (as far as I can see) more like swearing than like racism: no-one is actually being harmed by it.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 18:16
  • @PLL: Ah, okay. Thank you for the clarification. I agree regarding the difference between religion/race.
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 18:33
  • 2
    This is a non-argument based on undisclosed hypothetical situations. If this was a student's abrasive answer to a question in class, then that's one thing, if this was a printed as an answer to a question of a serious reference work, then that's quite another. The biggest problem, however, is your decision that this mocking isn't going to cause someone else substantive harm. As the perpetrator, you don't get to decide how much harm is going to be inflicted. Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 15:55
  • 4
    Your counter-argument that "swearing offends many people, but doesn't really hurt anyone" is irrelevant. This comment is not a random swear-word, it's a deliberate attempt at mocking someone else's beliefs. There is a target, and the joke is designed to make fun of them. Surely you can see the difference between a random swear word and directed insult? Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 16:01
  • I should also add that your response doesn't actually answer the original question. Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 16:03
  • 1
    @Django: my first paragraph addresses the original question; the rest discusses how other similar situations should be addressed, which I think is quite usual on meta. // Yes, I certainly agree there’s a difference between insult and swearing; I didn’t mean to suggest they were the same. What I said was that “often, as in this case, the offense is […] more like swearing than like racism”. I wasn’t suggesting a one-size-fits-all answer to whether religious rudeness should be unacceptable; I was trying to explain by analogy why I feel that in this case, it wasn’t so harmful. [cont’d]
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 16:34
  • Yes, the criterion of “substantive harm” is subjective, and it’s certainly problematic who should get to judge it. I don’t mean to suggest that the perpetrator should be able to unilaterally say “This is harmless; leave it up!” But conversely, someone saying “It offends me; take it down!” should also have to back up their case a bit. On a site like this, the community consensus (hopefully reflected by mods) is how criteria will be judged; and I’m suggesting that the criterion the community uses is something like “What harm is it actually causing?”. [cont’d]
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 16:41
  • // I’m not sure what your point is about this not being fit to print in a serious reference work, by the way. Yes, answers on the main site should be aiming for something like that goal. But meta, as I understand it, is for discussing and working out how to do things on the main site — a different goal. // Also, I do agree with you (as a fellow atheist) that in this specific case the joke was a rather crude attempt to shock, and not particularly clever, funny, or relevant.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 16:45
  • Yes, you make many good points. For a start, you do address the main point in your first paragraph. Secondly, you're right, this is a question about the main site. Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 16:51
  • @Django — oh, sorry, I had misunderstood your first point about “fit to print”: I thought you were talking about my post here in that sentence, not about the original comment. That makes more sense now! Yes, that’s a fair point then.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 16:56
  1. This joke is not particularly funny.

  2. It's a distraction from the answer.

  3. It's a religious joke, so it will offend some, rightly or not.

Therefore it is a net negative in my opinion.

  • 35
    I don't think religious beliefs deserve more respect than something else. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 16:11
  • 12
    1. It's irrelevant whether any particular reader thinks it's funny or not - providing at least some do, it's a joke. 2. It's not really distracting if it's just a short throwaway comment, and it may indeed inspire trains of thought that lead others to come up with real answers. 3. People can be offended by practically anything, so please let's not make religion a special case. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 18:56
  • 18
    @fumblefingers never discuss Religion or Politics at the dinner table. I think it's a good rule of thumb. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 22:58
  • 5
    @Jeff Atwood: I can't really disagree with that (though I'd like to). But I don't think we're talking about discussing religion or politics (your capitalisation, not mine). Anything like that would obviously be way off-topic here. We're just talking about whether the site should actively militate against even minor wisecracks and asides touching on these subjects. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 23:29
  • 15
    @fumble I'd be more open to defending it if it was a) funny EVEN A LITTLE and b) not on a taboo / contentious topic. It added nothing but angst to the question. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 23:31
  • 11
    @fumble: I would also be defending it strongly if had anything much going for it. But the consensus is that the anti-bible crack added very little to the discussion, in either humour or information; so while I think offending people (with religion or anything else) is a pretty small negative in itself, I can’t see as the wisecrack had enough positives to outweigh it.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 2, 2011 at 2:46
  • 1
    Never discuss religion, politics, money, or class at the dinner table: an excellent rule. However, my question was not so much "what do we think of this?", but rather, practically, "what should we do when we see this?". Commented Apr 2, 2011 at 3:24
  • 2
    @cerb I'd edit it out if it got flagged, and leave it if it did not. Anything not of genuine value that generates work for me, or other moderators, is not worth the effort. Commented Apr 2, 2011 at 5:37
  • 4
    I agree with Jeff's "on balance" approach. Incidents like this benefit from a case-by-case approach rather than an unbending totalitarian rule.
    – nohat Mod
    Commented Apr 2, 2011 at 17:19
  • I totally agree with what looks like the eventual ...leave it if not position. If it becomes distracting, get rid of it. Otherwise, unless it's in a query you think might be frequently referenced in future, just ignore it. Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 1:01
  • 1
    btw - I certainly don't think the cited example was a good post. It was dorky and potentially offensive, and I'd prefer it hadn't been made at all. I only meant to opine on how strongly to push against 'undesirable' posts, with special focus on the problems of defining certain types of 'undesirability' that go beyond the basic concept of off-topicism as defined here. Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 1:09

Of note, we were discussing this in chat at the time I flagged the answer.

My opinion is multi-part: I don't see a reason to allow any trolling or flamebait answers. It doesn't matter if the answer is only slightly trollish or hateful or inflammatory. These things are not necessary to discuss English and its usage.

I also don't think jokes are something that should be given a pass on any of the other rules on the site. An inappropriate joke is still inappropriate and should be removed. An off-topic joke is still off-topic and should be removed. Leeway for things not causing problems are fine or jokes that are on-topic or part of a larger answer are fine.

In regards to this particular instance, the joke is not innocent in the sense that it will not offend anyone. Taking a dig at a particular religion should be considered reasonably offensive and action should be taken. In this case, the joke was not tasteful or purely humorous. It was a callout against all people who consider the Holy Bible non-fiction. In addition, it had absolutely no relevance to the topic on hand.

My initial decision was to edit the joke out and leave the answer alone. Cerberus rejected the edit and the conversation linked above ensued.

  • 3
    I agree with MrHen: this should be edited out (in fact, I was about to do it, and checked on meta first, where I found this thread)
    – F'x
    Commented Mar 31, 2011 at 20:28

I guess this is entirely down to personal taste, but people should probably not be subject to discriminatory or sarcastic answers to legitimate questions. Essentially it just adds to the level of noise, and in this particular instance, is likely to cause offence.

I think the original question has put the emphasis on the wrong thing, essentially asking how "offensive" is someone allowed to be. Really the question should be along the lines of how much noise is preferable in questions and answers.

I think most people would agree that clear, straight-forward answers are preferable.


On a general note, I have noticed several times that there are a few people in this community who know what's right and what's wrong and who are determined if not to foster the former at least to extirpate the latter.

EL&U is not a technical forum. Many people unavoidably sport many opinions. Even in technical forums there are many different truths, explanations, visions and solutions. Furthermore, the most powerful and elegant scientific breakthrough in mankind's history started from non conformism (relativity, antibiotics, plate tectonics to name only a few).

Closer to us, it is a well accepted view that the English language we are all fond of owes its richness and its universality to its openness and its multiple facets. We as a community could probably take this as an example and should avoid trimming out or putting off members who fall slightly out of the template (defined by who ?).

Let's stay curious, not self righteous. Let's not confuse good taste protection with censorship.
In reality, provocation finds its justification in censorship and unconsciously begs for it. Obliging is the best way to nurture it.

Cautious observers might have noticed various occurrences of valuable new members quickly achieving high rep scores and then simply vanishing away as if not interested any more. Our nascent community is already gaining a lot of momentum, let's not cripple it.

My 2cts of course; after all I've been "here" only for a few weeks.

Kind Regards.

  • 4
    I'm certainly up for the sentiments expressed here. Why should the site itself be concerned with broader social issues? The general strictures against trolling, flaming, peeving, off-topic posting etc. seem more than adequate to me. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 23:43

As someone who will probably be attending no less than three services during this Holy Week, I really don't see the problem.

Its even debateable what he was even getting at. For instance, my denomination currently does not consider the King James Bible one of its preferred translations, and I know of quite a few Biblical scholars who would consider this joke quite amusing, on the basis of how inaccurate a translation the KJV is considered to be. Considering how it was phrased, I might even be willing to argue this is exactly the sense which was intended.

  • What if the KJV were not an issue, just 'the Bible'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 20:41
  • 5
    @Mitch - Well, in that case I'm with PLL. When it comes down to it, we Christians disagree with each other's beliefs as much as with Atheists. Anybody who gets offended when another person expresses disbelief in a portion of their particular set of beliefs is cruising for an anuerisim in this world. I know there are folks out there like that (I do live in Oklahoma, after all), but trying to cater to them is an exercise in madness.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 22:45

Yes, innocent jokes like this are perfectly fine, Left Head. I make them too. A long invective against religion is not OK, of course; but this is a minor thing, just a matter of style. Someone else might post in reply "I'm sure the Devil will find that entertaining: you should repeat it when you get down there". Okay, this wasn't particularly funny, but I am trying to come up with some innocent example quickly. The current taboo on discrimination, arbitrarily limited to a few random topics (such as sex, race, religion), is very strong already in society at large: we should not go even further by censoring what no sane person would take offence at. Just ignore it.

  • 1
    I don't understand the "Left Head" edit.
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 2:36
  • 1
    +1. Earlier lengthy comment here removed as I’ve now re-said it in my answer.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 3:28
  • 3
    @MrHen: Look at the avatar. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 3:37
  • 1
    I agree with Cerberus. If you consider it a joke, then you should not be offended.
    – apaderno
    Commented Apr 2, 2011 at 4:17
  • @kiamlaluno: The only problem is, some people might not consider it a joke. I've gotten my head bitten off a time or two because what I considered an innocent joke seemed like any flippant statement, and the probability of that happening in text is generally greater than in speech. That's why the "j/k" cue was invented for instant messaging and the like. I agree, btw, if it's a joke either laugh, bite back, or bite your tongue, but that depends on recognising it's a joke, no? And if people don't...?
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 2:07
  • 2
    @kitukwfyer: I had to read the post thrice to understand what was so offensive in that question. Was that answer necessary? No, it was not. Were the funny answers given to other questions necessary? No, they were not.
    – apaderno
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 2:21
  • @kiamlaluno: A joke can be offensive. The two are not mutually exclusive. If you are unable to see the offense in that post, good for you. It is still there, however, whether you see it or not.
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 12:26
  • @MrHen: A joke can be offensive as something seriously said can. I find difficult to use the works joke and offensive in the same phrase; if you are calling it joke, then you are admitting its purpose is not to offend. I already said that the joke was not something necessary; just edit the answer, and the problem is done. If the user keeps writing such answers, then the user should be informed that we don't want that type of answers.
    – apaderno
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 21:59
  • 1
    @kiamlaluno: A joke can literally be made to cause offense. As far as I know, nothing in the definition of "joke" implies anything about its intended offensiveness. Some of the most deliberately offensive things said are jokes.
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 4, 2011 at 2:09

Every potentially offensive item has to be taken in context. If I'd seen the quoted example in a Question, I'd probably have edited the offending words out.

If I'd seen it in an Answer, I wouldn't edit it out, but I might downvote the answer. Plus I'd probably also leaf through a few other postings by that user. If I found other inflammatory posts, I'd almost certainly downvote and add a comment explaining why.

If I saw the same words in a Comment, I wouldn't really care. As an atheist somewhat to the right of Richard Dawkins, I don't really mind such "banter", so long as it's kept reasonably "off the front page".

But undeniably, it's a fairly "lame" sideswipe. If someone wrote it in Chat, I'd just set a mental flag to say that person may be a bit childish - purely because the "joke" is so feeble. I have no problem with such sentiments being expressed in chat, provided no-one else is getting worked up over them.

  • 2
    It's intended to arouse, so it's flame-bait. Which is inappropriate here.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 16:03
  • 1
    @Mitch: By that token, me saying I'm "somewhat to the right of Richard Dawkins" is flame-bait. If you don't differentiate acceptable levels of banter/provocation in Question / Answer / Comment / Chat, that's your prerogative - but it seems to me most users here do, and I'm with them on that. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 16:44

There are very few people who would consider that offensive - but unwelcoming, definitely. A couple of those comments has a negligible effect, but if enough of them start to spring up, then we will have purposefully made the community feel less welcome to large group of people (including myself) for no good reason.

I strongly oppose any editing that removes or compromises any views expressed in relation to the question at hand. However, I don't have a problem with removing text does nothing but encourage unwanted behaviour.

  • I'd only been coming to ELU for a couple of weeks when this question was posted. But in the year since then I've seen nothing more than one light-hearted bit of "anti-homeopath" banter. Unwelcoming intolerance would be a problem if there was any significant level of it - but there simply isn't, as far as I can see. Commented Mar 29, 2012 at 2:39
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: True, but if you want to see a community where this is an issue have a look at Skeptics StackExchange
    – Casebash
    Commented Mar 29, 2012 at 11:12
  • 2
    I signed up to Skeptics about the same time as ELU, but to be honest I don't think much of it for many reasons. One of which is I often feel there's something of an intolerant attitude to anyone who isn't part of the dominant clique there. I definitely think ELU has a better class of mods, and they probably make a lot of difference. Commented Mar 29, 2012 at 13:18

As a Fundamentalist, and therefore presumably among the prime targets of that particular comment, let me say, (a) As a joke, it's not very funny. It's really more "ridicule" or "random insult" than "joke". And (b) I vote to let it stand. Such a trivial insult is not going to send me running to the corner, sobbing hysterically.

(Indeed, I'm happy to see such lame insults from my opponents. Let us Fundamentalists present carefully reasoned historical, philosophical, and scientific arguments, while the atheists shout, "You're a moron! Ha ha ha", and let's see who wins in the court of public debate. :-)

When someone tells an ethnic or religious or political or whatever joke that is actually funny, I think it can be entertaining, and help to break the tedium. But of course this forum isn't a place for protracted comedy routines, nor for political/social/religious debate.

In my humble opinion, an occasional good-natured joke is a positive thing that helps keep a dry subject entertaining. Of course, while much humor hinges on making fun of the foibles of people, there is a point where it becomes deliberately insulting. Like, a joke whose humor relies on the fact that a certain ethnic group has different tastes in music or has its own dialect should be harmless; a joke that relies for its humor on the assumption that a certain ethnic group are lazy or stupid or criminals is likely just insulting. Saying, "Isn't it funny how your political party and mine see this differently" can make for a good joke. Saying, "Isn't it funny how your political party is too stupid to understand this obvious reality" is an insult.

Are there gray areas? Sure. For a stand-up comic, pushing the gray areas may make for edgy comedy. But for a forum like this, it's just not appropriate.

Oh, and by the way, if it would be an outrageous insult for somebody to say this about you, that it's an outrageous insult for you to say it about someone else. I don't know how often I've heard the defense, "But those people ARE stupid, so they have no right to complain when we make jokes about them, but my group are intelligent, so if you say such a thing about us you're just out of line." Insults do not cease to be insults because they are true. Besides, if you don't see the obvious bias in your high opinions of yourself compared to others ... well, that's a subject for jokes right there.

My conclusion: A little humor now and then is a good thing. But on a forum like this, err on the side of being unoffensive.

  • 4
    You seem oblivious to the fact that your extended parenthetical is at least as insulting as the original comment, since you claim that the typical response from "the atheists" is to call names and laugh like buffoons.
    – Klay
    Commented May 30, 2012 at 16:06

Having read and up-voted some of the excellent answers already here, I think there's another point that can be made.

Whited sepulchres. This is what they are called in that noted work of fiction " The Bible", King James' Version.

Forget whether the remark is offensive. Forget whether it is funny. What we should be asking is, is it relevant?

Does the fictional or non-fictional nature of the Bible affect the validity of the phrase, 'whited sepulchres' as an answer? Clearly it might affect the validity of some answers but does it affect this one?

I submit that in this specific case it doesn't. Whether the Bible is true or not makes no difference to the usefulness of the the phrase 'whited sepulchres' as an answer to the question.

Therefore I believe the remark was simply irrelevant and should have been challenged on that basis.

For example, a possible comment could have been, Please can you explain how the fictional or non-fictional nature of the Bible affects the validity of the phrase 'whited sepulchre' as an answer?

If the author had given a convincing answer explaining how, in general, the fictional nature of a work affects the usefulness or correctness of the language used within it and how it affects this point in particular, then I would have accepted it. If not then I would have down-voted and explained why.

In other words: we should judge an answer, and any comments within it, by the normal standards of the site. Is the answer cogent, well-supported and well-thought out? Do the comments support the correctness of the answer or are they (as Django Reinhardt puts it in his answer here) simply noise?


I'm a little surprised that no one has considered that the original comment is arguably a contentious factual claim, and not a joke at all. After all, we seem to be in agreement that the comment is not in itself funny, clever, or surprising. There's nothing in the style of delivery that's offensive. The offense is in the assertion itself.

  • 1) I think that is the difficulty with the original comment, that it is arguable and contentious as to factuality (?). 2) This is great as a comment, but not really an answer to the meta-OP.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 30, 2012 at 20:50
  • But if we look at it as a contentious factual claim, then it's in a different category altogether. There are no rules that say assertions in original questions or comments must be true or uncontroversial.
    – Klay
    Commented May 31, 2012 at 13:06
  • OK good point (all the answers are expected to be factual but also arguable. But the main point is that statement about the Bible (factual, but arguable as you say) is -irrelevant-. Why stir up a bee's nest when there's no honey involved?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 31, 2012 at 13:22
  • And if there's a rule that says irrelevant comments are not allowed, then the comment should be removed. The real bee's nest is in talking about whether and how much a comment offends anyone.
    – Klay
    Commented May 31, 2012 at 15:12
  • The questionable phrase was in an answer, not a comment. Comments can be somewhat looser because they are considered more expendable. There is the 'flag' on comments to request that it be 'checked' for possible action.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 31, 2012 at 15:19

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