The webcomic XKCD is pure, distilled geekiness. Cartoonist Randall Munroe calls XKCD “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” It is all of that and more: science, computer programming, popular culture, and internet memes fill the comic. The simplicity of the art belies its complex humor. Munroe does not patronize his readers. The content is often esoteric, enough so that there are websites devoted to explaining (and debating) each strip’s humor.
Like all great comics, XKCD navigates between silly jokes and profound lessons while maintaining its own deep current of thought. The common theme of the comic is the power of science and rationality in our modern, tech-filled lives. Religion, God, and superstition sometimes makes an appearance, often as a foil to better appreciate scientific thinking. And Munroe isn’t afraid of poking fun at what religions consider sacred.
Here is my list of the top ten xkcd comics featuring religion (with the obligatory caveat that they’re not appropriate for every audience, but they’re all interesting).
Title text: But to us there is but one God, plus or minus one. —1 Corinthians 8:6±2.
This is my favorite religion joke about margin of error — ok, it’s the only religion-margin-of-error joke I know.
Title text: So he’s saying that God thought Hitler’s art was so bad that the Holocaust was an acceptable alternative. It’s no secret that the hat guy is closely based on Aram, from Men in Hats.
This early comic takes on one of the big questions of modern religion: why does an all powerful God allow evil and suffering? XKCD’s ‘top hat’ offers the sardonic answer that God allowed the Holocaust because God really hated Hitler’s art.
Title text: ‘But you’re using that same tactic to try to feel superior to me, too!’ ‘Sorry, that accusation expires after one use per conversation.’
Picking on religious people as self-righteous is cliche. Picking on everyone as self-righteous is brilliant.
This quintessential XKCD — lots of science and lots of effort. And tucked into one frame is a superb play on the conception of Jesus. Maybe he suspects the tenant who lives in the apartment above, or maybe it’s a nod to “the man upstairs”?
Title text: We lost the documentation on quantum mechanics. You’ll have to decode the regexes yourself.
What’s Lisp? Apparently an elegant computer programming language (I had to look this one up). The Creator, however, opted against Lisp so that he could quickly put together the universe using a more obtuse language. And the title text adds that God lost the documentation on quantum mechanics; so, it will need to be translated by someone else.
5. Broken Mirror
A broken mirror doesn’t mean seven years bad luck. No, “bad luck” is replaced by “the illusion that my actions somehow influence the indifferent probability that governs our lives.” The comic could have stopped there, but Munroe takes it another step up by turning the comic into an existential lament referencing the vanities in Ecclesiastes.
4. Holy Ghost
Title text: Ok everyone, cross yourselves, then cross the streams.
In one of XKCD’s most irreverent comics, the Holy Ghost is trapped by Ghost Busters. In the title text, they cross themselves in prayer before “crossing the streams.” And we know what happens when they cross the streams.
I’ll leave it to theologians to decide if this is a proper understanding of transubstantiation and the Eucharist. Personally, I’m reminded of claims against 2nd Century Christians as cannibals and threats to society (see explanation here).
As a webcomic, XKCD isn’t limited to the same shape and size for each comic. This is one of the larger comics, which allows for a longer discussion of science and religion. Belief is discounted until it starts to impede on science and society.
The top comic is this one, which references this earlier comic and comes as a t-shirt. The topic takes on more poignancy because Munroe’s then-fiance and now-wife suffered from breast cancer. When asked about “the sickness,” the character in the comic sums up religion in XKCD: Religion is ok for some, but science works.