Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – an interview with Zach Weiner

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – an interview with Zach Weiner July 18, 2009

SATURDAY Morning Breakfast Cereal has been gracing the internet for eight years. Browse through its vast archives and it soon becomes clear why it is one of the world’s most popular webcomics. Dark, erudite, irreverent and intelligent, the daily gag-strip portrays a wild world of toddler-eating serial killers, pistol-packing parents, capricious deities, and inappropriate chat-up lines.
Nothing is sacred in the SMBC universe, which, of course, is why we here at The Freethinker love it – and why we were so delighted when the strip’s creator, 28-year-old Zach Weiner, agreed to give us an interview.

All images link back to the SMBC archive, except one which Zach drew exclusively for The Freethinker.
The Freethinker: SMBC is one of a small number of webcomics which deals frequently – and hilariously – with religion. Have you no respect for people’s deeply held religious convictions, for God’s sake?
Zach Weiner: My general rule on sacred things is that I have no respect for people who can’t take a joke. Like, I believe in physics, but I have no problem with people poking fun at Newton, or at the fact that the math can be Byzantine and boring at times. I think most people feel this way about their religion as well. So, to me it’s less an issue of respect for religion than an issue of whether people are strong enough in their convictions to withstand a cartoon that mocks them.
As a writer of comedy, I tend to view anyone’s views on any topic as assailable. If people want to believe something, they ought to be prepared to defend it.

FT: Do you get much hate mail when you post an irreligious comic?
ZW: Sadly I don’t. I once, years ago, got a very rambling email from a creationist on the topic of evolution. Unfortunately, despite being a bit nonsensical, he was completely polite. In fact, I have probably gotten more complaints from my parents (who are also surprisingly polite about my comics) than anyone else.
FT: Have you ever been religious?
ZW: I was raised Jewish, but in an only casually religious environment. I remember thinking about the afterlife as a little kid, but I don’t think there was ever a time in my life where I felt deeply spiritual. There’s a cliche about all Jews having an “Atheist gene,” and perhaps that’s true of me.
If you’d asked ten-year-old me if I believed in god, I think I would’ve said “yes.” But, I don’t think there ever was a time where I’d thought much about the topic and then decided I was a religious person. So, I’m afraid there was never an “aha” moment for me.

FT: How would you describe your personal philosophy?
ZW: Pragmatic.
I think the big questions of philosophy in regard to spiritualism and epistemology probably are by definition unsolvable. But, they give you a good idea of how to behave in your day-to-day life. That is, if you can say “if we do assume there’s a deity, he’s probably like /this/,” then you can follow with “if he’s like /this/, we should behave like /that/, in relation to him.” As a student of science, I think we have to concede that you can’t definitely answer the God question with 100% certainty. But, you /can /say that if someone created this whole universe, he probably doesn’t care if I eat pork instead of beef.
So, I guess I would have to say that, though I’m probably not willing to call myself an Atheist per se, I almost certainly behave like an Atheist, when it comes to specific activities related to spirituality.

FT: Would you call yourself an agnostic?
ZW: Probably, yes. I only say probably because, if the blogs I’ve seen are any indication, a lot of Atheist/Freethink/Humanist groups don’t entirely agree on the meaning of terms. I don’t entirely like agnostic, because it etymologically means something like “no knowledge.” I happen to think I have at least SOME knowledge about whether there’s a god. Or, I at least have knowledge as to, if there were a god, what he might be like. Maybe someone should start calling people like me Mesognostics. I know SOME, but not enough to conclusively rule out certain notions of divinity.
FT: There has recently been a change of tone in the discourse surrounding religion, with the so-called New Atheists arriving on the scene and causing a stir. One of these is PZ Myers of Pharyngula, who has featured your cartoons on a number of occasions. What do you think about this?
ZW: I enjoy watching debates featuring the so-called New Atheists, but I’m not convinced that they’re terribly productive. I prefer the work done by people like Carl Sagan, Neil Tyson, and E.O. Wilson. It’s probably just personal preference, but I feel like passive approaches are often more effective when trying to reach out to people and change their beliefs. Bill Cosby once said (when critiqued for not dealing with race explicitly in his comedy) that he thought he could help fight racism by getting people to enjoy his comedy albums before they realized he was black. That is, a person who might be anti-black might hear his comedy, like it, later find out they were of different races, and then be moved to reconsider his viewpoint. I think a similar thing might be said about Carl Sagan. You read his books, see his shows, become convinced that he is smart and thoughtful, then find out he’s an Atheist; maybe then you start thinking, “well, these non-believers may have a point.”

Although the three scientists I mentioned above would probably be considered atheists, it wasn’t something that dominated their outlook. They were/are all people who place public outreach first. Although I probably agree with a lot of the views held by the New Atheists, I find their approach too scathing, and often more about being personally right than about getting people involved in the use of science and logic as ways of viewing the universe. If you are a strong atheist and wish to shape the world to your view, your time would be much better spent teaching an after-school program about logic than going to atheist club meetings and posting about how stupid fundamentalists are.
That said, I always appreciate people using my comics in their blogs :). I have plenty of strips about religious/dogmatic absurdities, so it only makes sense that they’d be of interest to people like Prof. Myers. I think he’s an excellent blogger, though I don’t always agree with his tactics.

That reminds me. There’s a joke I’ve wanted to do for a while, but I figured it was too niche for most audiences. But, I think you guys would appreciate it. It goes like this:
[Note: this cartoon is a Freethinker exclusive!]
FT: You are studying physics now, but your first degree was in literature. Does the shift from humanities to science reflect a significant change in your way of thinking? Or is it just a way to better understand xkcd? 🙂
ZW: My engineer brother thinks it’s just so I can write science jokes and build my audience.
Personally, I’ve always had an interest in both the sciences and the arts. Getting a science degree is more a function of financial freedom than anything. I have to read a lot to be able to write a lot, and studying physics seemed like a good way to go about it.
FT: Why is God is portrayed in your comic as a big yellow disk?
ZW: Mainly because it’s easy to draw. I think I was originally going for something like a halo, since I didn’t want to draw the typical beard-and-white-robes Abrahamic deity.

FT: Your religious comics focus on Christianity. What would you say to the accusation that you are “picking a soft target” and that “you wouldn’t dare joke about Islam”?
ZW: I’ve occasionally been accused of this. In my defense, I’ve taken some shots at Buddhism and Judaism as well. The reason I stay away from Islam is that most of the people who would read my comic are not familiar with ANY particulars of it. People at least have a vague notion of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. If I made a joke about a tenet of Islam, nobody would get it. I also don’t make jokes about Hindus or Chinese folk religion, both of which have followings on the order of billions.
When doing comics, especially single panel comics, you have to pick visual tropes that are quickly understood by your audience. As it happens, my audience is very familiar with the verbal and visual language of Christianity. So, there’s just a lot more for me to work with there.

I want to say explicitly that avoiding Islam has nothing to do with the idiocy of the Danish cartoon censorship a few years back. There are a number of webcomics (see: Jesus and Mo) that mock Islam and Mohammed on a daily basis, none of whose authors are in any great deal of trouble for it.
FT: Can we expect religious themes to appear in your upcoming video sketch show?
ZW: We are actually writing one now that I think your readers will like quite a bit.

Thank you, Zach. We are looking forward to that.
Readers can keep an eye on developments at the SMBC-theater project here, and get their daily dose of SMBC here (a word to the wise: if you see a red button, hover over it!).

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