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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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I clicked on that SMBC Link thinking it was Saturday Morning Bible Club.
    Mockery of religion truly does make Baby Jesus weep.
    I have suggested to our Pastor that we put in Links from our Site to blank Web pages to mock Atheism.

  • Gavrilo

    If "Baby Jesus" is an occurrence of God, he must have more important business than weeping about mockery of religion, doesn't he?
    I'm sorry, I still have a little trouble understanding the priorities of god, as explained by religion…

  • Talitha, that's actually pretty funny. I should be offended, but I am chuckling.

  • Pontymython

    I clicked on thet SMBC Link thinking it was Super Martian Bazooka Cars.
    Mockery of martian death sports truly does make The Flying Spaghetti Monster weep.
    I have suggested to the manager at our local Mcdonalds that we put in Links from our Site to blank Web pages to mock Martian Haters.

  • Holland

    Weiner: "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."
    I think this is not true of the European readers who are surrounded by Islam. Come on Zach, give us some!

  • I clicked on that SMBC Link thinking it was Stupid Mongoose Bashers Clinic.
    Mockery of rodent hunters truly does make the Mongoose Bashers Society weep.
    I have suggested to our Head Basher that we put in Links from our Waiting Room to blank Mongoose nests to mock PETA.

  • A blank page is offensive because … ?
    Seriously, didn't your baby jesus grow up?

  • YourSaviour

    Too bad baby Jesus is dead and can't weep.
    P.S – I'll let you in on a little secret. Mary wasn't a virgin, she had to have had sex with somebody to conceive good old Jesus Christ

  • YourSaviour

    Too bad baby Jesus is dead and can't weep.
    P.S – I'll let you in on a little secret. Mary wasn't a virgin, she had to have had sex with somebody to conceive good old Jesus Christ

  • Not to mention the fact that one of the more prolific posters in the SMBC Forum is a Muslim. And at least three others are passingly familiar with the teachings of Islam.

  • I love it! They're now on my blogroll.

  • You got so excited by my mention of Jesus you Posted that twice.
    Now, let's get one thing straight. God doesn't have to have sex to create stuff.
    He Created his Son Jesus without getting involved in all that messy sex stuff. Mary was just the vessel to carry him until he was ready to be our Lord and Savior.
    As we all know, Jesus then went on to also be Father, Son AND Holy Ghost. How clever is that?
    By the way, Jesus is Blue-eyed, Blond Haired, definately white and most probably American.
    He'll not be pleased when he sees how you spell "Savior".

  • Why cant we get magazines and comics in W H Smiths.there are loads of religious mags.saying whatever they like. , and how many so called religious websites are there. Seems one sided to me.
    Lets laugh at whatever we enjoly.
    Why wasnt Jesus black I want to know.

  • Why cant we get magazines and comics in W H Smiths.there are loads of religious mags.saying whatever they like. , and how many so called religious websites are there. Seems one sided to me.
    Lets laugh at whatever we enjoy.
    Why wasnt Jesus black I want to know.

  • William Harwood

    Referring to Jesus the Nazirite as "Jesus Christ" is tantamount to conceding that he was the prophesied fairy tale creature he believed himself to be. It is analogous to referring to Siddartha Gautama as "Buddha".

  • William Harwood

    There have been many claims that Jesus was black. google Wikipedia article, "Race of Jesus."

  • …And probably a Martian.

  • I thought it was Sunday Morning Bonkers Christians, Talitha! It looks like some more folks would benefit from a visit to too . Maybe you should include your web address every time you post a comment, just to be on the safe side!!

  • On the safe side of what? I already have Jesus by my side, what more could I want?
    On Judgment day I shall be sat up in the clouds looking down on all you Sinners writhing down there in the fiery Pits of Hell.
    Actually Barriejohn I belong to the real True Christian™ Website at <a href="” target=”_blank”> (Where the worthwhile Worship, Unsaved Unwelcome). but I don't like to tell people for fear of persecution.

  • Actually, I shall be right there with you up in them clouds, Sister Talitha, enjoying the sufferings of all those stubborn, stiff-necked, unbelieving, unrepentant Hell-bound sinners, who so wilfully continued in their evil ways, spurning the loving overtures of our Dear Lord Jesus Christ (praise His Holy Name!), whose only wish was to see their poor souls saved!! This is because He wrote my name down, along with yours, in His Book of Life, LOOOOOOOOONG before this old world was created; but He didn`t write THEIR names down, so WE know that our eternal future is secure, whereas THEY are doomed, and Amen to that!!!
    (PS There`s no fear of anyone "persecuting" you, using that link you`ve given there – it doesn`t work!)

  • It would be a good idea to learn more about the Landover Baptist Church. You may just fall in love with Sister Talihah.

  • Demons, obviously caught from this Website.
    Here is the correct Link for all you God Mockers.
    <a href="” target=”_blank”>

  • gsw

    "all that messy sex stuff"
    this may explain why Jahwe (Jove? whatever!) is so very often so very bad tempered. All that smiting and plaguing, just sexual frustration?
    Thank you, I had been wondering why the creator of the world hated it so much.

  • dave

    Nevertheless, it is an American cartoonist writing for a mostly American audience. This is an audience steeped in Christian symbols that are part of our common culture. Americans are also familiar with Judaism and even Buddhism (thanks, hippies!) but Islam is still mostly an unknown quantity and has made no impact yet on the American culture. Don't ask a writer (or a cartoonist) to write about a subject he knows little about.

  • demon #034/a

    Are you serious? I think you're already too old for having an imaginary friend!

  • haley224

    its very obvious god or jesus DO NOT exsits, lets leave it at that. plus the bible is ficton.

  • haley224

    tathilia or whatever her name is, needs to lay off and leave.
    we respect her choice in religon now i ask that she respect ours or mine and other athiests here. this obviously is not a place were she needs to be writting or posting. &&+ if you here are a true athiest you will not turn your ways because of some old baptist woman who has no life but wasting her time trying to turn people into lying to them selves about some guy who we are supposed to talk to that lives in the clouds. NO i dont think so. haha this is to funny, seeing everything she writes makes me laugh.

  • Horrors

    Actually Jesus was born in the middle east, so he would be born of middle eastern decesnt, that is known as the historical jesus. The Jesus that you are referrig to, while not german is close to Hitler’s idea of an aryian. Therefore you are racist. Also, that Jesus the kind white supremisist put on signs, while shouting their own views against gays. Therefore you are racist, homophodic, and anti-semetic, you truly sicken me.

  • Blahblahblah

    Talitha is probably the best troll I have everr had the chance of reading.