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Home > Culture and Society

Defending the Right to Ridicule

2 September 2005

Ship of Fools – radical online Christians with spunk – recently launched a campaign to highlight the potential dangers of the impending Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. The Laugh Judgement set out to find the funniest and the most offensive religious jokes, the point being that if the bill becomes law, the telling of some of these jokes might well be a criminal offence, with the comedian facing up to seven years in prison. And that wouldn’t be even remotely funny.

The good Christians at Ship of Fools have thus added their dissenting voices to more than a thousand church leaders from various denominations, as well as Liberty, the National Secular Society and irate comedians Rowan Atkinson and Boris Johnson. The fear is that either directly, through application of the law, or indirectly, through self-censorship and fear of the law, freedom of speech will be severely impeded.

Ironically, nothing incites religious hatred like religion itself. Rightly or wrongly (wrongly as it transpires) religious guide books such as The Bible and The Qur’an have provided a staggering amount of ammunition for haters throughout history. Leviticus for example, reeks of incitement: ‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.’ Nice. And from the Qur’an, there’s this humdinger of hate: ‘As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron rods.’ Garments of fire! Hooked iron rods! It doesn’t get much more hateful than that.

Of course you might think that any legislation which could potentially outlaw both the Bible and the Qur’an cannot fail to be a good thing, but really, you know in your heart of hearts you’d be wrong. People must be allowed to believe whatever they like. Just as they must be allowed to hate each other, if that’s really the best emotion they can muster. To be completely honest, there are many religious practices and indeed many religions that we hate wholeheartedly, and we’d like you to hate them too. Female circumcision springs to mind. And Scientology. What kind of society would we be living in if we weren't allowed to suggest that people offering Free Personality Tests should have the contents of their bowels dissolved? Not a very free one, that’s for sure.

As Simon Jenkins, editor of Ship of Fools told the Times this week, ‘Ridiculing some religious beliefs, criticising absurd religious practices and offending religious people was a way of life for Old Testament prophets. It’s not a freedom so much as a responsibility.’ For a man who believes in an all-powerful and benevolent God, Mr Jenkins talks an awful lot of sense.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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