Can Religion take a joke?


Universe Column for November 13th 2005

by David Alton

G.K. Chesterton once said that “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”  I wonder what he would make of a Government Bill on Religious Hatred which carries a seven year prison sentence for hateful utterances about religion. Although the Government deny it, comedians like Rory Bremner have said that some of their gags could land them in jail.

My guess is that Edwardian humour enjoyed by Chesterton was a good deal less vitriolic and a lot more subtle, more innocent, more fun loving and less offensive than some of what we have to put up with. But the principle remains: aren’t there other ways to register our distress or disagreement with jokes, caricatures or downright offensive remarks without having to resort to the law ?

The Government justify the new law by saying it would close a small gap.

But, ironically, the new could end up being used as a weapon by different religious and secular groups.. Far from facilitating more harmonious relations, it could undermine the good relationships that in many parts of the country characterise our faith communities.

The majority of the British Muslim community come from Asian backgrounds. Many have suffered discrimination and irrational prejudice because of their racial origins. There are echoes here of Northern Ireland , where we rightly acted to end discrimination and inequality. If we were to properly address the causes of deep alienation on the back streets of Bradford , Leeds , Oldham and Burnley , we would be using our time more productively than producing legislation which many even in the Muslim community say is irrelevant. Dr. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the leader of the Muslim Parliament in Britain says, “This law will not protect Muslims.

Muslims must build alliances with civil society to promote a fairer and more tolerant society in which everyone’s views are respected rather than be seen to be undermining freedom of speech”.

We should also be immensely careful before instigating an era of self-censorship about issues that instead require mature and reasoned debate. Such debate may inevitably be heated and critical. To threaten sanctions of seven years’ imprisonment on the basis of a law which could be open to a wide range of interpretations and is highly subjective would be a huge error.

The very title of the Bill—Racial and Religious Hatred Bill—reveals an inherent flaw. Putting race and religion together in this way is a non sequitur. We are all born with our race. It is inherent and unalterable. Race is neither good nor bad, nor right or wrong.

I have always believed that to subject someone to prejudice and irrational discrimination because of their race is wholly irrational and that proportionate sanctions should be available within the law. By contrast, our religious beliefs, if we have any, should be freely embraced and ultimately we can affirm those beliefs or walk away from them.

My late mother was an Irish-speaking immigrant, and as a young boy I went to a Catholic grammar school. As is the way with these things, when we walked home, youngsters from a nearby school would frequently taunt us and sometimes worse. Early on I had to develop a reasonably thick skin and learn to appreciate the importance of tolerance and respect towards those of other origins and other beliefs. I learnt that you do not have to hate one country because you love another, be it Britain or Ireland , Britain or Pakistan . I also had to learn to negotiate and how to defend my beliefs, and not to be intimidated into disowning them simply for expedient reasons. Men and women are diminished when they are forced to collaborate in opinions that they do not hold, or told that they must believe that which is contrary to their conscience. In the United Kingdom we should be wary of trying to impose a blend of political and religious correctness.

In any event, legislation has its limitations.

Legislation already exists to stop things like criminal damage. Yet, from personal experience, I know its limitations. Those laws didn’t stop the twelve stitches I once received after someone threw a brick at my face. The law was unable to stop my constituency offices from being burnt down by an arsonist or prevent  abuse from pickets protesting outside my home at my attempts to stop late abortions.

It’s not more laws we need but different attitudes, attitudes rooted in respect and tolerance of others with an opposing outlook.

On a positive note, my experience in Liverpool , representing part of that city for 18 years, was a very good one. The Mersey miracle that occurred there, where Catholics and Protestants, and people now of all faith, have come together in a spirit of tolerance, was not as a result of legislation, but through the leadership particularly of the city’s religious leaders.  We need more of that, and, as Chesterton said, an ultimate ability not to take ourselves too seriously.