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Freedom to offend

31 Jan 2006 / in going off on one, hellbound

“When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realised, the Lord doesn’t work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me … and I got it!”- Emo Philips, comedian.

People are protesting outside Parliament right now against the proposed incitement to religious hatred laws which if passed could make jokes like Emo’s decidedly dodgy ground and had it been law at the time Salman Rushdie published Satanic Verses would have certainly landed him in jail. And what about other well-known mockers of religion Dave Allen (RIP), Billy Connelly and Omid Djalili? No wonder Rowan Atkinson is speaking out so vocally against this erosion of freedom of expression. Comedy is a long-cherished method of making us look again at religious teachings, their absurdities and – frequently – their similarities.

Peers introduced a freedom of speech safeguard clause into the bill last year to ensure nobody is found guilty of religious hatred unless it can be proved they intended to stir up hatred. They said only ‘threatening words’ should be banned by the bill and not those which are only abusive or insulting.

If the bill becomes law, does this mean I can’t engage in a lively debate about beliefs for fear of coming over as ‘threatening’? I’d like my freedom to offend and be offended maintained, thank you.

For me, Polly Toynbee has it right when she says: “Abuse of religious beliefs feels like a personal insult, the religious want it silenced and they are winning. How long before no MP dare call themselves an atheist? Will anyone speak up against growing faith schools in this secular nation? MPs should go into the chamber tonight to stop all this religious appeasement in its tracks.”

I abhor the creeping, seeping, ugly hatred perpetrated by, for example, the British National Party against our Muslim brothers and sister so of course I want all people of all faiths to be protected from threats. But an erosion of freedom of expression is not the answer.

And is not being offended an individual choice? Is Emo Philips funny? Or offensive? You decide.

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