Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in: Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Friday, 19 October, 2001, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
Religious satire: Is it beyond a joke?
Comic actor Rowan Atkinson has warned the Home Secretary David Blunkett that the new anti-religious hatred laws could see comedians jailed.

In a letter to the Times newspaper, Mr Atkinson said he was "aghast" at the plan which he feared could make it illegal to ridicule religions or make religious jokes.

The star of Mr Bean and Not the Nine O'Clock news said: "I believe it is the reaction of the audience that should decide the appropriateness of a joke, not the law of the land."

Is Rowan Atkinson right? Is it appropriate to lampoon religious figures? Or should religious satire be off the agenda following the attacks on September 11th? Do the new laws go too far?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Rowan Atkinson has missed the point

Blewyn, UK
Rowan Atkinson has missed the point. The new legislation is specifically intended to outlaw 'incitement to religious hatred'. Lampooning and satire does not constitute an incitement to hatred, but declaring a holy war, or describing any religion as a 'cancer', does.
Blewyn, UK

Race, colour of skin or gender are not something we can choose and are therefore not things we should laugh at. Personality traits, behaviour and religion are things we can choose, and can therefore be the subject of jokes. The distinction Mr Atkinson makes is good - if it's a good joke, we should congratulate the comedian and be allowed to laugh at it. If it's a bad joke, the comedian should be reviled and mocked.
Sarah, UK

A priest, a rabbi and a vicar walk into a bar. The barman says: Is this some kind of joke?

Stewart, England
A priest, a rabbi and a vicar walk into a bar. The barman says, "Is this some kind of joke?"
Stewart, England

Will the next step be to replace the Crown Prosecution Service with a new Inquisition, and will people found guilty be burnt at the stake? I thought the Western nations dropped the idea of holy wars when the Crusades were over. It's a very poor organisation that cannot survive satire.
Mike Smith, UK

To those correspondents talking about Alf Garnet: this sexist, bigoted, racist character was created in order to poke fun at SIMILAR characters - everyone knows an Alf Garnet, who has no fear of expressing his views, but whom people mostly ignore. The character was then taken on board by the nastier elements of the British press and became a 'hero' - something the script-writers had never intended and were horrified that someone was taking him seriously! We're not an intolerant race generally, and we know what and whom to laugh at and when something is in very poor taste or downright unacceptable.
Sarah, UK

Does this legislation mean that reciting old jokes about the vicar's wife will become a more serious offence than issuing a fatwa against an author you don't like, or blowing up an abortion clinic because you don't agree with abortion?
John B, UK

This new law is just another reminder that there is far too much intolerance in the world

Tom Denton, UK
Freedom of speech is one of the basic human rights and should not be taken away by anyone. This new law is just another reminder that there is far too much intolerance in the world, did no one learn anything from the South Park movie. Like Steke Wehrle I am also a Jedi and believe that religion is silly, why categorise your faith as long as you have faith you don't need to have belief because it only leads to disbelief and therefore intolerance.
Tom Denton, UK

I am amused by the champagne socialists of the UK who sprout the "religion is the root of all evil" mantra, whilst forgetting that most of the carnage of the 20th century was caused by overtly atheist "faiths". I bet the same people who approve ridicule of religion object to ridicule of their own sacred, fashionably leftist, cows.
Agnetha Malmport, Sweden

At last someone stands up for common sense. Well-done Rowan Atkinson! Aristotle, among others, advocated the idea of humour as an expression of health. In poetics Aristotle states that mistakes and insufficiencies that are not harmful or cause damage can be comical. I quote from his work: "Be joyful so that you can be serious" and also "Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth." - Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. Religion should just be treated like all other subjects and not be exempt from ridicule, which in the most part it truly deserves.
Michael, Scotland

Could it be that Mr Atkinson hasn't had much work recently and is actively seeking publicity?

Simon Moore, UK
Why is stopping comedians from making fun out of someone's ethnic background a good thing, whereas stopping comedians from making fun out of someone's religious background a bad thing? Could it be that Mr Atkinson hasn't had much work recently and is actively seeking publicity? Or could it be that the large army of smarmy leftist TV celebrities (many comedians included) who walked around like smug Cheshire cats when "New Labour" were elected in 1997 are now finding (horror of horrors) that "New Labour" have stopped acting like an early 1980's students union and are actually acting like a government?
Simon Moore, UK

After religion, what next, football? How would life exist not being able to laugh at Arsenal, and Chelsea on a weekly basis?
Terry, UK

I feel there's a pretty clear dividing line between joking about someone's beliefs, or vigorously disputing them and advocating hatred or violence against the holders of those beliefs. Nobody has a right not to be offended - on the contrary it does people good.
Malcolm McMahon, York, UK

Banning religion would be much better....causes far more trouble than it's worth.
Mike, Singapore

Presumably, now that organised religions have the protection of law, they will do the decent thing and stop inciting hatred against each other and also against those of us "wicked sinners" who don't happen to proscribe to their narrow world views ?
Rod Devonshire, UK

I'll tell you what I find funny, all the responses badmouthing religion. Have you people tried true Christianity for yourself? If not you will not have discovered Jesus or God and thus are not qualified to criticise. The world is in such a mess because people refuse to live out the teachings of the Bible.
Daz, Basingstoke, England

Actually, Daz, the world is in a state because people like you refuse to tolerate other people's beliefs and lifestyles. Doesn't the bible tell you not to judge others?

I would rather see religious satire than religious war and the killing of innocent people

Marilyn Farhat, United States
Religious figures and religions in general are some of the most important driving forces in our human history. Their representatives and institutions continue to impact our world in good and detrimental ways. I fail to understand the significance of the attacks of September 11th where religious figures are concerned. The United States was not the first nor will it be the last nation on earth to face terrorist attacks on such a scale. Frankly, I think many of our ills in society are caused by the complicity of our major religious institutions, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. They have remained silent while many continued to kill in their names, while many usurped in the name of progress and democracy and a moral lifestyle. I think the efforts of our clergy need to be directed at finding ways to solve the moral dilemmas facing us as a human community and trying to provide some hope and guidance to all those souls counting on a peace of the heaven in the afterlife. I would rather see religious satire than religious war and the killing of innocent people.
Marilyn Farhat, United States

Religion as practised by pompous self-styled religious leaders is a laughing matter, but God himself will not be mocked. It's disgraceful that anyone should want to mock Religion and anyone doing so should be nailed to a cross or beheaded to see how they like it. Not much I bet! The world will be a much better place when we get rid of all the non-believers who are busy 'taking the Mickey' out of true believers.
Richard Letchford, Japan

Mr Bean is probably one of Britain's most successful exports. He is pretty harmless compared to 'Rambo' 'Top Gun' and the rest of the gunslingers who promote the fantasy that blowing up the world and shooting people is good.
Af, Singapore

It is an absolute right for all adults to not only have freedom to worship in the manner they think fit, including not worshipping at all, but also to attempt to persuade others to do so, or not. The logical extension of this is that there is an absolute right to lampoon each other's religious beliefs. Having said that, there also needs to be protection for those who, on grounds of religion, suffer physical or emotional abuse and/or discrimination in such areas as employment or housing. It's a difficult balancing act - but any law, which made the Black-Adder with the evil Bishop of Bath and Wells illegal would truly be an affront to human rights and rites!
Charles Moore, Scotland

It is not comedy that incites religious intolerance, but ignorance

It is not comedy that incites religious intolerance, but ignorance. I am sure that if mere mortals can have a sense of humour, then God, whoever she may be, can laugh too?

Almost half of the U.S population thinks human beings were created less than 10.000 years ago. Christians adore a nailed corpse and a poor girl who never wanted to admit she had an affair. Muslims run around a meteorite by millions and we would not be entitled to laugh!!! It is not serious to expect serious people to take religion seriously.
R.Roze des Ordons, France

Why go to the expense of making programmes when a good Sunday mass will provide enough laughs to last all week. First there is the congregation kneeling and making funny signs, whispering sweet nothings to some imagined being. Then in comes the comedy team all dressed in their frocks and funny hats carrying some elaborate symbol shaped like a cross. By the way, what happened to the vicar of Dibley? Well done Rowan to do a Black Adder on them just to show us the stupidity of war and religion.
Doug, English/Florida

Good God! I'm a Catholic and I, like many other Catholics, including priests, love Father Ted. We can laugh at our religion, and ourselves but still take it very seriously at the same time. This is what comes from free speech and thinking. Is it going to get to the stage that we can't even mention another religion's name without invoking trouble? Where is the world going?
M Cook, UK

Satire is part of the essential questioning that brings about a well formed society.

P Gillard, UK
What has to be understood is there is a clear difference between laughing at a group (of any sort) because they are different and satire. Laughing at people because they are different is lazy, frankly stupid and enforces generalised stereotypes, divisions and can cause racial hatred. Whereas satire is part of the essential questioning that brings about a well formed society. Even when it is about religion.. The line we have to tread is to eliminate the bad one while not affecting satire. Now ask yourselves, does this law do that?
P Gillard, UK

Fanatics of all faiths develop and thrive because most people are too polite to tell them that their beliefs are silly. What we need is a sustained campaign of derision against all organised religions and the deluded fools that believe in them.
Will Howell, Norfolk UK

I honestly can't think of anything more deserving of ridicule than religion. I fully agree with Will Howell - there should be an organised campaign to laugh at everyone's silly belief structure, regardless of which imaginary friend they kneel before.
Matt Spencer, England

Isn't this just another example of the Liberal Left expounding more and more ridiculous political correctness in order to justify their basically pointless existence? They are getting very close now to telling you what and how to think. So much for freedom of speech and a democratic society.

This is particularly worrying while we in the West are so quick to lambast the Taliban regime for their inability to accept diversity or other peoples views. If Blunkett has nothing more profound to offer the people of Britain, he is a pretty poor politician.
David, Denmark

It's surely better to laugh at each other in jokes than bottle it up until riots are the outcome. In humour there is always a victim, if religion of all types can't laugh at itself it shows how out of touch with the modern world it really is. Good work Rowan, don't let the minority dictate the majority.
Roger , Brighton, UK

Does this mean there will be no more Father Ted?

Neil, UK
Does this mean there will be no more Father Ted?
Neil, UK

Thank God for Rowan Atkinson. I hope that such laws as are currently being considered never gag him. God and us all need a good laugh every now and then. As a RC priest and missionary I hope that the God continues to raise up such comic/prophetic figures as Rowan Atkinson.
Rev. Brendan Kelleher SVD, Japan

I find it disgraceful that Mr. Atkinson airs this type of view. For 30 years I have faced religious and racial taunting. My family have fought for this country in World War two and we are paid back by the British people with attacks. I'm 33 and have experiences of beatings by racists and I'm no low life I earn 60,000 a year and thought I was well integrated into British Society. Muslims today need an immediate change to the discrimination laws to make it illegal to attack and discriminate against us.
P Khan, UK

I'm outraged that P. Khan claims that Muslims do not discriminate against others, and then makes the claim that atheists are the ones who discriminate against others. He clearly doesn't see the hypocracy of this statement.
Graham H, UK

Correspondents like P. Khan need to understand that there is a difference between abusing someone's race - which is unacceptable - and abusing their religion, which in my view is essential. Religion is a man-made comfort blanket for the weak-minded and no opportunity should be lost to pillory it at every opportunity. The law proposed by Blunket is a disgrace, as race laws already exist to deal with the true problem.
Alan Simpson, Belfast, UK

I am concerned by Mr Khan's point. Whilst I feel that it is awful that he has suffered at the hands of racists I think there is a definite difference to someone making a joke at the expense of religion and someone beating someone up because of their colour. Racial intolerance and violence is unacceptable. However the colour of ones skin is completely different to the religion that one follows. I know many white Muslims and many black Christians. I know white and black Jews and Buddhists. Race and creed are two separate issues and they should not be mixed. The argument here is over freedom of speech and thought - that should never be compromised. We already have legislation outlawing violence against another individual for any reason we should not have laws limiting our freedom to speak and think for ourselves. Otherwise the next move will be to outlaw ridiculing politicians, then politics and then our government. If this legislation goes through it is the first step towards losing our voices and becoming a totalitarian state. My family fought in both wars too, and they fought for freedom, not state control.
Carole K, UK

Unfortunately, the instincts of many governments, this one above all, are to proscribe and prescript. Religions do the same - but their word is not law, thank God. This latest idea is daft and dangerous.
Ben Broadbent, England

The most dangerous people in the world are people who never laugh

David Walls, Trinidad
The most dangerous people in the world are people who never laugh, especially those who never laugh at themselves. However, there are two sides to this. Recently Brass Eye offended the sensibility of huge numbers of people and pleaded, "it was only a joke". If you have to plead, "it was a joke" then obviously it wasn't, or at the very least, ill advised and insensitive. Comedy is not a get out of jail free card and can be passive aggression. It can also reinforce institutionalised prejudice, try watching early episodes of Alf Garnett with anything but shock. The other side is freedom of speech. Freedom should not mean a 'free-for-all' until someone complains - it requires maturity, sensitivity and compassion. You cannot legislate this into people, especially the 'anything goes' advocates that Atkinson seems to support. However, they will bring revulsion on themselves when they demonstrate their lack of judgement and taste. At that point society is best able to decide enough is enough. Politicians are among the least qualified to do this and their upfront intervention on this matter is ill thought through, and no doubt will be poorly executed. We can then look forward to abuse of vague legislation once again.
David Walls, Trinidad

We already have too many restrictions on our liberty in this country

Paul, UK
I agree with Rowan Atkinson that freedom of speech is at risk here. We already have too many restrictions on our liberty in this country. America, with its free speech amendment, is the only country that has come close to allowing people true free expression. People should be free to express any feelings, even hatred, in words. There are safeguards in place with laws to protect people from racism, sexism in the workplace, and other similar laws. As well as laws to arrest people who order others to break the law. Just because we do not agree with what someone says, no matter how abhorrent this may be, they must not be prevented from saying it. It is only through discussion and debate with people we disagree with that democracy can survive.
Paul, UK

All religions should be open to public question

Melanie Torrance, Scotland
Well done Rowan for speaking out. It's high time that someone voiced concerns about our overtly Christian leader trying to convert us all and make Christianity above ridicule and question. We are lucky enough to have free speech in this country, but with laws like this being passed, I wonder how long it will continue and whether we will descend into the dark ages once more. All religions should be open to public question, ridicule and inspection because religion is the most evil, divisive and destructive force on the planet.
Melanie Torrance, Scotland

Once again we tackle the symptoms not the disease - intolerance and bigotry. If we had a tolerant society then people wouldn't feel threatened by jokes or any comments specifically targeting them. You need to feel secure before you can laugh at yourself. Practising Christians in the UK aren't going to care about jokes made about them because they know there's nothing else behind it, Moslems on the other hand can't feel so comfortable right now.
Leigh, USA

What's wrong with poking fun at somebody's imaginary friend? Did you hear the one about the vicar and the tart?
Ian Thomas, England

Like other social icons, religious figures have often been deserving targets for humourous barbs. The jokes come with the job and are a sign of a healthy, growing and stable society. As Harry Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen."
T.J. Cassidy, U.S.A.

We already have perfectly good laws against inciting a person to commit violence

Hugh, UK
We already have perfectly good laws that make it a criminal offence to incite another person to commit violence, but this goes far beyond that. This kind of legislation has no place in a democratic society and should be resisted.
Hugh, UK

As a Jew, I resent jokes made about us which often use justifications of anti-semitism (such as love of money) to make people laugh... unless the jokes are made by Jews. I have nothing against people lampooning themselves or their religion, what I object to is scoring cheap points on other people's religion.
Pascal Jacquemain, UK (French)

Interesting that the only dissenting voices on the board are from a Jewish person and a Muslim person that seem unable to distinguish between humour and racism. Perhaps if people could lighten up a little bit, there would be less friction in the religious hot-spots of the world.
Mick, UK

Yet another knee jerk measure by the Government that shifts the blame instead of addressing the real problems. Presumably we can still have a good laugh at the Government's foreign policy or is that banned as well?
David Smith, UK

The law has to be drafted so that the intention and context is clear.

Chris, England
If the law is drafted so that it only prohibits speech likely to incite religious hatred then I see nothing wrong. After all, we have laws against speech likely to incite racial hatred and that doesn't effect Jim Davidson's "Chalky White" sketches. We also have laws about conspiracy, but that does not mean that TV characters cannot be shown planning a crime in police dramas. The law has to be drafted so that the intention and context is clear.
Chris, England

Is it any wonder much of current British comedy is so bland these days? Humour is something that brightens our lives, and we can all make our own judgements on what we find inappropriate or offensive.
Kate, UK

We need religious satire to take the self-righteous down a peg or two. We need people who will joke at or otherwise ridicule the sheer ludicrosity of religions of all types. And we need people like Richard Dawkins to stand up and say Religion is Bunk! And if all these people are silenced by the new laws, they are a Bad Thing. On the other hand, the idea of notorious hate-monger Jerry Falwell being arrested the moment he opens his mouth in the UK for a hate crime is curiously appealing...
Antony, UK

If the law starts going into matters of taste, then free speech has been seriously curtailed.

Rowan is correct to be concerned. If the law starts going into matters of taste, then free speech has been seriously curtailed. We cannot restrict the forums for discussion and criticism for politicians and religious figures or their actions may go unchecked or unquestioned. It would be a horror if a comedian was arrested (No-one expects the Spanish inquisition!) and questioned for comments questioning, for example, the Rowan Catholic Church. Comedy has been used on many occasions to highlight the behaviour of that organisation.

Surely this whole episode (and history) has shown that religious beliefs are a joke that cause nothing but hatred and carnage.
Paul Hart, UK

As an Atheist I find it hard to accept that I have to be tolerant of some religion's doctrine, which, in itself, is often intolerant to other religions and atheists alike. I am extremely concerned with this legislation. Humour is a great way of taking the problem away from its environment, enabling it to be discussed without preconceived prejudices. Satire is often funny but mostly it's about social comment. Lets not loose our sense of houmour!!
Dave, UK.

Ring fencing organised religion from valid debate and criticism is unnacceptable.

Rodger Edwards, UK
Preserving freedom of religious belief is one thing. Ring fencing organised religion from valid debate and criticism is unnacceptable. One wonders how difficult it would be to deal with a Waco style cult crisis, or for that matter a Jonestown style mass suicide, if the press, public and statutory bodies were inhibited from expressing concerns as a consequence of a badly thought out law being passed.
Rodger Edwards, UK

Funny men wearing frocks, some with silly beards - most wearing idiotic hats to make themselves look more important and daft ceremonies? Surely there is no need for satire?

I can understand that people might get upset when someone pokes a bit of fun at their hobby, but if religion is all its cracked up to be they shouldn't get upset - after all, they get the last laugh - right?
Richard Hough, Manchester, UK

Well done Rowan for speaking out. What's next? A ban on "English, Irish and Scotsman" jokes?
Kenny, UK

Where would Monty Python be without their "Life Of Brian" movie?

Steve Wehrle, UK
Where would Monty Python be without their "Spanish Inquisition" sketch and their "Life Of Brian" movie? And how far wouold Dave Allen have got in comedy without his religious jokes? As a fully paid-up Jedi, I have no problems at all with people making fun of us. A pity other religions don't see the funny side too. May the force be with all of you.
Steve Wehrle, UK

Satire is good, it causes us to look at things in a critical, but funny way. I have no problem with religious satire, I've engaged in it myself (and I'm a practising Christian). I think that that government should think again about this legislation.
Russ, UK

See also:

17 Oct 01 | Showbiz
Atkinson defends religious satire

Links to more Talking Point stories