Ann Widdecombe
Ann Widdecombe and comedian Marcus Brigstocke

Conservative Catholic Ann Widdecombe recently presented a BBC television program titled Are you having a laugh? - Comedy and Christianity (BBC One, 27 March)in which she expressed grave concerns about the nature and selectivity of the Christian-bashing humour she has seen in recent decades. What makes the recent humour nastier than the older, gentler mockery of Christians, for Widdicombe, is that it is aimed less at institutions and practitioners and more at the tenets of belief itself. Yet, contradictorily, she also says that the newer brand of humour is worse because it is “more personal”. It would be a rather poor argumentative tactic to attack the person instead of the tenets of their religious belief, and most people regard ad hominem attacks as cheap shots. Yet Widdecombe seems to think this would be preferable to attacking the content of their beliefs.

Widdecombe’s argument hinges largely on a distinction she wants to draw between humour that is acceptable and that which “crosses a line” by constituting a “contemptuous, sometimes blasphemous, attack on the religion.” However, this merely begs the question, since regarding a particular expression as “blasphemous” assumes that we all believe that the religion or its claims are “sacred”. In a liberal democracy, this is precisely what is up for debate. Yet Widdecombe treats “blasphemy” against the “sacred” as a line-crossing category that ought to elicit automatic deference from all.

In order to get some purchase on Widdecombe’s belief that attacks on the articles of faith are more “personal” than attacks on the believer herself, we need to consider why she thinks attacks on the sacred wound the religious believer. As her case in point, Widdecombe alludes to comedy that attacks the person of Jesus. She argues that the mocking of Jesus Christ is analogous to mocking a bereaved person after the loss of a loved one. This is a very bad analogy. First, Christians may claim to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” but this “relationship” is unlike a personal relationship with an individual one has actually met. A relationship with Jesus Christ is similar to someone’s relationship to a political doctrine or an iconic figure, whether a pop star or a political activist, as Jesus surely was. Imagine saying that no one can mock the person of Elvis Presley because it wounds his fans too much! The kind of “relationship” Ann is describing is one-sided devotion to a figure that one has never met, but who represents a set of values or a philosophy of life. It is precisely because of what has been said about Jesus and his significance within a divine plan for all of humanity that some people devote themselves to him, and others have a right to respond to these claims for the same reason. This is not just a personal relationship – it is one that has social and political ramifications, or else it would never become an object of ridicule.

At the funeral of gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepherd in 1998, the homophobic Christians of the Westboro Baptist Church, with all the sensitivity of a dentist’s drill, confronted the bereaved with chants of “God hates fags” and placards bearing St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Verses 18,-32, which reminded the bereaved that those “who [practice homosexuality]. . . deserve to die”. The response to this was not to demand revision of the United States Constitution or establishment of new laws to prevent people from “wounding” their precious feelings. Rather the offended parties formed a human chain that prevented the Christian demonstrators from getting close enough to the funeral-goers to harass them with their hateful messages.

Lesbians like me have been subjected to a lot of sexist and homophobic abuse in our lives, and a lot of the offensive material we’ve endured is directly or indirectly Christian. But censoring the offensive material, while it might have made me “happier” by indulging an infantile wish to be protected from the realities of homophobia, would not have helped me develop as an individual, nor to think as hard as I have (I have a PhD in social and contextual theology, by the way) about how and why these Christian beliefs are so pernicious and fallacious.

Therefore, I am grateful to the Christian abusers for helping me to develop as an individual and to think about why their dominant views (I’m from the United States, where 80 per cent of the population believe the Bible is sacred) are so lame. If I’d never felt compelled by that hatred to respond to it, I would not have bothered to study theology, to teach (non-religious) ethics or to do anything to contribute to the values of social progress and tolerance. Ann Widdecombe has every right to promote the ideas and values she believes in. I invite her to try. The beauty of a free marketplace of ideas is that competition between rival beliefs makes it likely that the best of them will survive. The “testing” that our ideas must endure in this free context is what permits us to be more confident that we have good reasons for trusting the ideas that stand up to scrutiny, while less robust arguments wither away.

Religious ideas such as the transubstantiation (the miraculous transformation of bread and wine into body and blood) ought to be quintessential targets for humour and debate – not exempt from it! Protecting these doctrines from criticism ensures that the most bizarre beliefs will never be subject to critical reflection. The kryptonite shield of “sacrilege” Widdecombe wants to wrap around such doctrines only makes them look weaker, since it would prevent the kind of evidence that Christians would regard as proof in all other contexts from being marshaled against them.

Like Widdecombe, British journalist Mehdi Hasan has argued that some forms of anti-religious speech are out of bounds because they “hurt” Muslims more than non-Muslims can possibly comprehend. This kind of religious exemption from offence is just special pleading. Not only does it trade on the falsehood that some people have a special claim to emotional injury that others do not. It also underestimates the degree of offence and hurt that Islam and Christianity inflict. As a woman, I am very deeply offended every time I see a woman wearing a burka. Yet even such questionable practices as veiling and arranged marriages with teenage girls are absolutely immune from criticism in Britain due to (a) the already universal low status of women as a group, and (b) the peculiar idea that any criticism of Islam (the religion) must be some form of racism against Muslim people, even when the criticism is intended to defend Muslim women, Muslim apostates, Muslim homosexuals and Muslim moderates from intolerant Islamist penal codes and practices.

Widdecombe is right in saying that Christianity is more subject to ridicule than other religions in Britain. I agree with her that the double standard needs to be lifted: what is needed is more debate and satire of Islam, not less of Christianity. Moreover, “hurt” is not quantifiable in any consistent way. No one can prove that his hurt is more important or more profound than anyone else’s, until we enter the realm of infringements upon one’s person – such as physical injury, detention, or slavery.

Widdecombe also laments a social shift since the middle of the last century when most of Britain were Christian or at least generally familiar with the tenets of the faith. Nowadays, she says, a comic doing stand-up assumes that his listeners are probably not Christian. The breakdown of the Christian consensus in this country means that comics tend to assume their audience will laugh along with them when Christian belief is the butt of the joke. But this misses the point. The comic shouldn’t care whether she offends the odd Christian in the audience. In a free country, the Christian listener is not compelled to listen to anything he does not find amusing. He can even heckle the comic if he likes. The same goes for anyone who attends a Church service (although heckling might be greeted with consternation).

Ann Widdecombe has two complaints about the aggressive brand of comedy that treats Christian belief as some form of madness. First, she says that it misrepresents what many Christians believe. Yet the examples given in the program – transubstantiation and Ricky Gervais’s step-by-step dismantling of the story of the fall (from Genesis) – did not misrepresent the tenets of belief, they simply found them ridiculous. Even if the articles of faith had been misrepresented, this would not be a valid argument against hearing them. Free speech is not permitted only for infallible or completely accurate ideas. Liberal democracies defend absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects. All kinds of groups and ideas are “misrepresented” in the media every day. Is Widdecombe calling for a ban on poetic license? She can represent Christianity properly whenever she wants to, and has lots of access to do so. The fact that all Christians do not believe exactly the same thing is no reason why comics shouldn’t take aim at the most far-fetched Christian beliefs. Surely, the more “reasonable” Christians, if they are so keen to distance themselves from these “misrepresentations”, shouldn’t be too sad to see them skewered.

Widdecombe also says that too many comics assume that their audiences are on the same wavelength when Christians are being ridiculed. This just misunderstands the mechanics of comedy. Just as not all Christians are stupid or humourless, not all comics are “nice” and shallow. As Widdecombe says herself, laughter can be a serious business. It can tell us a lot about our values and what we regard as important. Comics often address the most important social and political issues in a way that makes their criticisms palatable, which is why good comics are usually very intelligent as well as very funny. Satire is a political tool and arguably so is religion. It seems that when satire has the upper hand, religious spokespeople like Widdecombe are just sore losers. Whether Christians are ‘mad’ or ‘stupid’ for believing things that most intelligent people find ludicrous is exactly what is being debated, and comics have as much right to wade into the dispute as anyone else.

If Widdecombe is weary of being made to look stupid, she should simply go and see a Christian comic. If she can’t find any she likes, then maybe she is mistaken about how intelligent and funny Christians really are.