Blessings Upon Them, and Upon Their Typing Hands

May the god of the atheists shine its everlasting light on Polly Toynbee. Wait. May the – oh never mind, you know what I mean.

At least she hasn’t swapped her brain for a fleece.

It would be entirely reasonable for secular Labour MPs to plead conscience on this, just as the religious are excused the whip on matters that trespass on their faith. This touches on freedom of thought and ideas, with far-reaching consequences for the values of the Enlightenment that are under growing threat from a collective softening of the brain on faith and superstitions of all kinds.

Yep. And you need to watch out for that collective softening of the brain stuff. It can creep up on you and before you know where you are or can say ‘Look at that tortilla, doesn’t that look like St Aloysius the Uninteresting?’ you’ve got religious zealots running the place. It can happen. Don’t you think it can’t. Listen, the US was not such a god-ridden place thirty years ago – not nearly. Then people absent-mindedly voted a ‘born-again’ Christian into the White House, and things have been getting worse ever since. So don’t let down your guard just because Tony Blair doesn’t keep saying ‘God bless you’ during question time – yet.

it is now illegal to describe an ethnic group as feeble-minded. But under this law I couldn’t call Christian believers similarly intellectually challenged without risk of prosecution. This crystallises the difference between racial and religious abuse. Race is something people cannot choose and it defines nothing about them as people. But beliefs are what people choose to identify with: in the rough and tumble of argument to call people stupid for their beliefs is legitimate (if perhaps unwise), but to brand them stupid on account of their race is a mortal insult. The two cannot be blurred into one – which is why the word Islamophobia is a nonsense. And now the Vatican wants the UN to include Christianophobia in its monitoring of discriminations.

Just so. ‘Race’ can’t possibly be stupid, because it doesn’t have any cognitive content anyway. It’s a complete category mistake. One might as well call a pineapple loyal or a Prada bag dyslexic. But beliefs are all about cognitive content – that’s what they are. Believers are always trying to disguise that, trying to pretend that belief is something else – virtue, or a disposition to kindness, or a talent for keeping your pants on, or marital stability combined with fecundity combined with the ability to hang on to a job – but that’s not what it is. It’s inane and meaningless to call red hair stupid (unless it’s the product of a packet of dye, but that’s a special case, and not relevant), it’s not inane and meaningless to call belief in heaven and hell stupid. Rude, possibly, but not meaningless.

…the religious are already getting their way in more insidious ways. For the chilling effect of this law is here now. There is a new nervousness about criticising, let alone mocking, any religious belief, a jumpiness about challenging Islam or Roman Catholicism. This most secular state in the world, with fewest worshippers at any altars, should be a beacon of secularism in a world beset by religious bloodshed. Instead, our politicians twitch nervously in a lily-livered capitulation to unreason. Why? Because this clever blending between race and faith has tied all tongues. This law springs from a cult of phoney racial/religious respect that makes it harder than it ever was to dare to criticise, let alone mock. There is a new caution about “causing offence”. What kind of offence? Not to people’s race but to ideas in their head.

Remember what Stephen Fry said at Hay about the two words that have taken on creepy overtones lately? Remember what the words were? I knew, I knew before he said them – I said the second one aloud before he got it out of his mouth. Everyone knows; it’s obvious. Respect and offence. ‘I’m offended,’ Fry said in a mincing voice. ‘Well so fucking what?!” Exactly. May the god of the atheists shine its everlasting light on Fry and Toynbee – and Atkinson and Rushdie and Hitchens. Bless all articulate atheists, amen.

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