Joan Smith: My God given right to be rude

Religions control behaviour catastrophically for women, homosexuals, rival faiths and non-believers
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The Independent Online

Some time ago, a middle-aged woman knocked on my front door and asked whether I had heard the good news about Our Lord, Jesus Christ. I said I had but I wasn't terribly convinced by it - if my house had a name, it would be something like Godless Towers - and she looked crestfallen. A moment later, she asked if I would mind answering another question, pointed at the bay tree in my porch and wanted to know if it was easy to grow in this country. I've never met an evangelist who gave up so easily and I hope she wasn't sent off for retraining when she reported back to HQ, sans convert but with some useful gardening tips.

Some time ago, a middle-aged woman knocked on my front door and asked whether I had heard the good news about Our Lord, Jesus Christ. I said I had but I wasn't terribly convinced by it - if my house had a name, it would be something like Godless Towers - and she looked crestfallen. A moment later, she asked if I would mind answering another question, pointed at the bay tree in my porch and wanted to know if it was easy to grow in this country. I've never met an evangelist who gave up so easily and I hope she wasn't sent off for retraining when she reported back to HQ, sans convert but with some useful gardening tips.

Making fun of religion has always been one of my hobbies, one I shared with my father, who was a militant atheist. When I was a child, we liked nothing better than inviting Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons into our house and getting into a no-holds-barred argument about good, evil, the (non) existence of God and the more preposterous claims made in the Bible. In those days, in the English towns in which I grew up, we never encountered other religions, although Dad and I would have been just as happy to have a go at other monotheistic faiths, given the opportunity. Many years later, in a clandestine meeting in a town in Syria, I found myself making the case for atheism with a group of mainly Muslim students, not realising that it is actually illegal in that country; by the time I returned to the capital, a secret police report had arrived before me and I was banned from speaking at the University of Damascus.

It couldn't happen here, or so I would have argued as recently as four or five years ago. But now I see an insidious process at work in which the right to be rude about religion is under attack on half a dozen fronts. The latest assault came in last week's Guardian, where a writer who described himself as an atheist complained about other non-believers, and suggested we should start being nice about religion. "Not believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naively pro-science," the paper proclaimed. The article characterised religious belief as a mainly benevolent force which attempts to express "the longing for transcendent meaning that lies in man's [sic] heart".

Oh, come off it. This is a puerile mistake, treating the attenuated form of Christianity we became used to during the final decades of the 20th century as the norm, when it is actually an aberration. Religions are a lot more concerned with power than transcendence, and they like nothing better than to control public and private behaviour in ways that have been catastrophic for women, non-believers, homosexuals and members of rival faiths. What unites them from time to time is their intolerance of criticism, which is why they have joined forces to support the Government's outrageous attempt to introduce an offence of incitement to religious hatred, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Indeed, it is clear that Christian denominations are envious of the confident assertions of Islam, which demands a very different relationship between individuals, their religion and the state.

I can't think of a worse time for atheists to pipe down, as the mismatch between secular modern values and politicised forms of religion (promulgated by the new Pope, among others) shapes up to become the defining conflict of the 21st century. Readers of the The Independent on Sunday do not need to be reminded of what Voltaire said or is supposed to have said (the attribution is uncertain) on the subject of free speech, but inherent in it is the important distinction between respecting someone's right to express their views and being forced to respect those views, however irrational. If people want to believe that Jesus was God's son or that Mohammed was his prophet, I have no problem with that; if they believe in life after death, that's fine too. What they can't insist is that I take any of it seriously, not for a single moment.

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