Natasha Walter: That's an insult to the children of Obi-Wan

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The Independent Online

It has now been revealed that so many British people wrote "Jedi" after the inquiry about their religious faith on the census form that the Office of National Statistics has had to assign the light-sabre wielders a code of their own. Being a Jedi Knight is not quite as popular as being a Catholic or a Druid, but rather more popular than being a heathen.

I hope our politicians have noted the popularity of this creed. When Tony Blair said at the Labour Party conference that all of us, Christians, Jews and Muslims, were children of Abraham, did he realise that he was causing terrible offence to those who believe themselves to be children of Obi-Wan Kenobi? Will Estelle Morris take a lead, and begin to advocate faith schools for those children who can feel the Force?

I would have thought that, given their success in winning over the Office of National Statistics, the Jedi Knights must now be waiting in keen expectation of the new legislation to outlaw religious hatred. Are they lobbying David Blunkett to declare that mockery of the kind used by the late Alec Guinness, who said that the dialogue of the original film was "frightful rubbish", is simply blasphemous?

More importantly, have the creed's keenest adherents yet managed to get themselves invited to the Downing Street's meetings of leaders of the faiths, in order to share their insights on world affairs?

But no, we must remain realistic. This Jedi creed isn't going to make it into the world league. It isn't old enough, but more importantly, it isn't nasty enough. It doesn't have a single real crusade, inquisition, or terrorist to its name. It will have to roughen up a bit if it is to command any respect from our political leaders. Fear, rather than fun, is key for religious recognition.

The prospect of new legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred may simply have been dreamt up by Blair and Blunkett in order to try to keep Muslim leaders on side during this conflict. But its usefulness must look pretty questionable.

Why, exactly, do we need such a law? After all, if anyone incites anyone to any crime, they are already committing a crime themselves. If some BNP member incites his followers to burn down a mosque, he is already acting against the law.

So how will this new law work? What new offences will it create? No doubt religious extremists from all sides will use it as Christians have in the past used the absurd blasphemy law – to try to protect their creeds from ridicule and disparagement. For years, Muslims have been arguing that it is unfair that the blasphemy law only includes the Christian faith. The answer should have been to scrap the lot, not to introduce more restrictions on freedom of expression.

Isn't it extraordinary that, in a world where such great dangers are arising from religious faith, our leaders seem eager to bolster superstition rather than to encourage rationalism?

A little hatred of religion might be a great force for good right now. I don't just mean hatred of those embarrassing bits of the Bible and the Koran that advocate intolerance, violence, or lack of respect for women – although they are there, and they can't just be wished away. I also mean hatred of the irrational nature of every religion and the claim of each religion to be a system of morality that has descended from on high and that cannot be questioned by appeals to reason or experience.

If the attacks on America have taught us anything, surely they have taught us that faith cannot be seen as entirely lovable. Since it was religion that inspired people to kill and maim and destroy so spectacularly, I would find it odd if more people didn't now start to hate religion. Bizarrely, our politicians seem to want us to move in the opposite direction, towards a culture that sets religion above criticism or ridicule.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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