Christmas would be fine if it weren't for religion

The message for writers and politicians should be to leave these things to hard-core believers
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The Independent Online

Soon the Lord will be among us, His songs upon our lips, His story playing merry yuletide havoc with the TV schedules.

But He will not be in our jeans. The Patent Office has just denied a clothes company called Rowland Buerlen the opportunity to register the name "Jesus" as a trademark for items of clothing. In the view of "any right-thinking member of the public", it says, the idea of Jesus jeans is "contrary to public policy or to accepted principles of morality" and likely to cause "greater offence than mere distaste to a significant section of the general public".

As is almost always the case when the moral sensibilities of right-thinking members of the public are invoked, the conclusion reached by the Patent Office is twaddle. Every day throughout this month, private companies across the world will be making billions out of the religious festival of Christmas.

Although 2,000 or so years ago, there was that whole business in the temple, overturning the tables of the moneylenders and the seats of those selling doves, it seems that we have moved on since then. These days, it is entirely appropriate that Christmas should be an orgy of consumerism and profit - after all, over the last century, Christianity has largely become the spiritual wing of capitalism. Under these circumstances, the appearance of His name on the seat of a pair of jeans should surely be considered as no more than advertising.

But something odd, and out of national character, has recently been happening. The British are, in one way or another, becoming hung up on religion. As Catholic countries grow more secular - the French, Spaniards and Italians will have no problem in buying Jesus clothes - we, with a new and dangerous light in our eyes, are heading in the opposite direction.

So not only does the God slot continue to run at peak time on Radio 4 and a rather interesting series on religion and politics appears on TV, but some of our slyer politicians have taken to attaching, albeit in a shifty, sub-textual way, a religious tag to their weightier pronouncements.

The entertainment media happily play along. The two main theatrical events of last week, David Almond's Skellig and Stephen Berkoff's Messiah, reflected our new enthusiasm for spiritual matters, one celebrating it, the other mocking it. Next month, the heavy battalions go into battle with the National Theatre adaptation of Philip Pullman's mighty trilogy His Dark Materials, a story preoccupied by the connection between belief and the established church.

Elsewhere, the Lord is playing a more light-hearted role. In Jerry Springer - the Opera, Jesus appears as a petulant guest on a Springer show taking place in hell. Salley Vickers' novel Mr Golightly's Holiday has him visiting Widdecombe in disguise, while in the film Bruce Almighty - described by its director as "a love story dealing with God's love" - Jim Carrey takes over the job of creator for a week.

Enough, surely. This preoccupation with religion is getting out of hand. As a non-believer, I am quite happy for religious leaders to contribute to debates on public issues, even if the Archbishop of Canterbury's publicity department refuse to allow his views on the Iraq war to be publicly broadcast, but perhaps the message for 2004 to writers, politicians and producers should be to leave these things to hard-core believers. A culture that becomes obsessed with spirituality is not far from slipping into the humourless, censorship-happy stupidity of Bible-belt America.

In fact, the signs are already there. This month a man called Clive Hibbert has established Christians Against Ridicule, an organisation that will campaign against "the abuse and blasphemy that masquerades as art, entertainment and social commentary today". Christians, says Mr Hibbert, have become "a convenient target of easy ridicule by lazy journalists and uninspired advertising executives across the country."

As a lazy journalist, I shall be supporting this cause, if for different reasons than those of the CAR community. It is not just the ridiculing references to religion that should be seriously curtailed, but all of them. Rather than woozily contemplating matters beyond our ken, we might all usefully turn our attention to the here and now.

The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, has been setting a good example here with her breezily secular Christmas card, featuring ethnic dancers, a TV set, a train and the word "goal", which has so enraged huffy columnists with CARist sympathies. Another equally irreligious missive - a picture of the sender, grinning, with his two sons - is being dispatched by the future head of the Church of England, Prince Charles.

Yet again, this under-rated man has shown us all the way forward to a healthier, less pie-eyed future in which our incipient religious enthusiasm is kept in check.