Perspectives: Mocking faith - how far can you go?

A picture of the Father Ted cast Father Ted has his own fan festival, held every year on the Irish island of Inishmore

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Is religion an impediment to humour, and is it more acceptable to make fun of Christianity than other faiths?

Paul Kerensa (left) and Mitch Benn Paul Kerensa (left) and Mitch Benn approach the debate from different perspectives

As part of the Perspectives series, BBC Religion and Ethics asked two contributors to develop some of the issues.

Paul Kerensa is an award-winning stand-up comic, writer for sitcoms like Miranda and Not Going Out, and author of the book 'So A Comedian Walks Into A Church'.

Paul is a practising Christian.

Mitch Benn has been the resident satirical songwriter on BBC Radio 4's The Now Show for over ten years and a mainstay on the comedy circuit for even longer.

Mitch is an atheist.

His debut sci-fi novel Terra will be published in July.

Avoiding tension

Mitch: If religion isn't an impediment to humour why does it seem to function as one?

I know of very few religious - or at least "out" religious comics.

Start Quote

If people are offended by sincerity then they need to have a think about that. Nobody has the right never to be offended”

End Quote Mitch Benn Satirical songwriter

The big exception to this I guess is Jewish humour, although I think that's at least partly bound up in the Jewish people's almost perpetual outsider status throughout history.

Do you think maybe Christianity is too bound up with the establishment to provide a basis for comedy?

Paul: I agree that there are very few "out" religious comics. I know a few who aren't "out", so there clearly seems some embarrassment factor, or barrier to wearing it as a badge.

To be honest I don't shout it from the rooftops, but only because I don't talk much about it onstage. I've got gags about being a Christian, but they're not as funny as other bits I do, so I simply don't dwell on it as I want to deliver the best show.

However, it seems some atheist comics assume that everyone in the room is on the same page as them.

I think Christians often seek to avoid tension, so we don't proselytise from the stage for fear of splitting or turning the room.

Controversy - out or in?

Comedy and religion: love or hate?

The Citizen Khan cast
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian, the story of a Jewish man called Brian who is mistaken for Jesus Christ, caused much controversy when it was released in 1979. Despite being named best comedy film of all time in a 2006 Channel 4 poll, it remained banned in some areas of the UK as late as 2008
  • Cult comedy Father Ted tells the adventures of a group of Irish Catholic priests on the fictional Craggy Island. Although it was not deemed to be particularly controversial, some Irish priests felt that it overstepped the mark
  • In 2012, the BBC sitcom Citizen Khan received complaints, as some saw it as mocking Islam

Mitch: The snarky atheist in me has occasionally pondered if it isn't really about keeping the material as uncontroversial as possible.

I honestly don't care whether my audience is on the same page as me religion-wise when I go into one of my anti-theistic bits; I'm not seeking to offend anyone on purpose but I believe what I believe for good reasons and I articulate those reasons as I go.

If people are offended by sincerity then they need to have a think about that.

Nobody has the right never to be offended.

Here's one for you: why don't you bring your faith into your comedy?

You're evidently comfortable in your beliefs, I'm sure you believe your have good reasons for believing as you do and anyone who can get laughs out of quadratic equations like you do can get laughs out of anything.

So why don't you talk about it on stage?

Paul: I never seek to prove my faith - it's a leap of faith that has got me where I am. I studied Theology, and a bit of Philosophy, and the whole ontological and cosmological arguments get us nowhere, and is a waste of everyone's time and brainpower.

So my faith, which is illogical and I love it that way, is totally separate from my interest in logical science.

Start Quote

We don't meet on Sunday mornings to discuss how best to massacre another religious minority, or even how to deny science”

End Quote Paul Kerensa Stand-up comic

Once you set out to prove God via scientific method, you're climbing the Tower of Babel and generally missing the point.

If I had a killer bit about John 3:16, I'd by all means do it, but punters tend to laugh more at my funny story about a toilet or what not to name your kids.

I've heard some comics jump on board the atheist bandwagon and have a quick pop at Jesus being a fictitious character, or how the Pope is, well... something that the moderator would delete in this conversation. They think it'll get a quick cheap laugh.

If it's one-note and been done before, you just want them to put a bit more effort in.

The only thing that offends me is lazy comedy - not about religion but about anything.

I think there's a tendency to think that if I'm a Christian and I mention religion on a platform, I'm probably trying to get you on an Alpha course.

Mocking Islam

Mitch: Richard Dawkins flagged up an interview with the journalist Mehdi Hasan in which he confirmed that, as a committed Muslim, he does indeed believe that the Prophet Mohamed did not die bodily but ascended to heaven on a winged horse.

Professor Dawkins wondered (in typically blunt fashion, for which he later apologised on his blog) how anyone professing such a belief could be taken seriously as a journalist.

This provoked a furious reaction from all the usual suspects and a good few unusual ones, denouncing Professor Dawkins with that most dread of tar-brushes, "Islamophobia", which was nonsense - the Prof is very even handed in his withering contempt for all religions, he just happened to be talking about Islam in that instance.

Surely the point is this: while it doesn't necessarily follow that someone who professes a belief in flying horses as an article of religious faith should be dismissed as crazy, anyone who professed such a belief for any reason other than religious faith would surely, at the very least, be considered a little eccentric.

It's that same tradition of religious privilege, that same convention that One Does Not Mock Religious Beliefs, that also shields from scrutiny and criticism practices such as the condemnation of homosexuals, the denial of science and the withholding of medical treatments.

If you decide it's wrong, out of respect, to make fun of someone's belief in relatively benign things like winged horses, or magic wafers that turn into the body of Christ, on what basis do you condemn another man whose interpretation of his faith leads him to oppress women, kill his errant daughter or even blow up a family planning clinic?

This is why I believe that poking fun at religion is not just acceptable, it's essential.

The late Richard Griffiths as the bishop and DAWN FRENCH as The Vicar of Dibley, Geraldine Grainger in church The BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley tackled the theme of female vicars

'Big Humanity'

Paul: I don't believe religion is undiscussable - in fact I like that it's talked about. I don't think that it's unmockable either. If the satire is aimed at all the items you listed, then that needs to happen.

Believe it or not, but Christians I know would be against all those things too. We don't meet on Sunday mornings to discuss how best to massacre another religious minority, or even how to deny science. I know Christians who've been in the Pride March - and I know none who've protested against it.

Many of the areas you talk about occurred under Islam, yet anti-theist comedy routines hardly ever aim at Islam.

The aim is turned to the Christian God. It's like wanting to have a go at the school bully but deciding he's too dangerous, so picking on his nicer brother instead.

What is heartening is that both you and I are out for justice.

If you're taking on Big Religion, then fair enough. Big Religion has been behind everything from the Crusades to 9/11, but then it has included several billion people, so really there are bound to be a few wrong 'uns in there. If you get bad eggs, you don't throw away all eggs.

The problem really is Big Humanity.

But yes, Catholic (and even Anglican) cover-ups, organised religious hatred, institutionalised homophobia... I stand against all of these things. Ministers in the Church often do not act on my behalf, just as the actions of our MPs often don't reflect the rest of the nation's wishes.

So mock and scrutinise the dark offshoots of Big Religion by all means. I just wish I heard more in comedy clubs going after those specific wrongs you mention, rather than the simplistic writing-off of Jesus as fictitious, or even, as I've heard several times, gags about Christ's sex life.

Laughs of outrage, some walk-outs, no genital mutilation held to account.

I'm offended, but on the ground of lazy comedy; religion should have no immunity from mockery.

Nobody has the right never to be offended, but it's nice to be nice, and when it gets personal, we reserve the right to tut, and maybe pray for the comedian.

Perspectives is a forum for invited contributors to write about personal and contemporary issues of faith and ethics. The views expressed here are those of the individual authors, not the BBC. This article was first published 8 May 2013.

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