In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack there has been a lot of very commendable comment and support for the principle that was under attack. But as usual there are people who are appending a but to all of the talk about free speech. Many newspapers have talked the talk but have still found excuses not to walk the walk and publish. Our national newspapers should have got together and should have agreed to publish the damned cartoons across their front pages. They still should, there is time.
I have no idea if I would have been as brave as the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo under the same sort of pressures. I have published some of their pictures and the Danish pictures of a few years ago which attracted the same opprobrium and violence. I will continue to do so. But this little blog does not compare to a magazine with a readership in the tens of thousands. In a good month this blog is viewed maybe 10, 000 times. That is a perfectly respectable figure for a blog by a non celebrity in a crowded field. But I have not had the threats and so cannot really lay claim to being brave. I like to think that my reaction would be screw you were I to receive them. Ultimately however there is strength in numbers. The crowds on the streets of Paris, London and other major cities have shown a kind of spirit of the blitz. In the same way that the people of London or Coventry were not cowed by Nazi bombing, the people have shown that we will not be bullied into silence by these nasty, small minded new Nazis. It would be nice if our newspapers would follow their example.
Religion is the excuse. Nobody has the right to demand not to be offended. Yet invoke religion and it causes pause for thought. Why? We think nothing of ridiculing anyone who is alive or dead. Our political leaders are mercilessly lampooned. We can be vicious about celebrities and their vanities and poor choice of clothing. But if someone is the alleged founder of a religion who lived centuries ago and whose life and supposed teachings have been obfuscated and spun by time and vested interests then suddenly they become untouchable. They are venerated, worshipped and given a status which makes them other worldly.
Why can the prophet not be depicted in pictorial form? We are told it is because he was perfect and that earthly artists cannot possibly do justice to that perfection for a man who supposedly ascended to heaven on some kind of mythical beast. And this ridiculous fairy tale is something we are supposed to respect and not ridicule?
This is where the whole debate gets confused. It is one thing to respect the right of people to believe whatever they want to believe however manifestly absurd. It is quite another for them to demand that we respect the actual belief itself, although many choose to do so. But what is demanded by many Muslims and indeed believers in other fairytales, is that we not only respect their stupidity but refrain from mocking it, depicting or in any way mentioning it in anything other than reverential terms. That is wrong. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were having none of it and they were right. Those who are finding excuses not to publish their cartoons are wrong and part of the problem. If we all published then that would be the end of it. Freedom of speech is a principle that cannot be allowed to be diluted by violence and threats of violence.
All religions try this trick. Fortunately for us they have failed in the western world. The reason that religion in this and many western countries is so diminished is because the special protection they used to enjoy is now disappearing. Then along comes a new religion imported into the same countries which demands what the various forms of Christianity and Judaism long ago lost. It is demanding special treatment just because of imported sensibilities. They cannot have it and must be told in no uncertain terms that it is unavailable. You have the right to believe whatever childish nonsense you want to believe in. I do not respect your beliefs, indeed I judge you for holding them. But you have the right in our free society to hold those beliefs anyway. That is the deal in a free and open society.
What religious believers cannot get through their thick heads is that the reason that western countries are prosperous, inventive and dynamic is because we threw off the shackles of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism 300 years ago. It was a struggle because the Catholic Church and its successors in the protestant world who did not want their power diminished and supplanted. But thanks to technological and scientific advances, awkward questions were asked of the Church which it could not answer. And so we found that our planet is not at the centre of the universe, we found that it is not just 4000 years old, that humans are just intelligent apes part of an animal kingdom rather than a kingdom of an imaginary god. We have found that god is just an invention of man, an invention to explain what we have found alternative better explanations for. This explanation became more elaborate but was ultimately undone by its own contradictions - that and the fact that it was written by people who though the Earth was flat. If it was the real word of an all knowing god you might think he would have noticed that that was wrong. God is a spectacularly bad writer and spinner of stories. He also needs a better editor.
Britain and the western world went through this reformation process gradually. It is a process we are actually still going through to some extent. After all many of the objections to abortion or gay marriage are based on religion. We still have bishops in our upper house of parliament for crying out loud. Only a couple of generations ago in this country churchgoing was still the norm, shops were closed on Sundays. Not so long ago non attendance at church meant being a social outcast. Coming out as an atheist would have meant much much worse. But we threw off these shackles and we are a better society. Those who demand respect for their beliefs and demand we censor ourselves as a consequence want to take us back to dark ages we long ago escaped from. We will not go back.
In the wake of the Paris massacre there have been the usual calls for tolerance and for respect. As part of this we see various representatives of the different religions get together in a show of unity and respect for one another. But this, when you think about it, is inherently absurd and shows how utterly bankrupt and pointless all of the religions are. Here they are representatives of their various gods or branches of the same god, who disagree on pretty fundamental matters preaching tolerance and acceptance of different beliefs and traditions. How does that work? Is that not the ultimate contradiction, the ultimate absurdity which ought to see them consigned to history?
Fortunately however this is what religion is reduced to in this country and the west generally. It no longer has the power to dictate to us how to live our lives, who we can marry, who we can have sex with, when we can go shopping or go to work and what is or isn't a mortal sin we must worry ourselves about. Most of us do not bother praying because it is as pointless as sending a letter to Santa. Yet because we are an open and tolerant society with good manners we accommodate those who think that they must pray five times a day and must do so facing in a certain direction. If they don't want to drink alcohol and deny themselves the pleasure of bacon then that is up to them.
But tolerance and good manners goes both ways. We have a tradition of dissent, we have a tradition of iconoclasm, we have a tradition of mockery. It has served us well, created our law based, democratic society which keeps authority in check. This is why so many people want to come and live here. It is a fundamental, non negotiable principle of being British. You have the right to believe what you want to believe. I have the right to mock you and your beliefs in the same way that I mock the leader of the Labour Party and his idiotic non existent economic policy and ideology which ought by now to be in the dustbin of history. Religion in all its forms, just ideologies too, ought to join socialism there. If god is so great he ought to be able to withstand a bit of mockery and ribaldry. But of course god is not great. That's why those who believe in him don't like being laughed at.