By Daniel Margrain
Recently, the Independent reported on the curious story of a group of Satanic worshippers who unveiled a statue of the Knights Templar goat-man, Baphomet, in Arkansas. It was not so much the face value story that caught my attention but the statement made by Satanic Arkansas co-founder, Ivy Forrester: “If you’re going to have one religious monument up then it should be open to others. If you don’t agree with that then let’s just not have any at all,” said Forrester.
Equal religious status
On the surface, the demand by Satanists that they have equal religious status with Christians, appears absurd. But is it? Under the 1st and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution it is possible, using freedom of religion provisions, to obtain equal recognition for any proposed ‘religion’ upon the payment of a nominal fee. A few US states have offered ordination by mail or on-line of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a result of their adherents’ willingness to stump up the requisite cash.
These, and other parody religions have also sought the same reasonable accommodation legally afforded to mainstream established religions that Forrester argues is equally applicable to Satanism. The 1st and 14th amendments to the US constitution ensure that legally no distinction can be made between the rights of citizens to have their faith in belief systems recognized (or ridiculed) under the right to freedom of expression, irrespective of the form the said ‘religion’ takes.
The critical demands placed upon belief systems and critiques of their evidence-based deficiencies apply equally to the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and mainstream established religions. All are afforded equal status under the US Constitution and all are open to scrutiny, ridicule and parody on an equal basis.
The problem for freedom of expression advocates is one of lack of consistency. Established organised religions consider themselves to be absolved from ridicule in the way that the likes of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster do not. The implication is that established religious faith-based systems are more credible than non-established ‘joke’ religions. But since neither are fact based, the criticisms made against the latter do not stack up.
So why does the UK state, for example, make a distinction between joke ‘religions’ and established ones? Why should the former be regarded as exclusively non-credible, while the latter be considered immune from criticism, ridicule and parody? Why does one group make demands in law to be taken seriously despite the absurd claims that are made in an attempt to legitimize them, and the other remain open to be parodied and ridiculed on the basis of the said absurd claims? Why is there a different set of standards applied to each of them? Surely, the notion that all belief systems should be open to criticism and/or parody and ridicule whether established or not, should be regarded as a welcome development in free and democratically transparent societies?
The groups who formed the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are using freedom of expression legislation under the US Constitution to augment their right to parody other belief systems in the same way that those who adhere to equally irrational (albeit established) belief systems, are entitled (and indeed, expected ), to ridicule them.
Inadvertently, the United States is leading the way in exposing the absurdity of organised religious dogma in all its forms. Satirists who form spoof religious groups as vehicles for exposing the double standards and hypocrisy of the state as a means of exercising their right to freedom of speech, actively embrace the ability to both be criticised and to criticise the belief systems of others on an equal basis free from the constraints of censorship. Indeed, this principle is central to the establishment of healthy democracies. Nevertheless, it still remains the case that there are limits set by many state legislatures as to how far down the road its citizens are allowed to go in lampooning organised religion.
Life of Brian & the Satanic Verses
One of my earliest memories of having my right to be offended and to offend curtailed was when, in their infinite wisdom, Torbay Borough Council and thirty-eight others throughout the UK decided to ban the Monty Python religious comedy satire, The Life of Brian, from cinema’s on the basis that it was deemed by a small minority to have been “blasphemous”.
Incredibly, the ban in Torbay remained in place until 2008 lasting 29 years. More significantly, the film was shunned by the BBC and ITV, who declined to broadcast it for fear of offending Christians in the UK. Blasphemy was restrained – or its circulation effectively curtailed – not by the force of law “but by the internalization of this law.”
Almost a decade after the The Life of Brian controversy, orthodox religion was again the catalyst behind the attempt to censor art. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, first published in 1988, was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. As with his previous books, Rushdie used magical realism and relied on contemporary events and people to create his characters.
Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy and subsequently engaged in a number of book burning exercises throughout the UK. In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi’a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers.
Disgraced British parliamentarian, Keith Vaz, who led a march through Leicester shortly after he was elected in 1989, rallied behind India’s decision to ban the book by calling for the same in the UK. To date, with police protection, Rushdie has escaped direct physical harm. However, forty-one others associated with his book have either been murdered or have suffered violent attacks leading to serious, and in some cases, life threatening injuries.
Hebdo, Diedonne & Corbyn
Islamic fundamentalism was again to play a part in relation to its opposition to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The publication, which featured cartoons, reports, polemics, and irreverent jokes, was the target of two terrorist attacks, in 2011 and 2015 in response to a number of controversial cartoons it published of the prophet. In the second of these attacks, 12 people were killed, including the magazines publishing director and several other prominent cartoonists.
Meanwhile, in France, public officials, Jewish groups and others have attempted to censor the satirist, political activist and comedian Diedonne M’bala M’bala, for his outspoken criticisms of the Israeli state. More recently the pro-Israel Lobby in the UK have attempted to gag pro-Palestinian activists that include Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In both cases, the aim of the Lobby is to curtail the freedom of speech of all voices critical of the ethnic cleansing policies of an apartheid state using contrived anti-Semitism allegations as their justification.
The great musician and satirist, Frank Zappa, believed rightly, that no barrier, however “offensive”, should be placed in the way of freedom of expression. Zappa’s targets were everything and everybody from religion, politicians and corporations through to “Catholic girls”, “Jewish princesses”, “valley girls”, black people, white people and ideologies of all kinds. He showed no mercy for the human condition and regularly exposed hypocrisy at every turn. This is the spirit of freedom and openness that we should all aspire to but which religious dogmas and political ideologies often try to suppress.
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