We all know that mocking someone's religion - especially in polite social situations - is taboo. When it comes to someone's 'unbelief', however, it seems all is permissible. I was recently ridiculed for being an atheist. This was not by a religious demagogue in a place of worship, rather by a liberal in a craft-beer serving gastropub (with its art-student staff, and food served on wooden boards, it was a perfect nest of Lefties). The episode was slightly indecent, not to mention unwarranted. But it was not surprising - for if there is any type that can be relied upon to defend religion, it is the London liberal.
It was my friend Rich's birthday and I had been invited to join him at The Orchard in Brockley - HQ for the local hipster-lite demographic. Rich and I met when we shared a house and we didn't have any mutual friends. Still, I had met most of his birthday party pals before and found them to be an agreeable bunch. He had booked a table (an essential act, and a sad development in the world of the boozer) which became our base for the night.
We gave Rich his presents while fending off bearded chair-stealers. I gave him a copy of Christopher Hitchens's 'God is not Great'. As a reformed renegade and former squatter, I figured Rich would be amenable to the tome. He laughed. During our time together we debated religion on many occasions. He was squarely in the religionist's corner - an atheist who 'believed in belief'. Which is fine - I was attending a dear friend's birthday do, not a melee on Speaker's Corner. Nevertheless, we had made a certain amount of progress. Rich had recently told me he somewhat identified with Hitchens's 'anti-theist' rhetoric. This prompted the gift. I had, as Rich put it, seen a break in the defences and was pouring everything into the breach.
All things considered, the gift was a benign (if slightly smug) in-joke. Nevertheless, the table-reaction surprised me. One of Rich's friends, (a man with the rather incongruous dual-career of social worker and dance instructor) found the book both hilarious and repellent. I'm a Muslim he said, with a spiky laugh. Then: no, I'm a Christian. The inference being that brandishing such a book in public could (indeed, is likely to) cause offence. I'm joking, he eventually said with a wolfish grin. Presumably, I should've felt relief at being let off the hook. The joke was unclear, as was the association with offence. Could it really be offensive to disbelieve in God, in liberal company, in the South London of 2015? It seemed entirely possible as the jokes that followed riffed on this theme. I should be careful, he warned. A Christian friend was due to attend, and she would be displeased (incidentally, she is a thoroughly charming and delightful lady who is unfailingly modest in her beliefs). These were light-hearted remarks, of course, but made with the earnestness that comes after alcohol.
I could live with the ribbing, not necessarily the stuff of hilarious birthday japes, but it was acceptable. They were Rich's friends and basically a decent crowd. Still, I was beguiled by the social worker's persistence. He kept on after all humour had drained from the mock. Gripping the book with a roughness rarely seen when one person handles another's new possession, he kept saying I'm offended, bending the paperback in his hands. My gift was derided. Perhaps this was warranted, it was after all a seemingly dour present, and this was a joyous occasion. Later on, I realised the social worker actually was offended. Outside, and a little drunk, he told me the West's collective attitude towards Muslims was the reason for the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and that 'they' brought it on themselves. The notion is of course nauseating. And not worth entertaining here. Or anywhere.
The social worker did make me think - but not in the way in which he'd intended. I puzzled over his remarks about the book (it should be said that while I have encountered him many times over the years he insists on saying what's his name again? Loudly, and in front of me, on every occasion. I therefore write this article encased in the knowledge that, should he ever read it and recognise himself, he would have no idea who'd written it). I thought about the situation in reverse. Imagine being in the company of two Hindus when one gives the other a finely bound copy of The Holy Vedas as a birthday gift. Now, imagine crackling laughter at the table. One of the guests, an acquaintance, says in a booming voice: 'my mate's a humanist, he won't be happy when he comes down later'. This hits home like a sonic punchline and several others pitch in with sardonic laughter. Granted, this could happen in some dark backwater boozer (in the company of morons). But in a middle-class London locale, surrounded by Lefties?
If that wasn't awkward enough, let's imagine another scenario. One more incendiary. We are in a coffee shop having a celebratory tea and cake when one bearded friend gives another a copy of the Koran. The social worker literally snatches it away and roughly flicks through the pages, sonorously declaring his atheism before announcing his offence. This is followed by squalls of laughter - the implied joke being we are heading for trouble. The social worker allows the declaration to detonate before finally saying I'm joking with a derisory laugh - still clutching the revered book. Does this sound like plausible Leftie behaviour? Can you imagine this situation unfolding in your local hipster café? No, and neither can I. But then 'God is not Great' is not a holy book, and atheism is not a dearly held 'belief' - would be the response.
And this is the problem with religious ideas - they are held in higher regard than supposedly 'ordinary' ideas. Let's remember, that's all we are talking about: ideas (albeit ideas people kill and die for). We have been conditioned since birth to think of religion as a special concept which must be respected, a set of ideas in need of protection. Still, putting this aside for a moment, why should I take any of it seriously? The social worker was only joking, right? Of course he was. But, as with the matter of 'respect', not all beliefs are equally open to ridicule. The distinction here, my social worker friend, is that I won't be offended if you ridicule my 'unbelief'. I might at most write a few terse words about you, and your beliefs. Terrorist apologist. For shame.