Date: August 21 2012
People who are offended by those who laugh at them because they set revelation above reason can partly blame the High Court. To some extent the Court could be said to have facilitated true believers being held up to ridicule when in the 1983 Scientology case it defined religion as, firstly, belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle, and secondly, acceptances and observance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief. And who is easier to mock than someone whose firm belief in the supernatural means they have surrendered their free will to the diktats and dogmas of a hierarchy that has evolved rituals of behaviour and social control consistent with the supposed will of an entity whose existence is neither apparent nor proven and who for more than 3000 years has been socially constructed at different times in numerous guises by various societies?
Surely the supposedly rational mind of an atheist, agnostic, humanist or others of similar ilk can give voice to scorning what to them is the irrational mind of the belief-without-convincing-evidence of the true believer? After all, isn't it the essence of democracy that one shouldn't have to respect the opinions of another, just their right to have an opinion, as the believers should of their critics?
Apparently not, if The Canberra Times page 1 report ''Corbell moves for tough religious hate laws'' of August 14 is to be believed. The ACT Attorney-General's proposed bill ''will make it unlawful to publicly incite hatred, contempt or ridicule of a person based on their religion'', and The Australian Oxford Dictionary and Macquarie Concise Dictionary both cite ''contempt'' as including scorn, and ridicule as ''making fun of''. In other words, if you disagree with what someone else believes in, be extremely careful how you express your disagreement and certainly don't make a joke about it.
Perhaps the spirit of what Simon Corbell proposes already exists in the ACT. Several months ago we saw a bureaucratic example of extreme, if not ludicrous, sensitivity to presumably alleged religious comment where an organisation supposedly established to protect our human rights was so exercised by a question in a trivia quiz relating to where funerals were held of Muslim victims of a boat people drowning that advice had to be sought from a federal agency on the possibility of a prosecution when ACT legislation proved inadequate.
Associated with such a confected concern lies one of the difficulties - and paradoxes - of enforcing Corbell's intended legislation: how does one define the point at which one's sense of humour gets one banged up for ridiculing religion without the whole legal system looking ridiculous in the process? In fact, absurdity is ever present where sensibilities are believed to be offended, in other words where the tenets of political rectitude have been ignored. The apotheosis of nonsense must have been achieved in the pages of this paper and by many of the population a couple of months ago when someone distributed pamphlets, without significant comment, apparently accurately repeating the Koran's instructions on how to beat one's wife. Shrieks of protest and howls of racism accompanied and followed a news report of the dissemination of the literature, and if memory serves the expression ''anti-Islamic'' had a good airing, with the original report having ''anti-Islamic'' in the headline without the inverted commas. Members of the Islamic community were among those who condemned the publication, but not one person has so far offered any evidence that its claims were false and not consistent with Islamic doctrine. How would Corbell handle the matter today if his proposals were law? He would be wise to leave it alone. Every time the question of the value of religion crops up in this paper's correspondence columns, non-believers will trot out references in Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Exodus to God's barbarism, alongside which, according to religious sceptic and author Sam Harris, ''The Koran pales in comparison.'' Will such letter-writers be prosecuted for anti-Semitism? And would an atheist be prosecuted for being anti-Christian if he pointed out that in Matthew 5:17 Jesus Christ fully supported God's wishes? Extracts of the Torah, Koran and New Testament can all be cherry-picked to demonstrate divine malignity - or benevolence - and the public expression of anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic sentiments based on them should carry no more sense of moral repugnance, if they actually have any, than anti-Christian ones.
Corbell will also find himself beset by philosophical problems if he proceeds with proscribing jokes with religious elements. The essence of humour is incongruity, which will always have some degree of ridicule targeting someone or something, and for many people belief in the supernatural itself is sufficiently incongruous to inspire a wealth of levity all of which could be argued as ridiculing religion. And suppose the joke is related by a member of the subject religion: ''Rabbi, I've been wailing and praying for peace there every day since 1967 and it's like talking to a brick wall!'' Would Corbell prosecute a Jewish comic on the club/pub circuit?
There seems to be a left-wing ''nanny state'' gene that is overly protective of our interests to an authoritarian extent that eventually limits the very freedoms it has been elected to protect. Corbell should by all means legislate to protect us from maniacs who give public lessons in how to blow up those of a different faith. But when it comes to inciting contempt and ridicule, his proposed legislation would founder in a fuzzy area where definition, policy, common sense and the democratic right of expression can only but collide in a confusion that will serve no useful purpose apart from providing increased employment prospects in the legal profession.
Bill Deane is a Canberra writer.
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