Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough

This month, posters were snatched from an atheist group at South Bank University. ‘Looking for logic?’ they read, Flying Spaghetti Monster in God’s place on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. ‘Pastafarianism is a real religion.’ Not quite The Satanic Verses, but student union officials took them down in the society’s absence, afraid they’d trigger ‘religious offence’. (The union has since apologised.)

The row recalled a string of prior ones. Censors initially claimed the problem to be Michelangelo’s Adam, painted nude, but changed once offered a blurred-out version to fears of offensiveness. We’ve seen this bait-and-switch before: when UCL’s union tried to ban Jesus and Mo from its atheist group’s Facebook page, complaints were just as interchangeable – the cartoons, said critics jumping between bad arguments, were wrong to show Mohammed in a pub, blasphemous for depicting him at all, or else a form of ‘bullying and harassment’. Officers’ invasiveness is likewise familiar: when LSE’s atheists wore Jesus and Mo shirts at their freshers’ fair, union staff ‘started removing material’; a year before, when Reading’s labelled a pineapple Mohammed, authorities ‘seized [it] and tried to leave’.

Drawings of the Prophet; fruit with his name; the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Targets of censure on our campuses grow, by the year, absurder. The pineapple, displayed in reference to a teacher prosecuted in Sudan for calling her class teddy bear Mohammed, was no doubt chosen for its innocence. The Monster, like space teapots or invisible pink unicorns, is a generic spoof-god – mocking no faith in particular, targeting no one for abuse. It’s a nicer god than any mainstream one, as venomless as parody could be. These items are whimsical, silly, fun. To call them offensive is to take offence per se at anyone finding religion funny.

Atheist blasphemy, even as atheism is blasphemy, has been called gratuitous. Drawing Islamic prophets like Jesus and Mo, or for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, is one example. Mocking the Eucharist, like PZ Myers or Goodness Gracious Me – whose banned sketch where a British Asian adds chutney to his wafer visibly pained Ann Widdecombe – is another. These exercises, we’re told, are intolerant and crass, offending with intent and for the sake of it. It’s rarely true, but anyway: if any atheist meme attempts the opposite, being as inoffensive as it can, surely the FSM does? If Spaghetti Monsters are aggressive enough to ban, what isn’t?

‘There’s probably no god’, Ariane Sherine’s Atheist Bus Campaign proclaimed, ‘now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Just calling oneself an atheist, most of time, says something not unlike that, but the ASA got 141 complaints. When the British Humanist Association pushed for better census data, railway companies refused to run its ads, which read ‘If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so’ - suggesting nothing either way about believers or belief. In Pennsylvania, bus owners rejected signs as overly controversial and provocative which would have read ‘Don’t believe in God? You are not alone’ and, in one case, simply ‘Atheists.

The advert U.S. bus owners refused to run

Unbelief can never be inoffensive enough. Items like these – bus and rail ads, sketches, spoilt Communion wafers, Mohammed drawings, Jesus and Mo, the pineapple, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – are awkward reminders atheists exist, and this alone, it seems, makes them impolite, unwelcoming and intolerant. Widdecombe, gasping in anguish for the cameras at the gentlest fun-pokes, seems genuinely unready for a world where not everyone shares her beliefs or has grace enough to act as if they do. In theory, no doubt, she’d concede atheists their right to draw breath, but that some might actually behave like crackers aren’t really Christ’s flesh appears to wound her. Response to Mohammed cartoons can be the same, and whoever tore the South Bank posters down must have felt similar. ‘We know you don’t believe,’ blacklisters say, ‘but for heaven’s sake, must you live like it, too?’

Few things but faith could yield such results: blasphemy, even apparently when most benign, threatens the norms on which religion rests. The earnestness of faith, and faith itself, can’t be taken comfortably for granted when its sacraments are others’ standing jokes, and what can’t be assumed must be explained. Spectators like Tom Bailey of Spiked overlook this, who conflate the campus banning of Spaghetti Monsters and unholy fruits with that, for instance, of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, a song a score of student unions boycotted, which insists in colourfully violent language that women who dance with men ‘must want’ sex with them. No thinking person equates advocacy of rape, or any assault, with dismissing or lampooning doctrines of faith.

Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be, but if ‘zero tolerance’ means anything, it’s this.

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Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad

Gillian Gibbons, a teacher from Liverpool who worked in Khartoum, was arrested in 2007 for naming her class teddy bear Muhammad. Authorities detained her in a police cell, and a court sentenced her to fifteen days in prison and deportation. This was a comparatively lenient decree: Gibbons, charged triply with insulting religion, incitement of hatred and public contempt for religious beliefs, might have faced forty lashes for these under Sudanese law.

A year ago as freshers’ fair took place at Reading University, its atheist society sought to raise awareness of blasphemy laws’ global effects, citing the Gibbons case specifically. To pique passing first years’ interest as a conversation-prompter, they wrote the name Muhammad on a post-it note and stuck it to a pineapple, assuming no doubt that this exhibit’s surreal whimsy couldn’t possibly be viewed as aggressive, prejudicial or intolerant. They erred in thinking so: after the best part of a day passed without signs of trouble, a representative of Reading’s student union (who ran the fair) informed them a number of complaints had been received, adding the earnest but Pythonesque instruction, ‘Either the pineapple goes, or you do.’

According to a statement the group made which hit the press:

They seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus.

Shortly afterwards, the second RUSU staff member returned and ordered [us] to leave the Freshers’ Fayre. At this point, a group of around five students, some of whom self-identified as Muslim, approached the stall and began to criticise us, asking and telling us to remove the pineapple. Though these students mainly engaged in discussion, one removed the label from the pineapple without our permission.

As the RUSU staff member merely raised his voice and shouted at the [society] president when he attempted to explain our position, we were ultimately forced to leave the venue. However, several other societies at the Fayre offered to continue distributing our leaflets, and we continued to hand out leaflets outside the venue until we were again asked to leave by RUSU staff members, this time accompanied by RUSU security staff.

‘Our Freshers’ Fayre’, the student union commented, ‘is an inclusive event for all students. As the societies [sic] actions were causing upset and distress to a number of individual students and other societies attending we took the decision to ask them to leave.’

Defending the society’s expulsion on grounds of inclusivity seems Orwellian in the extreme. It’s true events can’t and shouldn’t be equally inclusive of women and misogynists, homophobes and queer people, Muslims and the far right’s anti-migrant racism – but this wasn’t an anti-Muslim display. It wasn’t a depiction of Mohammad as a suicide bomber, for example; it wasn’t a placard blaming Sweden’s Muslim populace for its rape statistics; it was a tropical fruit emblazoned with a so called prophet’s name, so as to start discussions about blasphemy and free expression. (The atheist society, when the English Defence League planned a demonstration on their campus earlier this year, soon organised a counter-protest. The EDL themselves were acting in response to the Muslim Society at reading hosting a talk by Abu Usamah at-Thahabi, a supporter of queer and LGBT people’s violent murder. The event was proscribed, but only due to fears of violence; while the Muslim Society’s views on tropical fruit remain unknown, no action against them seems to have been taken.)

Reading’s student union, after this, took disciplinary action against the atheist society, issuing it in spring term this year with an official warning. According to Rory Fenton, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (who really, seriously need to fix their name), ‘the union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing “offence” to other students or even to members of the wider local community. The policy offers no definition of offence, creating in essence a blasphemy ban.’

In order to continue operating under the union’s auspices, the society was asked to sign an agreement to avoid causing offence in future. They declined to do this, quite understandably for a body whose central premise is that other people’s most cherished views are wrong, and have now been disaffiliated. The atheist society, officially speaking, no longer exists – while it still meets and recruits, union officials have now informed committee members they consider it dissolved, removing financial support for the group’s activities, room-booking privileges for events and rights to a table at freshers’ fair. (A few days ago, as autumn term began, members stood outside the premises to advertise.)

The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.

This is cause for extreme concern.

What’s more concerning is that judging by events this week in London, it isn’t alone.

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