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Date: Tue, 29 Sep 1998 17:54:17 EDT
Subject: [Atheist] re; AANEWS for September 29, 1998
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‘Blasphemy’ battles proliferate in Europe, elsewhere

American Atheists, AANews, #484, 29 September 1998

Catholic Prelates Threaten Legal Action Over Photography Book in France

There is a disturbing rise in the number of incidents involving charges of blasphemy and disrespect of religion on the European continent and elsewhere—a strange backdrop to the recent developments in the case of embattled novelist Salman Rushdie.

The latest flap involves a photographic essay book titled INRI by Serge Bramly and Bettina Rheims. The initials stand for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, the title ostensibly given to the Christian messiah by his executioners. Photos in the book allegedly portray the 12 apostles as thugs, and place the Nativity in a garage, notes Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. The authors, however, insist that they were trying to portray Jesus Christ in a modern context. Bramly told news media, We just wanted to show how one can transpose the story of Christ to today. We didn't want to wind up the bourgeoisie or shock anyone...

An unidentified spokesperson fore the Roman Catholic Church in Paris, however, declared that We can't rule out a law suit by the association founded by the bishops of France, adding There are limits which shouldn't be crossed. He described INRI as a sensationalist attack on the Christian religion.

Blasphemy laws are still on the books in a number of European nations despite lipservice concerning freedom of expression. Austrian Atheists have been prosecuted for allegedly blaspheming or insulting Jesus Christ; and in England, the blasphemy statutes there, while relatively unenforced, are being cited by Islamic groups who wish to see laws prohibiting any insulting remarks about religious belief or organizations.

Twenty years ago, family values activist Mary Whitehouse successfully took a gay newspaper to court for publishing a poem about a gay Jesus Christ. Now, however, the dusty blasphemy statutes are being considered again in connection with the introduction to a new Bible series which reportedly describes Jehovah as a powerthirsty maniac. The series, known as The Pocket Canons, are to be published next month by Canongate. While the Bible verses are taken from the Authorised Version, the introductions by novelists Will Self and Louis deBernieres are at the center of the new controversy. DeBernieres, for instance, suggests that God is an unpleasantly sarcastic megalomanic who botches up the reparations when he decides to make them. He later adds in his 1,000 word introduction to the Book of Job that God is either a mad, bloodthirsty and capricious despot, or that for thousands of years we have been inadvertently worshipped the devil.

The Book of Revelation draws criticism by Mr. Self who describes it as a sick text.

Leading the call for a blasphemy prosecution of the two essayists is Paul Slennett, head of a firm which distributes religious books and was an original partner in the deal to sell The Pocket Canons. Slennet is known for being behind a national campaign to include the slogan Jesus is Alive on postal cancellations; he has asked the Scottish Bible Board, which granted a franchise to Canongate to publish portions of the Authorised Version of the bible, to pull the licensing. Litigation would be the last resort, warns Slennet, but obviously the law is there and we would take advice on how to proceed.

Canongate is sure that it can refute any libel or blasphemy charges. The British blasphemy statutes prohibits any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible or the formularies of the Church of England. Since the flap involving Salman Rushdie, Islamic and other non-Christian religious groups have been insisting that they also be protected under the coverage of the blasphemy statutes.

Religious groups in the UK have also been expressing displeasure with what they see as the growing use of religious themes, often in a humorous context, to sell consumer products. In August, the Advertising Standards Authority responded to complaints by the religious, and noted that it had upheld 124 complaints against a stationery firm which had promotional slogans such as Praise the board! and Behold! The King of paper is born. Beer companies have come under attack, as have commercials promoting jeans and safe sex. Diesel Jeans used pictures of nuns wearing jeans with the caption of superior denim. These sorts of complaints, though, paled in comparison with the volume of gripes about an effort by the British Safety Council to promote safe sex. A picture of the Pope wearing a hard hat was captioned, The 11th commandment; thou shalt always wear a condom.

The Board attempted to measure public attitudes about the use of religious themes in advertising. According to the Telegraph newspaper, Almost 80% of those interviewed said that disrespectful references to any religion, race or culture should never be allowed.

And this past summer—two oceans away, in Australia—a television commercial for the Sizzler steak house chain sparked complaints when it showed Jesus Christ taking orders for food. In the humorous ski, two Israelites meet, and one says that a fella is turning fish and loaves of bread into sufficient quantities to feed 1,000 people. The other asks, How about some prawns and scallops? Or a big, juicy steak with Greek salad?

Jesus, replies the other Israelite. Where does he think he is? Sizzler?

The Roman Catholic Church promptly branded the humorous advertisement as irresponsible, saying that it borders on blasphemy.

And in March, evangelicals in Britain were contemplating legal action over a play which portrayed Christ as a Teletubby and says that the Virgin Mary had sexual relations with the Holy Goat. The production was done by The Reduced Shakespeare Company, and was branded a complete mockery of the word of God by a local minister. Rev. David Carson told reporters that he had not actually seen the play but, but I do not need to see filth in order to know it is filth. I am outraged that this production is being allowed to go ahead. He added that no other religion would be allowed to be ridiculed in such a way. It is clearly blasphemous.

A spokesman for the Company noted that the play had already toured American and the Bible belt without upset.

Finally, in New Zealand, an official with that nation's Arts Council apologized for a work displayed in the National Museum titled Virgin in a Condom. The militant group Catholic Action threatened to try to have the museum prosecuted under blasphemy statutes for showing a three-inch plaster Virgin Mary in a condom.