An immaculately conceived offence

The Advertising Standards Authority has decided that an ice-cream advert featuring a pregnant nun, and bearing the strap-line, “An immaculate conception”, is likely to cause offence to Roman Catholics (and apparently more so than to other Christians) and should therefore be banned. The authority said that “to use such an image in a lighthearted way to advertise ice cream was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith.”

I think this ban is misguided, although it is a useful riposte to the Christians who bleat that their religion can by ridiculed with impunity whilst Islam must be handled with kid gloves for fear of its touchy, and sometimes violent, adherents. Indeed, some readers might think that I am indulging in just such double-think given my somewhat immoderate tirade recently against Mr Terry Jones’ proposal to burn copies of the Koran. I don’t think so.

First, although it is painful to admit, I think pragmatism does demand that in giving consideration to an act or publication that might be deemed offensive, one takes the probable consequences into account. Thus, however galling, it’s a bit different if the offence is likely to result in rioting, deaths, international incidents and the like, than if it’s merely likely to cause people to splutter into their cornflakes. Lacking in principle, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

Second, burning someone’s holy book in a deliberate attempt to insult, antagonise and politically infuriate is not the same as poking gentle fun at a single doctrinal conceit.

Third, throwing offence across cultural divides isn’t the same as engaging in disputation with one’s cultural fellows. The western culture within which Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism specifically, has grown and thrived is a culture which values tolerance, freedom and contention. Those values are indeed (pace the new atheists) one of the consequences of Christian influence on our culture, a fact that isn’t dissolved by the other fact that there have also been some very much less attractive consequences from the same source.

But my real discomfort with this ban comes from other considerations. It feeds the complaints of those who accuse Christianity of claiming some kind of general exemption from the dominant mores of the times. It’s perfectly legitimate for Christians to take issue with that dominance, to criticise it, to seek to change it. But it isn’t legitimate to expect or demand that the organs of civil society, the ASA amongst them, should do it on our behalf. More fundamental yet is that this offence should not be offensive. Christians should not mistake the symbols of their religion for the literal truths of it. I believe in the Incarnation for what it signifies, not for its historical exactitude. As I’ve argued before, having faith is not the same as believing in literal facts. So to my fellow Christians I say what I might say to a child who’s being teased: it can only have power if you allow it that power. And to my fellow citizens I say that I don’t need protection from your ridicule. I really couldn’t give a fuck.

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