Rowan Atkinson's letter to The Times of London
Published Wednesday, October 17, 2001

From Mr. Rowan Atkinson

Sir, I hope that I am not the only person in the creative arts who feels great disquiet about the proposals outlined by the Home Secretary in the Commons today, to introduce legislation to outlaw what has been described as 'incitement to religious hatred' (reports, October 16). Having spent a substantial part of my career parodying religious figures from my own Christian background, I am aghast at the notion that it could, in effect, be made illegal to imply ridicule of a religion or to lampoon religious figures.

Supporters of the proposed legislation would presumably say that neither I, nor any of my colleagues in the comedy world, are its intended targets, but laws governing highly subjective or moral issues tend to drag a very fine net, and some of the most basic freedoms of speech and expression can get caught up in it.

I have always believed that there should be no subject about which one cannot make jokes, religion included. Clearly, one is always constricted by contemporary mores and trends because, after all, what one seeks above all is an appreciative audience. However, would a film like 'Monty Python's Life of Brian,' criticized at the time of its release for being anti-Christian, be judged under the proposed law? Or that excellent joke in 'Not the Nine O'Clock news' all those years ago, showing worshippers in a mosque simultaneously bowing to the ground with the voiceover: 'And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini's contact lens'? Not respectful, but comedy takes no prisoners. However, in period and in context it was extremely funny and I believe that it is the reaction of the audience that should decide the appropriateness of a joke, not the law of the land.

For telling a good and incisive religious joke, you should be praised. For telling a bad one, you should be ridiculed and reviled. The idea that you could be prosecuted for the telling of either is quite fantastic.

Yours faithfully,
October 15