Looks like the gloves may be coming off in comedy circles over faith and atheism. The issue has been around for a while with various familiar names lining up to identify publicly with the atheist cause including established comedians David Baddiel and Dara Ó Briain. Ricky Gervais caused a bit of a stir with his mock crucifixion pose on the front of The New Humanist magazine.
The ante was upped by Frank Skinner in an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he spoke about his faith and commented on comedians who speak about their atheism in order to establish their credentials as a ‘cool modern comic’.
On the back of the Skinner interview Christine Odone wrote a piece in The Telegraph called Subversive believers will have the last laugh. In the article Odone is really complaining about what she perceives to be an anti-religious bias at the heart of the liberal establishment, including the BBC. Odone goes on to identify various Christians operating in the media as a ‘subversive’ group. There is very little in the article about what Frank Skinner and Rowan Williams actually discussed as she uses a couple of brief quotes to hang a rather vague and meandering argument together.
On Saturday The Times magazine published an interview with Rowan Atkinson in which he made a disparaging remark about Church of England clergy being smug, arrogant and conceited. The comment was picked up by Ruth Gledhill, The Times religious correspondent (no link as it’s behind the paywall), who tried to spin the brief remark into a news story. If you read the original piece it was little more than a throw away line as Atkinson reflected on how he had portrayed clergy in sketches and on film. I found Atkinson’s portrayal of a vicar in the film Keeping Mum sympathetic and endearing. I do, however, find it ironic that an established member of the Oxbridge comedian set dismisses others as being smug and conceited.
Today, Brian Logan, comedy critic for The Guardian, has written a piece Divine comedy: how sacred is standup? in which he challenges the notion that there is an ‘atheist establishment’ in comedy. His article is as much a critique of Odone as of Skinner and Logan lists a variety of comedians and shows where faith is portrayed in positive terms. Logan’s own stance is clear as he argues: ‘In the bigger picture, religion remains, overwhelmingly, the establishment, and atheism a still-revolutionary challenge to that, which needs constant reassertion’.
It will be interesting to see how the debate develops. My suggestion would be a Mock the Week style face off in which Christian comedians are lined up against atheist colleagues to riff on a variety of topics. Personally, I think the combination of Frank Skinner and Tim Vine would be a hard act to beat and if they found themselves up against Ricky Gervais then on current form there would be no contest.
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