frgavin on September 20th, 2011

Frank Skinner is in good company with his attack on the atheist establishment.

By outing himself as a Christian, Frank Skinner was sticking two fingers up at the liberal establishment - Subversive believers will have the last laugh

By outing himself as a Christian, Frank Skinner was sticking two fingers up at the liberal establishment  Photo: Steve Meddle / Rex Features

Have you heard the one about the comic who took on the establishment that loves him? Frank Skinner, the comedian, has accused atheists of threatening humanity. Interviewed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Skinner, a practising Catholic, urged fellow believers to stand together against secularists who undermine religion.

Even if it had been Dr Rowan Williams issuing this call to arms, the audience at Canterbury Cathedral would have stopped fanning themselves with their programmes, sat up and taken notice: turning the tables on, rather than turning the other cheek to, atheist bullies represents a sensational departure from the script British Christians have recited for generations.

But the man advocating that we “stop giving in” to atheists is a popular entertainer, the football-loving king of “laddish” humour. The issue is no longer a surprising rethink; it is a breathtaking act of subversion.

By outing himself as a believer – even in miracles, God help us – Skinner was sticking two fingers up at the liberal establishment. The BBC, a pillar of that establishment, for whom Skinner works, has shown what it thinks of religion. They have nipped and tucked at God slots for years, so now the skeletal model looks nothing like its original, vibrant self. Atheists such as Charles Handy share their scepticism on Thought for the Day, and the new “face” of BBC religion is Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a self-proclaimed atheist. As for Richard Dawkins, his non-stop exposure and fanatically loyal ageing groupies have turned him into the Cliff Richard of atheism.

But atheism, unlike Cliff, is cool. Catholics, with their paedophile scandals and birth control pangs, writhe with hot and heavy guilt. Nothing cool about them. Anglicans are like shy first-years who tie themselves in knots over every controversial issue. Jewish neuroses have kept Woody Allen and Howard Jacobson in business for decades; while Muslims’ strictures, from no alcohol to no conversions, are too intense to be cool.

Atheists, instead, look on all this ridiculously messy humanity from a perch high above the fray. Their superiority is not an unfortunate, smirky, expression that can be wiped away in an instant of self-doubt; it is deep-rooted in the knowledge of being in the driving seat. They can afford to be laid-back, because they’re in control of what counts: the media, academia, and many of the professions.

For Skinner, a recent stint at the Edinburgh Fringe confirmed just how cool atheism is. He saw fellow stand-up comedians going out of their way to parade their atheist credentials, “just to tick the box of cool comic”. In the 1970s and 80s, dissing Margaret Thatcher was the sure way for a funnyman (or woman) to seal their status as a must-see; the Iron Lady always drew a laugh when portrayed crushing her all-male Cabinet underfoot, or sneering with contempt at hoi polloi. Nowadays, God has stepped into the Baroness’s court shoes, and lots of fun can be had at the expense of the great fairy in the sky. Secularism on the comedy circuit is a crowd-pleaser; faith, a venue-clearer.

And yet. How to account, then, for Ian Hislop? Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular panellist on Have I Got News for You, has never hidden that he’s a practising Anglican. A few years ago, in fact, he made a series on the Church of England, The Canterbury Tales. Hislop brought to his subject, his church, the self-deprecating wit that has made him a national treasure. He joked and ribbed, poking and prodding the ancient institution; the result was entertainment gold: the audience learned, laughing all the while. “I can’t believe he’s a Christian,” an erstwhile colleague at the New Statesman exclaimed. “He’s so funny!”

The same colleague would probably have said of Jeremy Vine, another practising Anglican, “I can’t believe he’s a Christian, he’s so clever!” Or of Bettany Hughes, “I can’t believe she’s an Anglican, she’s so telegenic!” Because Frank Skinner is not alone. Despite the strident secularism of most programmers, the media is a hotbed of subversive believers: not only Chris Patten, the BBC chairman, and Mark Thompson, its DG; but Ed Stourton, Gaby Logan, Adrian Chiles and Delia Smith are practising Christians.

While some have come out publicly about their faith, most are reticent on the subject. So much so that when Pope Benedict XVI came to hold an open-air Mass at Hyde Park, the news that Carol Vorderman, who would host the event, was a Catholic, threatened to overshadow His Holiness’s appearance. For years, Vorderman had kept her faith to herself because, as Jeremy Vine told an interviewer, “blurting out your belief” would be “destructive” to an entertainer’s job: “It is now almost socially unacceptable to say you believe in God”.

Perhaps now these high-profile figures will dare take up Skinner’s challenge and take on the atheists. They may not seize the mic to proclaim their faith, but maybe they’ll stop apologising for believing in mystery and eternity, self-sacrifice and divine authority.

Who knows, faith is so subversive, it may play well on the comedy circuit – and not just there. Why shouldn’t Christians have the last la

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