No belief is beyond satire – and it’s time the UK’s student unions learnt that

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The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a fictional deity cooked up in the mid-2000s to mock the teaching of Intelligent Design in US schools. In a spoof of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, His noodly appendage stretches out from His meatballed form towards a reclining male nude.

But last week at South Bank University in London, Atheist Society posters bearing this graven image of His noodliness were ripped down by Student Union officials at Refreshers Fayre for being “religiously offensive.” Peter Blenkharn, St John’s third year and clergyman of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, had this to say: “As the sole ordained minister in Oxford of the one true religion, I’m confident that divine retribution will be exacted upon these blasphemous heretics in the form of sour Ragu and slightly-off-pasta. To quote the most linguine of holy texts, Suggestions 1:13 – Thou shalt be amused rather than angered by the words and deeds of idiots

It really is tempting to treat the whole thing as a joke. Indeed, the South Bank SU has since apologized to the Atheist Society. But as Rory Fenton, President of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularists Student Societies points out “this is the funny tip of a very serious iceberg – universities are increasingly turning to silencing atheist and Humanist students for fear of upsetting religious sensibilities.” In fact, troublingly, South Bank SU only let the Atheist Society form on the condition they didn’t hold events criticizing religion!

In September 2013, student atheists at LSE Freshers’ Fayre were surrounded by ten security guards and intimidated into closing their stand because they wore t-shirts depicting the ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon strip. It took threats of legal action, coupled with a massive media stir, to finally extract apologies from the SU. At Reading, after displaying a pineapple named ‘Mohammed’ (subsequently renamed ‘Jesus’) at Freshers’, the atheists were kicked out and are now no longer welcome in SU buildings. Atheist Societies are being denied the right to do what they’re there for – championing freethinking and challenging faith.

I run Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (OxASH). We are a proudly broad church, welcoming everyone looking for open debate, ranging from Muslim feminists and Roman Catholic friars to a self-proclaimed skeptic who believed electrons were conscious. Sixth week this term will see us hold Think Week 2014, themed around ‘Myth and Discovery,’ with speakers like AC Grayling coming to talk about how the stories we tell shape our lives. But, keen as I am on dialogue, meeting so many ex-Christians and ex-Muslims in the atheist world who like me have to hide their atheism from family has convinced me how critical it is we fight religious privilege in all its forms.

And central to religious privilege is this notion of faith being beyond criticism. Some believers in the UK like to see themselves as victims of secular society, that their feeling offended is somehow sufficient cause to silence discussion. Yet satire has always been a tool to undermine powerful institutions. Peter Blenkharn, our resident Pastafarian, also runs the St John’s College ASH society and has spoofed the Christian Union’s ‘Love like this’ posters by putting the same graphic over two men mid-kiss. In this way, he is drawing attention to the fact that behind the friendly words and facebook invites, ‘Love like this’ is organized by Evangelical Christians who believe in destroying people’s basic sexual liberties.

I’ll admit that offence can sometimes count as valid criticism. The song ‘Blurred Lines’ was rightly banned from many campuses because its lyrics explicitly promote rape culture. But cartoons like Jesus and Mo, or the Spaghetti Monster, which poke fun at the factual and ethical inconsistencies of mainstream religion, are a vital part of our democracy. No belief is above satire, and I would hope that in light of this, organizations like the NUS will put in place polices to ensure nonbelieving students are able to criticize religion at events like Freshers’ Fayre without fear of harassment or intimidation.