Monday, 6 March 2017


There has to be absolute freedom to criticize religion.  There has been a curious retreat from this proposition among so-called liberal academics.  Gaad Saad noted in a 2102 article:   “It would not be melodramatic to state that one of the first steps of totalitarianism is when intellectuals begin to engage in self-censorship. Having been an academic for close to two decades, I know of numerous scholars in the United States and Canada that have repeatedly refrained from sharing their views on religion in general, and a specific religion in particular, lest they fear the dire consequences of doing so (ranging from losing their jobs, being ostracized by friends, to outright bodily harm). Any freedom-loving individual living in the West should be deeply concerned about this reality. Freedom of speech (especially the criticism of religious dogma) should be a non-negotiable right whose protection is valued above all other rights.”

Anything less is a fundamental denigration of the freedom of speech.  Many well meaning people begin a discussion about free speech with what Mick Hume has termed “free speech but” as in “I believe in free speech - but there are limits/-but not for hate speech/-but you cannot offend or insult or upset other people’.” 

Bishop Michael Ingham, of the Anglican Diocese, New Westminster in a forum on the criticism of religion captured the essence of “free speech but” when he said “There is no unlimited right to freedom of speech and no absolute right to freedom.  To exist, freedom needs self-imposed restraints and democracy requires a consensus based on mutual respect.  What we have in the Paris cartoons is a misuse of freedom.  It is secular fundamentalism that insists on the right to cause offence in the name of freedom.  Religious satire is not off limits when it serves the public good by exposing hypocrisy and causing us to live up to our ideals in a better way, but when its purpose is to deliberately offend, how is that different from hatred.” 

It has been pointed out that when religious satire has to be respectful and avoid offense it is no longer either funny nor is it free.  Satire is almost always disrepectful of its object and free speech is only meaningful when it is offensive to someone or some group or to some authority.  And who is going to be the arbitrar of public good - religious leaders like Bishop Ingham or a human rights commission or tribunal or a secret court?  Bishop Ingham’s formulation would be the death knell of free speech as it affects religion.

Bishop David Zubik, of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, is in favor of some decidedly more stringent restrictions on free expression: “As I have said over these last few weeks, this is an opportunity for all of us to be reminded that freedom of speech and freedom of expression do not constitute a freedom to dismiss or disrespect the beauty of anyone’s race, the sacredness of anyone’s religious belief or the uniqueness of anyone’s nationality,”  The disrespect of the “sacredness of religiousness belief” that Bishop Zubik found offensive was a papal parody - in which a student doing an action art project wrote half naked dressed (partly) as the pope.

Bishop Zubik conflates disrespect of race with disrespect of religion but they are not the same things.  Religion is about ideas and criticizing ideas - even if it involves harshly criticizing ideas - is a fundamental freedom.  Indeed why should religious ideas be carved out as criticism free zone any more than political ideas or ideas about appropriate etiquette.  Indeed people can be and usually are deeply offended when their political views are ridiculed.  When political ideas are ridiculed or satirized it is typically a deliberate act to offend. 

Religion is all about faith (as opposed to science or rationality) and the most ardently religious have the deepest faith.  They are the true believers and true believers are easily offended.  When ‘hurting the feelings’ of the believers becomes a basis for limiting speech - as it does for Bishop Ingham - speech is always at risk of being offensive to true believers and hence not permitted.

True believers are also described as fundamentalists and today they have substantial numbers in all religions including Christianity and Judaism but most spectacularly in Islam.  True believers now run the show in most countries where Islam is dominant.  Blasphemy law are now widespread in those countries where Islam is the majority religion and there are countless examples of people who are deemed to insult Islam - often in most trivial ways - being imprisoned or executed not only by the state but also by religious zealots, who invariably go unpunished.

Islamic true believers are offended by any depiction of Mohammed.  In fact Islam fundamentalists are offended by any negative comment about Mohammed as an historical figure. Islamic true believers were offended by Gunter Luling who was hounded out of the profession by German universities because he proposed the radical thesis that at least a third of the Koran was originally a pre-Islamic, Christian hymnody, and thus had nothing to do with Mohammed.   In other words a legitimate academic study on the history of Islam and its historical connection with earlier Abrahamic religions was off limits because it was offensive to the religion’s true believers.

Religious true believers are offended by the very existence of other religious beliefs. Per Mindy Townsend “If you are a member of religion A, and you discover that religion B believes something different, does that not arguably “dismiss or disrespect…the sacredness” of your religious belief? Sure it does, because it plants the little seedling in your brain that suggests that you might be wrong. To get rid of that threat, you need to eliminate religion B. Suddenly you have a medieval-style death match.”

As stated by Rowan Atkinson “To criticize a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticize their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticize ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. A law which attempts to say you can criticize? and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.  It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended. The right to ridicule is far more important to society than any right not to be ridiculed because one in my view represents openness - and the other represents oppression”.

A few years ago a fundamentalist Christian preacher in North Ireland was charged under the the UK’s 2003 Communications Act with improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.  The two charges arose out of a sermon that was streamed online, in which he described Islam as “heathen” and “Satanic”.  Ultimately he was found not guilty on the basis that while his remarks were offensive they were not “grossly offensive”.  The case, however, illustrates the danger of illegalizing “offensive” comments about religion.  It is a religious opinion that Islam is heathen and satanic.  It can be an Islamic religious opinion that Christianity is heathen and satanic.  It can be an atheist opinion that both Islam and Christianity are ridiculous and absurd.

What particularly concerns nice otherwise liberalish people like Bishop Ingham is the fear that free speech will result in social discord.  He says “We must use freedom of speech with responsibility.  That is the price of keeping a civil society.”  Totalitarian societies have always been justified on the grounds that they preventing social discord.  This was a constant theme with the Nazis. 

The blasphemy laws, that once prevailed in the Christian majority nations, punished individuals for making statements that could be perceived as criticisms or insults against religious doctrines, figures, deities, and symbols. Typically, the language of these laws contained the following words: offending, insulting, wounding, denigrating, or outraging religious ideologies or feelings.

In an English blasphemy case from the 18th century the issue was whether any religious denomination other than the Church of England was “protected” by the then blasphemy law. It was held that a publication attacking the Old Testament was not merely as an attack upon Judaism but rather because ‘the Old Testament was so connected with the New that it was impossible that such a publication as this could be uttered without reflecting upon Christianity itself’.  Other religious groups, Christian or not, were protected ‘to the extent that their beliefs overlapped with those of the Church of England. The material needed to be couched in indecent or offensive terms likely to shock and outrage the feelings of the general body of Church of England believers.  This requirement meant that the offence of blasphemy did ‘not protect religious beliefs as such’ but was ‘concerned with attacks on those beliefs expressed in highly offensive ways.  In the manner of Bishop Ingham “Decent and reasonable criticism was not blasphemous.”

As stated by Alan Sokal in Beyond the Hoax “All of us are understandably reluctant to give offense to our fellows especially concerning their most cherished beliefs, and in personal interactions this self-restraint is generally a sound instinct.  But public debate is impoverished and distorted by our culture’s deferent attitude towards faith.  After all conservatives are not ordinarily offended  by the obligation to debate their ideas with liberals (though in recent years this seems, alas, to be changing) and most capitalists can tolerate the occasional encounter with a socialist.”

He notes “The free ride given to “faith” is so deeply imbedded in our culture  - so taken for granted - that even critical voices often end up committing the very errors that they decry. For instance, the American scholar of religion Mark C. Taylor in a thoughtful critique of “religious correctness” nevertheless felt obliged to reassure his readers that "The sum of critical analysis [of religion] is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices - though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line - but to examine the conditions necessary for their formations and to consider the many functions they serve."
But asks Sokal "why should anyone accept such an arbitrary limitation on the aims of “critical analysis”?  Substitute “scientific”, “philosophical”, “economic”, or “political” for “religious” in that sentence, and the double standard becomes patent.  In every other sphere of life, beliefs and practises are subjected not only to descriptive analysis but also to evaluative judgment - and rightly so.”

Of course, the additional problem is that laws making it an offence to be offensive to religion - as Bishop Ingham might advocate - don’t stay limited to religion.  It can soon extend to political beliefs themselves, as is the case in some Islamic nations - since political beliefs can easily merge with religious beliefs.  Similarly at some so-called liberal American universities “wrong” views on politics, on epistemology, on social relationships (especially sexual ones), on legal issues, on many other topics are increasingly becoming non-tolerated.   Why?  It is often because one or more (intolerant) individuals find them offensive.

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