Free Speech vs. Religion

Mosques burned in Sweden, churches burned in Niger, many other instances of arson, riots and deaths around the world in the wake of the shootings in Paris, many future incidents waiting in the wings as tempers rise, and people dig in on whatever side they’re on. Where do we go from here?

One road is to rally behind free speech as the holiest of holies. There has been some criticism of newspapers that did not reprint the images of the latest Charlie Hebdo that came out defiantly in the face of the massacre in its offices. Those papers are called cowards, and “how are we ever going to defeat the terrorists?” is thrown at them. That’s an absurd stance.   Have you all seen some of the stuff Charlie Hebdo was printing about Mohammed and Islam? It’s disgusting, beyond puerile, seemingly geared toward making as many people mad as possible. They are agents-provocateurs, who seem to want nothing better than a firefight.

On the other hand, there are those who say we must pass blasphemy laws that make it illegal to give offence to anyone’s religion.   The holiest of holies for them is our belief in deities, in our faiths, our religious leaders, and sacred books. This is fraught with problems.   We’d have to define what a religion is for one thing—is every New Age cult covered? And how do we define “give offence to”?   If I say the Catholic Church should allow women to be priests, is that offensive? Parodying religion would be out, but so would reasoned discussion on topics like polygamy or praying before a football game.

Some in Europe apparently think that we need to ship out all the Muslim families, sending them back to the countries of origin, regardless of whether they were born in Europe.   This is reminiscent of the Americans who believed the answer to the slavery problem was to create Liberia on the West African coast and send as many blacks there as possible.   This solution would be chaotic to say the least, and would result in the deaths of many returnees, because the countries they’re going back to are often unsettled, dangerous, and certainly would have trouble accommodating a large influx of people.

Failing that we could work toward making the entire world adhere to one single religion. That’s not going to happen any time soon, although I think the atheists have a good shot at winning the race, given the wars and unrest that seem to follow religion wherever it goes.

If we want peace in the world, we have to come to an accommodation. For those whose faith is important to them, they have to recognize that the Western world allows free speech. Not all speech, but almost anything. Criticizing religion is part of that. For those for whom religion has ceased to be important, or who find themselves compelled to comment on others’ religions, they should not forget that religion is sacred to those who embrace it. Any conversation around it should be respectful, not provocative for the sake of provoking. This is not “letting the terrorists win”, it’s called civilization.

5 thoughts on “Free Speech vs. Religion

  1. Freedom of expression is incontestable. It needs no defense or explanation & those who would obstruct the freedom may be called any number of names, none of which improves on the fact that self-expression is a sacred right. But this sacred right is also nuanced. It is a right to be exercised with conscience. For every expression, there is an impression. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, I get the impression of an organization that is intolerant, crude, hateful: as backward as the backwardness it attempts to mock.

  2. The definition of civilization doesn’t seem to mean what you indicate that it does. Civilization does not preclude violence, superstition, bigotry and so on.

    Freedom to self expression is beyond question where such expression does no harm to another. What is not beyond question are ideas and the expressions of others. The idea of a flat Earth or a 6000 year old Earth are laughable and deserve mockery. Any idea, every idea, should be judged on its merits and not the superstitions of those who are keen on the idea. If a flat-earther takes offence at being mocked and harms someone they should be jailed for assault or murder or the appropriate crime, wouldn’t you agree? This is the situation with the Muslims who murdered workers at Charlie Hebdo. That’s right, Muhammad and Islam are no more sacred or true than the idea that the Earth is flat. If Muslims behave badly they need to be punished appropriately. Their anger is not justified in such matters and their violence is an offence to all who would call themselves civilized for it is a bararic response to some words or pictures. Are those offended by the violence supported in a response of like kind (meaning way over the top)? What is the appropriate response to mass murder? It does not matter what the motives of the mass murderer are, what is the civilized response to mass murder?

    • I guess we have to argue about what “civilization” means. I was using it in the sense of a “civil society” where people are respectful, and as I said, do not provoke for the sake of provoking. A civil society does preclude bigotry and does everything possible to avoid violence. I have no problem using the term “uncivilized” to describe the kinds of scurrilous, immature, scatalogical cartoons found in Charile Hebdo. I am not arguing that the Muslim fanatics who shot them are civilized. But contrary to what you write, their anger is justified, though their violence is not. Who would not be angry if something you hold dear, a person, an idea, is ridiculed and depicted in a way that is designed to be as offensive as possible? If someone I care about has an opinion that I think is ridiculous, should my reaction to be to mock them, ridicule them, tell the world how stupid they are? It would be better to try to reason politely and patiently. That’s someone I care about, and to me the essence of civilization is to treat everyone in the world in the same way, to become a citizen of the world. Sam Harris has a better approach than Christopher Hitchens when it comes to arguing the atheist position vs. theists. Hitchens was more entertaining, –to his supporters. But it’s just going to alienate and anger everyone else. I’m in full support of those who say that jihadism is a danger to the world, just as the Inquisition was. The appropriate response to a mass murderer is to stop him, but the problem here is that you have a significant number of people who don’t see it as mass murder, but rather as justice. That’s the problem we need to address in a civil way, or we’ll have to fall back on the time-honored method of killing everyone who doesn’t agree with us.

      • Muslims are mocked exactly because they have a long history of violent behavior, hatred, and unbridled mob mentality. That IS the point.

        Your sentiments here ask us to parlay with the warlord in civil tones to get him to understand that killing is bad. Neither you nor anyone in world governments is willing to talk the talk and walk the walk necessary to accomplish peace with the warmongering hoards of Islam. While you clearly think it possible I challenge you to point out (any time in history) where civil talk was enough to stop the violence of Islam. You might find an isolated incident but it will be easy to latch on to why it did not last.

        This article is slightly biased but gets the gist of it;

        Talking isn’t going to work.

  3. I’m completely in agreement with you as far as warlords go, and the people who buy into the idea that God is telling them to steal children, conquer territory, blow up non-believers or behead them. But that’s not every Muslim who walks the face of the earth. The polls vary on what percentage of Muslims support extremist groups, but whatever that number is, a good way to increase it would be to ridicule their beliefs, dragging what they consider holy into the gutter.

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