Should We Shield the Religious from Offensive Forms of Expression?

June 3, 2010

Some take the position that humanists and other secularists have an obligation to avoid commenting on religion in a way that gives offense. Others vigorously disagree, arguing that it is permissible -- maybe even obligatory -- to be offensive. Closely connected with this dispute is a debate over forms of expression, that is, whether secularists should limit themselves to presenting scholarly critiques of religion or may instead express themselves with more pithy, sharp criticism, through the use of cartoons, slogans, sarcasm and so forth.

I often find these debates unilluminating because the disputing parties seem to be saying nothing more substantive than "offending remarks hurt people and will not win us any friends, so don't do it" or, on the other hand, "religion is pernicious, so feel free to blast away at it."

We need a framework for this discussion with a specification of the underlying principles that are at stake. Here is how I would frame this discussion: Religions make certain claims about reality, for example, there is a god, there is an afterlife, and cleavage causes earthquakes. Believers assert these claims, and, in many cases, try to persuade others to accept these claims. These claims should be subject to examination and criticism, just like any other claim about reality. In other words, there is no principled reason for placing religion off limits. Religious claims and religious beliefs should be treated the same as claims and beliefs relating to physics, politics, or pottery. If we maintain that a religious belief is mistaken, unsupported, or vague to the point of being incomprehensible, we should feel free to state our views. If the expression of our views offends a religious person, that person has no more right to tell us to keep quiet than a Democrat offended by criticism of President Obama, a physicist offended by criticism of string theory, or a potter offended by criticism of the clay mixture in his earthenware.

Our first duty is to the truth, and if well-grounded facts or logic contradict the beliefs of a religious person, we should be able to express our criticism of those religious beliefs without regard to whether the religious person will be offended by our criticism. I do not believe the issue is much more complicated than this.

And what about different forms of expression? There should be no inherent limits on how criticism of religious belief is expressed any more than there should inherent limits on how criticism of a political belief is expressed. Cartoons and slogans are used in politics. Is there any reason why they cannot be used to make a point about religious beliefs or practices? Religion should not have a privileged status, especially when many religious try to influence politics and public policy based on their religious beliefs. Do I violate some rule of civil discourse if I draw or publish a cartoon lampooning the Catholic Church's position on abortion when the Catholic Church is trying to influence public policy on abortion? If so, I fail to understand the reason for such a rule. Such self-censorship merely serves to perpetuate the taboo mentality that has long protected religion. As Daniel Dennett stated so succinctly and elegantly, we need to "break the spell."

We should not say or depict something merely to give offense, but neither can we let the possibility of offense inhibit our right to contradict a claim that we have grounds for considering false. We should respect our religious friends and colleagues -- but we do not show respect by treating them like children who need to be shielded from the truth.

[A longer version of this post may appear as an essay in a forthcoming issue of Free Inquiry .]


#1 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday June 03, 2010 at 7:41pm

I’m intrigued with the idea that religion enjoys some kind of immunity from criticism.  Only someone quite profoundly ignorant of the subject could think that, since religions tend to be quite critical of each other and, in many cases, internally.  How do you think so many sects came into being?  General agreement?

The media that shows deference for religion doesn’t do it to all religions, it only does it to the ones big, rich and powerful enough to enjoy the same kind of status as corporations do.  Which is hardly the same thing as this artificial construct you’re always going on about called “religion”. 

If you think offending people is going to win for your side, you don’t know much about people.  It will get you the loud mouthed sci-jocks and jerks that infest organized “skepticism” but it will turn off many times more than it gets you.  And you had them before anyway.  So, go ahead, but the effort is anything but a rational plan for success.

#2 Dale Critchley (Guest) on Thursday June 03, 2010 at 7:51pm

I’m a Christian pastor, and I agree 100%. Well put. Nice balance. Kudos.

#3 Uzza (Guest) on Thursday June 03, 2010 at 8:39pm

Seems to me the question is “CAN we shield the religious ... ?”, since if it’s impossible there’s no point talking about whether or not we should .  Pagans like me feel we should respect the earth and nature, for example, and are offended when people don’t recycle, or waste gas, or pollute the Gulf coast.  We can’t demand all this to stop, just as a practical matter.  Worse, our religious beliefs directly contradict the methods of slaughter required by the dietary laws of Islam / Judaism.

One could multiply these examples all day. The point is, not offending is impossible.  The existence of offensive things is not something we have control over, however, how we react to an offense IS something one can control.  We choose to be offended or not.

We cannot require people to not offend. We can however, require people to be mature.

#4 Harvey (Guest) on Friday June 04, 2010 at 8:18am

What is really at stake here is the freedom of expression guaranteed to us here in the U.S. by our Constitution. As long as we express said criticism/disagreement/aspersions in appropriate contexts, there is no excuse for the idea that we somehow should not express these things for fear of blasphemy??/hurt feelings/risk of a fatwah calling for our death (which last is certainly not limited to Islam). As long as the criticisms are expressed under circumstances in which the believers in question are not forced to listen to or see them (i.e. on the internet, in print, on TV where people can choose not to view, etc.) I cannot understand why any rational individual can object. We have too long afforded religion a “special status”, wherein we are expected to “respect” believers’ sensitivities beyond anything afforded to other secular philosophical ideas. I cannot avoid noting that most religionists will blithely fail to afford those of us who they wish to “save” similar courtesies in their efforts to proselytize, even when it is aginst our wills.

#5 Matt Separa (Guest) on Friday June 04, 2010 at 8:26am

For the most part I agree with the principle that Ron has argued. However, to say that there should be “no inherent limits” on criticism of religion in the same way that there should be no limits on the expression of political belief is, I believe, a little naive and does not address a special psychological aspect of religious belief.

There are limits on the types of expression for political speech. Hate speech, threats, or remarks that have the potential to incite violence are not tolerated. And although I know that Ron’s “inherent limits” statement was not meant to cover these, I believe that when dealing with religion and religious people we must take a slightly different approach.

As humanists, we are tasked with understanding the human condition. This includes superstitious beliefs and religion. I fear there has been a tendency recently within our community to treat religious beliefs like political ones, which they are not.

Religious people view their beliefs as the fundamental truth of their lives. This “truth” transcends politics (and often informs them), transcends logic, and sadly, often transcends familial bonds. Religious people often put God before everything else in their lives. I would find it hard to believe that even the most devout Democrat could say that about President Obama. In this way religious beliefs are not like politics, where one can more often than not have a reasoned debate with someone without offending, and may even come away with some modified views.

To counter these beliefs in a confrontational way is to call into question (and indeed threaten) their very way of life—to tell people that up is down, right is left, war is peace, and freedom is slavery.  fact that they hold them as dearly as their do. No Christian wants to see a mural of an effeminate Jesus painting his cross nails, and many would probably be extremely offended by it—or even feel threatened.

While I do not agree with this outlook, a a pragmatist I realize that it is the way that religionists often view the world, and thus acknowledge that in dealing with religious people, we must work from within that framework in order to make any progress as a movement. Simply put, there are better ways to get our point across than to make comments, cartoons, or accusations that we know will incite anger in religious people.

Freedom of speech is wonderful and we should work tirelessly to defend it. However using that freedom to taunt religious people just because we have the right is not a humanist value.

#6 J. (Guest) on Friday June 04, 2010 at 8:32am

It’s discouraging that after more than a year of disputing the appropriateness of offensive speech and the traumas of changing leadership that Dr. Lindsay seems forget or misstates the point of the critics. I don’t think that anyone is arguing that CFI should “shield” religion in any sense. The question is still can we realize our mission of strengthening the separation of church and state without enlisting potential allies among liberal believers and uncommitted nonbelievers? Dr. Lindsay’s courteous response to this question amounts to, “Thanks for sharing and have a nice day.” A case might be made that broadening our base is a way of pursuing our goals and contributing to the provision of our long term material needs. On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about critics. Eventually most of them will go away.

#7 Dale Critchley (Guest) on Friday June 04, 2010 at 9:18am

First, we need a point of reference. Are we talking about legal boundaries or etiquette? The legal boundaries should be much broader and only have limitations on them insofar as safety is involved, not kowtowing to any idealism, whether religious (like Afghanistan, where the government is persecuting Christians for not being Muslims) or humanist (like China, where the government persecutes Christians for not being atheists).

As far as etiquette, someone once told me, “Your message will offend, but you don’t have to be offensive about it.”

#8 Ophelia Benson on Friday June 04, 2010 at 10:11am

“We cannot require people to not offend. We can however, require people to be mature.”

No we can’t. That’s exactly what we can’t do. We can ask, expect, advise, urge people to be mature, but we certainly can’t require them to - not people in general, people at large, people as such. We can of course require people visiting us (say) to be mature or stop visiting us, but that’s a different matter.

#9 Ophelia Benson on Friday June 04, 2010 at 10:20am

Comment #5 - that all seems true enough, descriptively - but is it really a reason to treat religion as special?

The trouble is, that specialness is already entrenched and taken for granted and heavily defended. Unless you think that situation is intrinsically good (which I for one don’t), then it seems odd to treat the situation as a reason for perpetuating the situation. It amounts to saying “believers are hyper-defensive about their religion therefore we must back off.” Maybe it makes more sense to say “believers are hyper-defensive about their religion therefore they need to get over it.” Or, more gently, “believers are hyper-defensive about their religion therefore they should learn that not everyone sees their religion that way.”

#10 Uzza (Guest) on Saturday June 05, 2010 at 10:57am

Ophelia,@ #8.  First you say we can’t, then you say we can (!) but you seem to be referencing two different spheres.  Comment #7 points out that in the legal sphere we can and must require people to act in a mature fashion, because there are “inherent limits” on free speech, which boils down to “non-violent”. 
In the personal sphere however we “can ask, expect, advise, urge people to be mature ”, but with less drastic means of enforcing our requirements.  By mature I mean choosing not to act out one’s offense in socially unacceptable ways.

Since it’s impossible to not offend, the question is how we should do so.  The consensus here is that confrontation is counterproductive if one’s goal (and this is not always the case) is to convert others to your point of view.  #5 seems to be saying that religion addicts are immature and must be treated as such, which sounds about right.

#11 Ophelia Benson on Sunday June 06, 2010 at 12:27pm

Uzza, no I don’t - I say we can’t with people in general but we can with people up close and personal. I was making a distinction between public discourse and personal relations.

#12 SimonSays on Sunday June 06, 2010 at 7:19pm

If we’re talking about depictions of holy figures, I feel like the discussion of “offensiveness” is basically identical to the debates among the Papal court of 16th century Rome about whether or not to obscure the testicles in Michaelangelo’s male statues.

One would have hoped that at least us secular folk would have moved beyond this type of prudery, but it seems the debate rages on for some…

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