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 .]