WE RESPECT RELIGION?
On 25 May
2006 Barbara Smoker took part in the Oxford University Union Debate on the motion that "Free speech should be moderated by respect for religion". Needless to say, she spoke for the opposition.
"The chief speaker on my side was Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who published
Mohammed cartoons. As
a seven-figure bounty on his head, the security arrangements for the debate were heavy, everyone being searched on the way in.
In the days when, as president of the National Secular Society, I used to take part in lots of university debates, mainly in the 1970s to '90s, I was almost invariably on the losing side when it came to the vote, but this time we won by a good margin -129 to 59.
Had the word "religion"
in the motion been replaced
by any other abstract noun, we would have won by 188 to nil. Suppose the word was "science".
The motion would then have read "Free speech should be moderated
by respect for science",
and no reasonable person would vote for that - least of all a genuine
scientist. So why is religion given its unique privileged
status? After thousands of years,
it has become the norm, so no-one ever
thinks it needs justifying.
out in the debate, the precept to respect religion
is similar to the Mosaic commandment, "Honour thy father
and thy mother". But suppose your father and mother happened
to be the serial child murderers Fred and Rosemary
Ian Brady and Myra Hindley? Even your
your respect. And most religions do not deserve
So should we respect religious faith? Certainly not.
should we respect religious people? Yes
- as long as they are not antisocial and don't aim to impose their religious views on others.
But even if we respect them as good-living people, we cannot respect their beliefs. Faith, which means firm belief in the absence of evidence, betrays human intelligence, undermines science-based knowledge, and compromises ordinary morality.
evidence for its doctrines, it would no longer be faith: it would be knowledge.
We have to excuse
sceptics who pretended
than risk being burned at the stake, and likewise the apostate Muslims of today who pay lip-service to Islam in those Islamic countries where apostasy is still a capital offence; but we who live in a comparatively liberal society have no such excuse. In fact, it is all the more incumbent upon us to give our support to victims of religious oppression everywhere, by coming out of the
closet and speaking our minds. Free speech, not respect.
Scepticism is of
paramount importance, because it is the gateway
but unless the sceptical
ideas are freely
argued over, they cannot
nor can the ensuing
There can be no real freedom
of religion without freedom from religion, which is part of the whole concept of free speech. As J.S. Mill wrote, no idea can be justified unless it is open to opposition - which means free speech.
And free speech must include the right to laugh at absurd ideas. Indeed, ridicule - including satirical cartoons, which have recently provoked terrorism - has always been an important element of the free exchange of ideas on everything,
not least religion.
Without that free exchange there can be no advance in knowledge and no social progress.
told, are sensitive, and are really hurt
when their religion
is joked about. Don't they credit their
creator god with any sense of humour? Didn't
invent laughter? And is he too weak to withstand
a joke without some humourless cleric rushing to his defence?
Or is their own faith so weak that they fear its contamination? Let them heed the old playground retort: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."
Claiming to be ultra-sensitive and really hurt by mere words or pictures is, of course, a way of gaining privilege. Everyone else has to speak softly so as not to hurt you.
Incidentally, the violence provoked by the Danish cartoons was deliberately stirred up by Islamic extremists publishing exaggerated versions of them in Muslim countries up to four months after the originals were published.
I have discussed it with several moderate Muslims, and while they roundly condemned the violent reprisals, they generally added "But people ought not to insult religion". Why not? No-one would denounce the ridiculing of political views, which
are open to free debate. In fact, true respect for religion would allow it to be opened up in the same way, relying on the
But at present it is shielded from honest
scrutiny. This suggests that the faithful realise it could not stand up to it.
slogan, Live and Let Live, calls for practical tolerance without smarmy respect, but it is never accepted by fundamentalist proponents of any locally powerful religion. That is especially true of the three major religions of the book of Abraham - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Known as "the sibling faiths", they certainly exhibit innate sibling rivalry, eclipsed only by their shared hatred of outsiders, whether pagans or atheists.
Totalitarian extremists, of whatever religion or sect, invariably put faith first and freedom nowhere.
insidious self-censorship, is then the order of the
closely by violence. In a society where religious orthodoxy rules, there is no freedom of religion.
Though we must take care to avoid
a native backlash against the mostly peaceable British Muslim community, succeeding governments have carried the exoneration of Muslim villains too far in the past. For instance,
as long ago as 1989, when, even on BBC television, imams were offering bribes for the murder of Salman Rushdie, they were never charged with incitement to murder.
The word "appeasement" is rarely used except in the context of Neville Chamberlain's deal with Hitler in 1938, but what about the present appeasement of Muslims in Britain?
the law must protect
people - in fact, that is basically what the law is all about -
and we have plenty of general laws for the protection of
people, without special laws for the protection of ideas, of a particular kind.
obviously impossible to genuinely respect an ideology that
our reason rejects as superstition - let alone dangerous superstition; so what the precept to
respect religion actually means
is that we should pretend
to respect it, for
the sake of political correctness. At the very least, then, as I pointed
out in the debate, the motion called for hypocrisy. So
the final majority vote was for honesty, not hypocrisy.
is not the worst of it.
ideologies we pretend to respect indoctrinate children, some of whom
may even grow up to be suicide bombers because
of it, hypocrisy becomes complicity in the mental abuse of
children, in the oppression of women, in the obstruction of social
reforms, and even in incitement to terrorism.
been exacerbated by our political representatives, for the sake of
votes, setting up state-supported schools to promote the indoctrination
in a particular faith - though
they themselves probably accept a different, incompatible set
told that Islam itself cannot be blamed for the terrorist attacks on
New York, Madrid, and London, followed by widespread
carnage in retaliation for the publication of a few innocuous
drawings. That is like saying that the horrors of the
Inquisition had nothing to do with Christianity.
gospels, Jesus consistently identifies righteousness with believing in him;
and in the ages of faith the statement by
Thomas Aquinas that "Unbelief is the greatest of sins" was incontrovertible.
Hence the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the
Christian burning of witches, heretics, and Jews - the flames
being fanned by Christian faith.
of torture was not a case of bad people perverting
religion; the persecution of sceptics follows logically from the
Christian correlation of faith with salvation, not to mention
the scary notion that God could punish the whole of society
for the disbelief of a few.
followed on from Jesus, and the Koran contains even more , panic
denunciations of disbelief than the New Testament. Moreover, Islam has
failed to moderate its cruel practices to the extent that mainstream
Christianity has done, in the past couple of centuries.
Taliban, Al-Qa'eda, and the Badr Corps, are certainly extremist, but
they are orthodox - deriving logically from the Koran, which denigrates
women and tells believers to wage jihad against heretics and
infidels. Moderate Muslims often try to explain away this tyranny and
violence as misinterpretation of the Koran. If that is so, why did
Allah, or his Prophet, lapse into such ambiguity?
is argued that, since the common-law offence of blasphemy in this
country survives, though only for the protection of the doctrines of
the Church of England, parity demands that the law be extended to
protect other religions. But it is now practically a dead letter, and
the best solution would clearly be to abolish it altogether, as in fact
the Law Commission has recommended several times to succeeding
governments. But now the concept of blasphemy has been given an independent
lease of life by renaming it "disrespect for religious
present government has even endeavoured to criminalise such disrespect
with another change of name, "incitement to religious hatred"; but
fortunately, ameliorating amendments to the relevant Bill introduced in
the House of Lords were finally accepted in the Commons - by just a
single vote, when Blair himself was absent - on the 31st of January
2006. But the attenuated Bill then became law.
the 20th of February, Pope Benedict called for mutual respect for all
the world religions and their symbols - though he failed to mention, of
course, parallel respect for atheism
can the Pope sincerely respect Islam when it teaches that believers in
the "blasphemous" Christian Trinity are destined to spend eternity in
Pressurised by religious leaders sinking their
differences in the common cause of authoritarianism, the Council of
Europe is currently considering the introduction of legislation in the
European Parliament, and even the United Nations, to enforce "respect
for religious feelings" internationally.
Insertion of the word "feelings" lends this
tendentious goal a semblance of humane empathy. But
religion cannot, in all conscience, be intellectually respected, if
honesty is to prevail over hypocrisy - and giving it false respect
would not just be obsequious and dishonest: it could actually allow
superstitions of the Dark Ages to triumph, destroying the whole range
of social and individual freedoms courageously won over the past few
So, for the sake of
liberty and equality as well as
truth, we must resist the indefensible furtherance of hypocritical
respect. Far from our agreeing to moderate free
speech in favour of respect for religion, we should moderate respect
for religion in favour of free speech.
Barbara Smoker May 25th 2006