There has been much discussion among humanists and other secularists, including in the pages of this journal (“Toward a Kinder and Gentler Humanism” by Paul Kurtz, FI, June/July 2010), about the limits on criticism of religion-and in particular whether secularists have an obligation to avoid commenting on religion in a way that might offend believers. Some take this position; others vigorously disagree, arguing that it is permissible to be offensive. Closely connected with this dispute is a debate over forms of expression: should secularists limit themselves to presenting scholarly critiques of religion, or may we instead express ourselves with more pithy, sharp criticism through the use of cartoons, slogans, sarcasm, and the like?
I often find these debates unilluminating because the arguments are not properly grounded. Sometimes, 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.”
Here is how I would frame this discussion: Religions make certain claims about reality, for example, that there is a god, there is an afterlife, and natural disasters constitute divine punishment. Believers assert these claims and in many cases try to persuade others to accept them. These claims should be subject to examination and criticism, just like any other claims 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 say so. ;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 Barack Obama, a physicist offended by criticism of string theory, or a potter offended by criticism of the clay mixture in his or her 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 be inherent limits on how criticism of a political belief is expressed. Cartoons and slogans are freely used in politics. Is there any reason why we cannot use them to make a point about religious beliefs or practices? Religion should not enjoy a privileged status, especially when many religious people strive 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 protected religion for too long. As Daniel C. Dennett has so elegantly stated, we need to “break the spell.”
This is not to say that we should do nothing but publish cartoons or work continuously to craft the best twenty-word jab against religion-any more than those engaged in politics confine themselves to cartoons or slogans alone. In criticizing another viewpoint, an array of expressive means is available and acceptable for use, including scholarly articles, detailed arguments, position papers, speeches, cartoons, billboards, slogans, and even jokes. What the appropriate mix of expressive forms may be is determined by the circumstances, including the goal of the criticism and the expertise and capabilities of the person or organization making the criticism. But determining the appropriate mix is a practical question, not a moral one. There is nothing per se immoral or unacceptable about a cartoon with a religious subject.
Nothing that I have stated should be interpreted as endorsing in-your-face criticism of religion around the clock, on any and all occasions. Religious beliefs are not always in play, just as political beliefs are not always in play. If you are at a party and people are discussing a movie, it is pointless, at best, to blurt out suddenly, “There is no God, and anyone who believes there is must be misguided, ignorant, or stupid.” We are neither cranks nor missionaries. Similarly, if you attend a religious funeral, it is beyond tasteless to carry a sign saying, “It is a shame the deceased will never know how wrong she was.” If you have strong objections to religious funerals, weddings, or similar events, just don’t go.
There has been recent debate in the blogosphere about what public school textbooks-in particular, science textbooks-can state about religious beliefs. Because this issue involves questions of constitutional law (the state cannot promote religion or irreligion), it is a bit more complicated than the issue of offending the religious in general; but still, I think this controversy is fairly easily resolved if one frames the discussion properly. If there are relevant scientific facts that should be brought to the attention of students, they should be brought to the attention of students. Period. It should not matter who might be offended. So if the geology class needs to know the age of Earth based on the best scientific evidence, that age should be provided even though it may contradict certain religious beliefs. However, although the textbook should state “the Earth is 4.5 billion years old,” there is no need for the textbook to add, “and this contradicts the views of some creationists.” Religious claims are not specifically at issue (or at least, they should not be at issue) in a science classroom, and, therefore, they need not be expressly challenged. Adhere to the truth, state the unvarnished facts, and let the students figure out the rest of it for themselves.
Those who argue that we should avoid offending the religious at any cost sometimes emphasize the need not to alienate friends and colleagues. How would our religious friends react if we were to contradict them when they assert that abortion violates God’s commandments, that prayer is effective, or that Jesus died for our sins? Again, if someone is making an assertion about reality, we are free to contradict it. How detailed, how sharp, how serious our rejoinder should be depends on the circumstances and plain common sense. (If someone exclaims “God bless you!” after you sneeze, no reply is really necessary.) If your friends do not know you are an atheist or a humanist, perhaps it’s time to enlighten them.
Will there be an adverse reaction when you disagree with a friend’s assertion? Sometimes, perhaps. But if there is an adverse reaction, in many cases it can be explained by the fact that this is the first time your religious friend may have encountered criticism of his or her beliefs. New experiences can be unsettling, but over time, I believe the notion that religious beliefs cannot be questioned will suffer the same fate as other taboos of the past, such as the notion that one should not discuss the lack of political and civil rights for women.
I also believe that we humanists tend to exaggerate the sensitivity-and underestimate the robustness-of our religious friends. They don’t all have thin skins! Many of my friends are religious. In fact, most of my close friends are religious-and they know what I do for a living. It doesn’t seem to bother them. Remember the brouhaha over Blasphemy Day 2009? There was much hand-wringing among some humanists about how deeply offended the religious were going to be by the Center for Inquiry’s decision to commemorate Blasphemy Day. This angst may have been unwarranted. One of my good friends is very devout; she goes to Mass every Sunday without fail. Her reaction when I mentioned the Blasphemy Day controversy: “I don’t get it. I thought blasphemy was what you guys did every day.” Indeed.
Of course, we must respect the religious. But respect is not manifested by treating the religious like children for fear they may be upset when someone questions their beliefs. That would be deeply insulting to our religious friends. They are our peers in all relevant respects, intellectually, morally, and otherwise. As fellow members of our moral community, they are entitled to have their beliefs treated seriously; they are entitled to have their beliefs probed, questioned, and critically examined; they are entitled to work with us ;in our efforts to understand reality. They-and we-are entitled to express our views openly and honestly. We are all entitled ;to the truth.