Should We Respect Religion?  

By Barbara Smoker ---Free Inquire Magazine

On May 25,2006 , I took part in the Oxford University Union Debate, opposing the motion that "Free speech should be moderated by respect for religion." The chief speaker on my side was Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who published the controversial Muhammad cartoons. As there is a seven-figure bounty on his head, the security arrangements for the debate were heavy. Everyone was searched on the way in. In the days when, as president of the National Secular Society, I frequently took part in university debates (mainly during the 1970s through the 1990s). I was almost invariably on the losing side when it came to the vote, but this time we won by a good margin-129-59.   

If the word religion in the motion were 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 uniquely privileged status? After thousands of years, it is the norm-so no one ever thinks it needs justifying.

"Should we, then, respect religious faith? Certainly not. But should we respect religious people? Yes as long as they are not antisocial and do not aim to impose their religious views on others."

Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2005As I pointed out in the debate, the precept to respect religion is similar to the Mosaic commandment, "Honor thy Father and thy Mother." But suppose your father and mother happened to be murderers? They wouldn't deserve your respect, and most religions don't either.

However, 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. If there were objective evidence for its doctrines, it would no longer be faith; it would be knowledge.

 We have to excuse the medieval skeptics who pretended to respect Christianity rather 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 offense; 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 respectful closet and speaking our minds. Freedom of speech is more important than respect.

Skepticism is of paramount importance, because it is the gateway to knowledge; but unless the skeptical ideas are freely argued over, they cannot be assessed, nor can the ensuing knowledge spread through society.

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 expression. And free speech must include the right to laugh at absurd ideas. Indeed, ridicule-including satirical toons-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.

Totalitarian extremists, of whatever religion or sect, invariably put faith first and freedom nowhere. Censorship, including insidious self-censorship, is then the order of the day, followed closely by violence. In a society where religious orthodoxy rules, there is no freedom of religion.

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 this 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 truth emerging. But at present it is “shielded from honest scrutiny. This suggests that the faithful realize it could not stand up to it.

We are told by politicians and mealy-mouthed functionaries that it is politically incorrect to call the perpetrators of the July 7, 2005 , bombings in London Muslim terrorists-but, of course, everyone knows they were Muslims, of the most zealous kind. Their belief in a blissful afterlife for martyrs is another aspect of the problem, and, since this afterlife belief is unshakable, what we need perhaps is a revered ayatollah to proclaim, with Quranic support, that suicide bombers will actually go to hell (or, at least, that paradise has ran out of virgins).

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 imams were offering bribes on BBC television for the murder of Salman Rushdie, they were never charged with incitement to murder.

The July 7 suicide bombers were British-born Muslim youths, three of whom-all found dead-were quickly identified. At least one of them used to attend the Finsbury Park Mosque, where Abu Hamza was knowingly allowed, for eight years, to preach violent hatred and incite young men to murder, before the Crown Prosecution Service started criminal proceedings against him in 2004-and only then because the United States was demanding his extradition to their country to be tried for crimes against it.

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 ?

It is obviously impossible to genuinely respect an ideology that our reason rejects as superstition, let alone dangerous superstition; so what the motion that we should respect it actually means is that we should pretend to respect religion for the sake of political correctness. Thus, at the very least, the motion that I was debating in Oxford demands hypocrisy.

But hypocrisy is not the worst of it. When the ideologies that we pretend to respect are allowed to 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, the oppression of women, and even incitement to terrorism. This has been exacerbated by our political representatives, for the sake of votes, setting up state-supported schools to promote indoctrination in a particular faith, though they themselves probably accept a different, incompatible set of superstitions.

We are told that Islam itself cannot be blamed for the terrorists' 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.

In the 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.

This use of torture was not a case of bad people perverting a good religion; the persecution of skeptics 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.

Muhammad followed on from Jesus, and the Qur'an contains even more manic 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.

The Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Iraq 's Badr Corps (commanded by that country's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution) are certainly extremist, but they are orthodox-deriving logically from the Qur'an, which denigrates women and tells believers to wage jihad against heretics and infidels. Moderate Muslims may explain it away as misinterpretation-but why, then, did Allah or his Prophet lapse into ambiguity? Even the two major Islamic sects, Shia and Sunni, are at each other's throats in Iraq and elsewhere.

Muslims, we are told, are sensitive and are really hurt when their religion is joked about. Don't they credit their supposed creator god with any sense of humor? Didn't he actually invent laughter? And is he too weak to withstand a joke without some humorless cleric rushing to his defense? 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.

It is argued that, since the common-law offense of blasphemy survives in Britain , 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, the ears of which are more deaf even than those of a person my age. But now the concept of blasphemy has been given an independent lease of life by renaming it "disrespect for religious feelings."

Our present government has even endeavored to criminalize 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 January 31 this year. But the attenuated bill then became law.

Of course, the law should protect people-in fact, that is basically what 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.

On February 20, Pope Benedict XVI called for mutual respect for all the world religions and their symbols though he failed to mention, of course, parallel respect for atheism.

Anyway, how can the pope sincerely respect Islam when it teaches that believers in the "blasphemous" Christian Trinity are destined to spend eternity in hell? Not to mention that the death sentence is often passed in Muslim countries, to this day, on anyone who converts from Islam to Christianity.

The fatwa recently issued by Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani states not only that all homosexuals should be killed but that they should be killed in the "most severe way" possible. By comparison, Pope Benedict's homophobia is quite restrained.

Pressured by religious leaders sinking their differences in the common cause of authoritarianism, the Council of Europe is currently considering the introduction of legislation in t118 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, but it would actually allow superstitions of the Dark Ages to triumph, destroying the whole range of social and individual freedoms courageously won over the past few centuries.

So, for the sake of liberty as well as truth, we must resist the indefensible furtherance of hypocritical respect. Far from being willing to moderate free speech by respect for religion, we should moderate respect for religion in favor of free speech. 

Barbara Smoker was president of Britain 's National Secular Society. She was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award for Distinguished Services to Humanism.

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