Thursday, December 13, 2007

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear

Religion is... [audible groan from nearby]. “You’re not banging on about religion again, are you? You sound like a broken iPod shuffle.”

A few words to the objecting: if you are uncomfortable with criticism of religion, plug your ears, go elsewhere, or drown out the unpleasant noises with conversations about Kate Moss or David Beckham. By all means take me to task on the subject of my concerns – arguing is how we develop our opinions - but freedom of speech is not something that anyone should be willing to comprise so easily.

Of course, the same people who object to arguments about religion would never utter the phrase: “you’re not banging on about climate change again, are you?” or bat an eye-lid should the African AIDS crisis be mentioned twice, by the same person, within a week. That kind of behaviour is certainly never described as ‘militant’.

The shear audacity of a person, who argues despite the fact that others may disagree, is so unseemly that it seems to warrant its own word. And so the term ‘militant’ was coined… again. It is much beloved of those who would stifle criticism of religion. The beauty of reusing a word, of course, is that it automatically carries a backlog of connotations, but is this really fair? I have been so accused on numerous occasions, but does my attitude deserve to be compared to that of a soldier? Do I, without question, follow someone else’s pugnacious agenda? Am I forcing anything on anyone? I’m not even forcing anyone to hear my opinion, let alone agree with it.

Let me clear a few things up - I’m not mounting a counter-crusade nor am I attempting to induce mass apostasy. I am not being crude or vulgar. Neither am I criticising the infirm, or taking pot-shots at the imagined shortcomings of a particular race, gender or sexual preference. I offer criticism of certain aspects of a sets of beliefs voluntarily held by people from all walks of life and I won’t be quiet simply because people don’t like what I’m saying.

If I can be said to have an agenda it is that religious belief should be treated to the same degree of robust critique that every single other aspect of our society is treated. Let us level the playing field. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, compares the damning language commonly used to criticise restaurants to his, by comparison, tame assessment of religion. Yet food critics – no matter how trenchant their comments – are not reprimanded for speaking their mind. Restaurants have owners, they have feelings to hurt and livelihoods to ruin – how is it that they are deemed solid enough to withstand scathing reviews, and yet God is not? Dawkins further notes that if a politician addressed a policy issue, across the floor of the debating chamber, in the same tone and intensity, he would win plaudits for his robust and clear-thinking arguments.

So I would go so far as to say that argument may well be a necessary condition for an effective democracy. However, each aspect of society must be subject to the same rules. Indeed every other aspect is. Academia is a battleground of competing theories. Scientists accumulate data and propose new theories. Their research is submitted to peer review, by which process, competitors and colleagues in the same field assess the methods used, and appraise the reasoning steps that took the proponent from the data collected to the conclusion drawn. Bad methods, jumps in logic and spurious conclusions are seized upon. A scientist whose research is repeatedly found to lack integrity and intellectual honesty loses credibility within the scientific community.

Similarly, historians debate each other’s research, and each proposed theory sinks or swims depending on its ability to withstand scrutiny. Novelists aren’t automatically inducted into the pantheon of great writers - their works are debated thoroughly in magazines, in the backs of newspapers, by the adjudicators who decide whom to award the prestigious prizes and by the literate public.

Religion, however, is exempt. A taboo exists about criticising religion that is ingrained in our society. Apparently, freedom to practise any religion comes with a protection from criticism. Do people really need to be reminded of the issues that the Christian church has supported in the past and has since been forced, by society, to recant? Who would welcome slavery back? Who now would not cringe to hear the line: suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence [1 Tim 2:12]?

Christianity has compromised on many issues over the last few centuries and it is, as I’m sure all would agree, a better institution for it. However, do not anyone think that this was the result of the church checking itself. Far from it. Society changed first – new issues were encountered in literature (and films in later decades), argued in the law courts, and championed by our policy makers. We have seen it happen at various times in the past. First the zeitgeist changed – be it on slavery, feminism or divorce – then the church followed. It’s happening today with issues such as gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research and contraception. But the debates progress in such an awkward manner, due to the notion, held by many, that it is somehow perverse to criticise religion.

The politicians who condemn abortion on the grounds of their religion should be challenged to present humanitarian arguments – in a society that includes a wide variety of religions as well as secularists, policies influenced exclusively by one or other religion should not be employed. A humanitarian reason for making a policy decision, for example, can be understood and appraised by any human regardless of religion or lack thereof. Conversely, if an objection to a decision can only be made on the grounds of a piece of religious dogma then it cannot fairly be applied to an issue that affects all society.

Many of the religions practised in this country have existed for millennia, and they have all adapted, to some degree, to accommodate society - the huge number of divisions and subdivisions testify to this. There is no need to tiptoe around the subject – the immortal multitudes are thick skinned and will survive our criticism.

Freedom of speech is critical. And that means freedom of speech for everyone, on every subject. Even if it’s only at the level of conversation, censorship should not be tolerated. Freedom of speech wasn’t designed to allow people to discuss pop music or share their views on Manchester United. To grant that some topics should be immune from criticism is to embark on a slippery slope that I, for one, do not want to start on.

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