The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, there has been much soul searching regarding free speech, religion, what is and isn’t offensive, and public safety. In my first blog post here at Wrest In Peace, in the spirit of battling with words and not weapons, I wanted to take this topic head-on and without apology. So here goes…

First, I think that there has been a fundamental error in how much of this discussion has been framed. Too many people, mostly those who wish to not have their “religious sensibilities” offended and their weak-kneed allies, are asking the question of what are limits to free speech and should “offensive” speech which attacks and/or ridicules religion be allowed? This viewpoint isn’t to be dismissed as trivial in light of the fact that almost 20% of Americans think religion shouldn’t be satirized.

I think this is entirely the wrong question to be asking, for the simple reason that it appears to place the onus for responsibility of religious violence in the wrong place: on people whose only crime is to speak their mind openly and freely. There is an implicit and dangerous naivety behind such framing: it makes the assumption that if only people wouldn’t be critical of religion or poke fun at religious figures then murderous violence such as that on display recently in Paris would be curbed.

Really?! Not mocking religion means that there’s going to be a reduction of religiously-motivated violence? Try telling that to the thousands upon thousands of Muslims (and others) who are, even now, being enslaved, victimized, and barbarically killed by the extremists in ISIS. I’ll wager that the vast majority, if not all, of those being brutally oppressed and killed by ISIS never said or wrote one offensive word about Islam or Muhammad. Yet they are being slaughtered in the name of radical Islam none-the-less.

In my mind, a much more proper question to ask is this: What is it that it can so easily generate such a murderous certainty among the most ardent, fundamentalist believers of religion? The right way to respond to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and atrocities committed by ISIS isn’t to demand less scrutiny of religion but quite the opposite; we must demand more scrutiny of religion, especially radical, fundamentalist variations.

Second, in order to have any reasonable discussion of these topics, we must ask ourselves who defines what is offensive? Something which offends one person may be little more than humor to someone else. For example, much attention has been paid to the depiction of Muhammad in pictures and how this offends many Muslims; some even go so far as to argue that such depictions should be regarded as “hate speech”!

Would some consider the following depiction of Muhammad as a suicide-bombing terrorist to be offensive?

Undoubtedly, the answer to that question would be “Yes!” But consider this fact: there is a long, rich history of images of Muhammad being displayed within Islamic culture. For instance, this website shows numerous examples, most of them many centuries old, of Muslim artists showing Muhammad in their work. In 1999, Islamic art expert Wijdan Ali wrote a scholarly overview of the Muslim tradition of depicting Muhammad, which can be downloaded here in pdf format. In that essay, Ali demonstrates that the prohibition against depicting Muhammad did not arise until as late as the 16th or 17th century, despite the media’s recent false claims that it has always been forbidden for Muslims to draw Muhammad. Until comparatively recently in Islamic history, it was perfectly common to show Muhammad, either in full, or with his face hidden. Even after the 17th century, up to modern times, Islamic depictions of Muhammad (especially in Shi’ite areas) continued to be produced.

And even the U.S. government has incorporated an image of Muhammad as one of the traditional law-givers on the frieze of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC…

And there are plenty of other examples available.  My whole point here is that it seems the modern-day Islamic radicals are on a crusade to crush dissent, free expression, and free inquiry not only among the secular critics of Islam in the West, but also those whom would dissent within Islam itself.

And that brings me to my third point: if we allow “offending” speech to be curbed or outlawed, we run the risk of letting these vague notions of what is offensive to be defined by the most extreme members of religion. Take, for example, the case of Saudi Arabian blogger and dissenter Raif Badawi, who is undergoing a brutal punishment involving receiving 50 lashes a week for 20 weeks, followed by years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. His crime, according to the Saudi Arabian authorities, was “insulting Islam”; Raif had the audacity to run a website called Free Saudi Liberals (now closed down) where he advocated for a secular government in Saudi Arabia. Yes, political dissent is viewed as an insult to religion, justifying – in the minds of the extremists – the most brutal of tortures and disproportionate punishment. Raif Badawi’s torture makes the case that, if anything, religious sensibilities need to be questioned, and if that makes some people uncomfortable or offends them, so much the better!

Now, lest you think this discussion is exclusively about Islam, think again. It has become clear of late that many more than just some Muslims are jumping aboard the “curb offensive speech” bandwagon. Consider, for example, the reaction from various branches of Christianity to the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

Famous religious right and fundamentalist Christian broadcaster Bryan Fisher suggested that God allowed Islamic terrorists to carry out their attack in Paris as punishment for blasphemy. Further, in his radio broadcast he stated “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… They [Charlie Hebdo] made a career out of taking the name of God, the God of the Bible, the father of the Lord Jesus [in vain].” So, according to Fisher, it wasn’t the satire of Islam that led to the attacks, it was the satire of Christianity and Jesus that is to blame! It should also be no surprise that Fisher is among those who would impose so-called anti-blasphemy laws in the United States.

Not to be outdone, prominent radical Catholic and head of the Catholic League Bill Donohue stated that the victims of the Paris attacks only had themselves to blame for insulting religion and angering people. “Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated,” he explained in a press release. “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”

Now one would expect such nutty rhetoric from commonly-known Christian fundamentalists such as Fisher and Donohue, but what is more disturbing is that the most widely known religious figure on the planet, Pope Francis, who is regarded by many as a “progressive Pope” appears to agree with these sentiments! “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith,” the Pope stated on a recent trip to the Philippines. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” he continued. Wow, so much for that “turn the other cheek” nonsense that Jesus espoused.

What I see now is an emerging unholy alliance between right-wing extremists and naïve left-wing multiculturalists against secular critics of religion. The former want little more than power and control, and they view silencing criticism of religion and its related power structures as a way of attaining these goals. The latter are often well-meaning but clueless and unrealistic idealists who believe that sitting in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” will result in less religiously-motivated power grabs and violence. Both groups view secular critics of religion as either an enemy of the faith or callous and disrespectful loud-mouths who are somehow a threat to a healthy society. And this is not simply an academic debate; political correctness, introduced by the naïve among the multicultural left, has now been co-opted by right-wing fundamentalists to justify everything from the denial of contraception to women to the inclusion of pseudo-scientific notions of creationism in public schools. Under the guise of “religious liberty”, these fundamentalists insist that not allowing them to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of society is offensive.

What needs to happen is that it needs to be shown that an increased secularization of society, as Raif Badawi advocates, is needed to make it more free and prosperous for everyone, believer and non-believer alike. But in order to show the importance of secularism, it is necessary to simultaneously question religion; and as Voltaire famously wrote, “We must have laughter on our side,” because there is often no more powerful force to tear down the high and mighty than laughter. And laughter is the chief weapon of the satirist.

So you see, even if it is considered offensive or blasphemous, the satirical lampooning of religion and religious belief is necessary for a healthy and free society. If we accept a situation where there really are sacred cows that cannot be questioned or made fun of, then that leads to the collection of unquestioned and absolute authority (it’s hard to get much more authoritative than claiming you speak for God). And, as the saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”



Matt Lowry is a high school and college physics professor with a strong interest in promoting science education and critical thinking among his students and the population in general. He is a self-described skeptic, someone who believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”He muses on these and other topics at his blog, The Skeptical Teacher (

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About MattusMaximus

Matt Lowry is a high school and college physics professor with a strong interest in promoting science education and critical thinking among his students and the population in general. He is a self-described skeptic, someone who believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” He muses on these and other topics at his blog, The Skeptical Teacher (

9 Responses to The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities

  1. JRCowles says:

    In a broader sense, I do not understand why ANY assertion or ANY system of thought should be automatically exempt from critical examination. I also think that extreme Muslims — which phrase is NOT redundant, BTW — extreme Muslims will react the way they reacted to “Charlie Hebdo”, no matter how civil, reasoned, rational, temperate, and considered the criticism is. It is the criticism per se that they object to, not how the criticism is expressed. And I could say the same thing about any of the more extreme expressions of the 3 monotheisms.

    (I do think monotheism is especially susceptible to this kind of extremism, however, because, with monotheism, what is being worshipped is, in some significant sense, a PERSON, and so monotheists are more prone to take criticism as personAL, either against them or against their god. Non-theistic religions — Buddhism, Taoism, etc. — not so much.)

    That is why I regard monotheism as conspicuously dangerous: with monotheism, the Entity being worshipped is, in some sense, a PERSON, and so the danger of transference and identification, where the worshipper identifies, it may well be unconsciously, with the god is always present. The worshipPER tends to confuse him / herself with the worshiPPED. If one is a Taoist, there is not much danger of identifying oneself with the “Great Void” and empty-mindedness is valued in Buddhism.

    So in some realistic sense, the individual Christian or Muslim or Jew, worshipping a single personal god, tends to feel much more threatened, on an intimate, personal level, by criticisms of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, respectively. It’s as if a 3rd party were criticizing someone’s spouse.

    • John Lombard says:

      JR — Thanks for joining our little community here, and I pretty much agree with what you said. I think I’d just make one small change…not so much to focus on monotheistic vs. polytheistic, but rather on religions where people feel they have a personal relationship with their god, vs. seeing their god as a remote, disinterested entity.

      As an example, I know Buddhists who have particular deities that they see as their ‘personal god’…with whom they feel a particularly strong tie, to whom they go to pray when they have problems. These people won’t get terribly upset at general criticisms of Buddhism, or of Buddhist gods that they don’t particularly pay attention to; but will still get defensive and upset if someone attacks the particular deity that they feel they have a personal relationship with.

  2. JRCowles says:

    I also agree about the “curb offensive speech bandwagon”. This is a tendency that Sam Harris warned about early in his first book “The End of Faith”: the idea that, as long as we can hand the “r-word” (“religion”) on some belief, that that description brands the belief, no matter how whacked-out, as being immune to criticism. Harris also used the example of seeing someone holding a hair dryer, looking down at it reverently, and mumbling something. We are ordinarily predisposed, says Harris, to believe that such a person needs some form of immediate intervention … until we say “Excuse me, why are you mumbling down to your hair dryer”. If the person responds, “I am praying to the Hair Dryer God”, we immediately back off a little and show deference to a belief that would ordinarily merit some kind of psychopathological diagnosis. (I’m paraphrasing Harris’s example, but I think I got it basically right.) I think that the “new atheism”, by critiquing this tendency toward knee-jerk deference, has done us all a great favor. BS doesn’t become chocolate pudding just because you spray some canned whipped cream on it.

  3. John Lombard says:

    Mostly agree with the comments above, but it’s difficult to determine where the line is between legitimate criticism, and simply being offensive for the sake of being offensive. I don’t think that the latter should be illegal; but nor should it be encouraged, or praised, regardless of who is doing it.

    But regardless, there should be no ‘sacred cows’…double standards by which particular topics, beliefs, or people are given some sort of special status, protected from criticism that can be readily made elsewhere. I’ve found that as a general rule, those who scream loudest about others offending them are usually the ones most willing to offend others.

    • mike4ty4 says:

      I think this is right but I have a curiosity Q — regarding your last point of “those who scream loudest about others offending them are usually the ones most willing to offend others” how and what, if anything, does this imply in say, the US, with the issue of Black and other minority groups taking a stand against racism and discrimination or the use of racially-biased language or other things like that that promote a climate of discrimination?

  4. Chaos says:

    At the same time, of course, there should not be any, for lack of a better term, “unholy cows” – topics, beliefs or people who are given the opposite kind of special status, meaning it is not only perfectly acceptable to insult, attack, slander or demonize them, but that sort of thing is actually seen as laudable.

    Muslims generally have that status in the Western world these days, and religion and religious people in general have it among large parts of the atheist community.

  5. John Lombard says:

    Chaos, agreed. However, in practice, that’s a far more difficult principle to adhere to. If I’m an atheist who is regularly treated with disdain and mistrust by Christians, of course I’m going to target them more. If I’m a Christian living in a Muslim country where I’m a second-class citizen because of my faith, of course I’m going to target Islam more.

    It’s relatively easy to enforce a principle that nobody has the ‘right’ not to be criticized, or even offended; far more difficult to enforce a principle that seeks to determine how much criticism is acceptable, and how much is not.

    • Chaos says:

      This isn´t about criticism. There is no such thing as “too much criticism”.

      Lies aren´t criticism. Activities solely intended to inflame hatred against a group aren´t criticism. Activities solely intended to anger a group aren´t criticism.

      I am sick and tired of the reflexive calls of “criticism must be permitted” used to shield libel and bigotry and hatemongering. Going by the current standards of “criticism”, as they appear based on what is protected by it, we aren´t that far removed from having to call Hitler a “critic of the impending judaization of the West”, just to be consistent.

      By all means, let´s criticise Islam and the way it is practiced today, addressing all facets of Islam and its practice that are incompatible with the way we would prefer the world to be – women´s rights, for example, or religious tolerance, or the criteria under which violence against out-groups is permitted.
      But, let´s also shut down any attempts of people to legitimize attempts to dehumanize Muslims by hanging on the coattails of “criticism”.

  6. mike4ty4 says:

    First off, I want to say that I accept the point about that “banning ‘offensive’ depictions” will not make religious violence go away — that’s silly and if it *were* that easy, I’d say yeah, ban it asap. But there is still a very important question here that needs to be answered: and that is, what _constructive_ purpose do _these kind_ of depictions provide, that without them, our discussion and ability to effectively stop _violence_ and _destruction_ in the name of religion (which is near-infinitely more important than “stopping religion” even if you can’t believe in religion yourself) would be curtailed to the point of uselessness? I am not advocating these be banned because that would mean the society would not be open to all ideas and if the authorities privilege one system that can, as you suggest, lead to extremism, and the very least to inequality (who is NOT so favored? If anything, in a place like the US, if we were to go that route although I don’t suggest it, I’d say we should privilege the Native Americans for they were actually genocided by our hand (although personally instead of unequal speech I kind of like reparations programs, also for Black slavery too)).

    But just because something is not illegal, doesn’t mean it is ethical, and the law, as I think the Chinese Confucians were right to observe, is “for those not civilized” (paraphrase). Ideally we would have _no_ law and no government, because everyone would be perfectly controlled by inner ethics, but that is not possible given the inevitable variation of human natures and nurtures, so there are always those “uncivilized” who create the need for law. We may have an open society but that doesn’t mean we as people shouldn’t also practice some virtue. Free speech is a great tool, but with it comes duty and responsibility — indeed one Native American leader I heard of suggested that we should have had a “Bill of Responsibilities” to go along with the “Bill of Rights” in the US, and while maybe It would be problematic to make that a law, we should not forget the responsibilities that come along with the rights (Remember law is for the barbarians) when deciding how to conduct ourselves.

    The one thing I’d point out about these depictions is that they aren’t only offensive to the people who cause trouble — the extremists, the violence mongers, killers who definitely deserve the very harshest criticism — but also the many _victims_ they make as well. Their victims were, as you say, Muslim, so they too hold Muhammad dear. Do these images discriminate in their target between violence monger and victim? Certainly we should and must make that distinction.

    In short, I do not see what is wrong with exercising tact in most circumstances, even though I agree that banning things goes too far. “Muslims” are not a monolith and so there are ones in there who deserve more respect than others (to assign a moral judgment label of “respectable” or “disrespectable” to an entire racial-sized group (not racial but racial-_sized_ — it’s 1 billion people) is to oversimplify it to the point of logical absurdity), and because of that, we should take that into account when making some kind of critical commentary. Not to drop valid points, but the manner of delivery. You say that satire is a good tool, but maybe we need to be considerate of the target. Of course there is no reason that we couldn’t be as brash and nasty as possible if we were sending things directly toward ISIS HQ or something. But chances are, they are so filled with perversity that it would do nothing to them anyways.

    Of course one could claim “they should just get thick skin” or something, but I don’t like those arguments because they seem to implicitly absolve the speaker of responsibility for the content of hir speech, yet the speaker too is a moral agent and thus hir actions carry moral weight. Even if there _is_ some responsibility on the part of the target, there is _ALSO_ responsibility on the part of the speaker.

    TL;DR: no legal ban but why not still consider tact?

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