I am the sort of person who would draw a Mohammed cartoon, if I could draw, which I can’t, and if I was good at satirical cartoons, which I’m not. Yes, we do understand that you find cartoons depicting Muhammed offensive. We understand that you value the reputation of Muhammed more than that of your own family, and that Western cartoons about your prophet are, to you, utterly disrespectful and blasphemous. We are not drawing cartoons just for the sake of being insulting, nor because we hate you. We draw cartoons because we regard doing so as important for a free society.
Over human history many ideologies have been totalitarian. The Christian religion used to burn people at the stake for heresy. The Soviet Communists sent people to the Gulag for any dissent from communist ideology. The Nazis murdered millions to further their fascist ideology.
All totalitarian regimes control what people can say, and in particular they repress any questioning of themselves and their control of society. The right to question authority is among the most fundamental rights in a free society. Even the right to vote is predicated on the right to discuss and argue about the merits and demerits of the government. Where people cannot question their rulers, society is not free. And that means, overwhelmingly, that economic prosperity is lower, technological advance is hampered, cultural flourishing is restricted, and quality of life is lower. Across the world these things correlate with political freedom and thus with freedom of speech.
The Islamic world, sadly, is different. Political freedom is not accepted. Rather, the greatest good is held to be unquestioning acceptance of Islam. Where Islam dominates, Islam is totalitarian, controlling what people can do and say. Continue reading
Like many people over the last few days I’ve been pondering whether free speech really should extend to insulting people’s deeply held beliefs. Would it be possible to achieve all the benefits of free speech while stopping short of being offensive? If it were, self-censorship might be the moral choice.
Free speech is not an end in itself, we value it because we use it to examine and criticize influential ideas. There are many good ideas: democracy and human rights, for example, and plenty of bad ones, such as fascism and totalitarian communism. We can only sort the good from the bad if we can debate their merits and we can only overthrow the bad if we can advocate against it. That’s why all totalitarian regimes control and repress speech. Satirical cartoons are a time-honoured and effective means of challenging ideas and prompting people to think.
The Islamic ban on drawing Mohammed is a theological taboo. The whole idea is to place Mohammed, and thus Islam, above human criticism. Drawing Mohammed is seen as disrespectful because it involves the drawer thinking for themselves about Mohammed and possibly coming to un-Islamic conclusions. Islam, which means “submission”, is a matter of accepting the Koran and Mohammed’s words and example as perfect and unquestionable. Continue reading
This review was written for Richard Dawkins Foundation
Beyond an Absence of Faith, edited by Jonathan Pearce and Tristan Vick, brings us the stories of 16 people who came to reject the faith of their upbringing. Most of the writers are American and former Christians, though some are former Muslims. They tell us of their journeys from strong religious faith to atheism, and in the process give a vivid account of the state of Christianity in America today.
What is striking is how all-encompassing and cult-like religious faith can be. These are not the stories of luke-warm believers, but of people for whom religion was a central feature of their lives. We read stories of people brought up in a “fundie bubble” to the extent that:
At one point, I counted five of seven nights of the week as church functions. Monday was a discipleship with a church leader and some students. Wednesday was a youth service. Thursday was a large-group discipleship, where we met at someone’s house for prayer and Bible study. Friday was the “Powerhouse,” a sort of hangout for teens with live music and a small service. Saturday was the Hellfighters service, and Sunday was the main service …
This is coupled with indoctrination of children so complete that one writer recalls:
I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out.
There has been a kerfuffle over a German court ruling that a boy’s right to choose whether he spends his adult life with an intact penis supersedes the religious freedom of the parent, and thus that circumcision amounts to illegal “bodily harm”.
“The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision” said the court. “This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs”. Further, the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents” and “The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised”.
Predictably, religious groups — Muslim, Jewish and Christian — have been in uproar, claiming that that this ruling violates their “religious freedom”, a supposed right to impose their religion on their children. Notably, they make no mention of the religious rights of the child. Likely they consider that the child has no such rights — or at least, has only the “right” to have his parents’ choice of religion imposed on him. After all, in the United Kingdom, children at state schools are legally compelled to worship the Christian god, and have no right to opt out. When opposing the repeal of this compulsory religious worship in a House of Lords debate Baroness Trumpington said that it “did not matter if pupils were bored, did not like going to chapel or were not interested in religious matters”. So much for religious freedom. Continue reading