Joking about Religion

“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”
G. K. Chesterton

I stumbled upon a video of Philip Pullman talking about freedom of speech. I love Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series, but this comment was about another book of his: “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” (still in my virtual books to read pile).

There’s a lot of criticism of extremist Muslim’s “approach” to censoring freedom of speech — for very good reason. However, being against freedom of speech is not the sole domain of radical parts of Islam. You find it in other religions as well. A “nice” example was the pope claiming that religion was off-limits for “insults” (e.g., biting criticism) and his really, really strange assertion that he would punch someone for insulting his mother.

To quote Reporters without Borders:

During an inflight news conference while on his way to the Philippines, the pope said: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity (…) in freedom of expression there are limits.”
Pointing to Alberto Gasparri, an aide who organizes his travel, the pope said: “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.”
Reporters without Borders

So much for turning the other cheek. Reporters without Borders summarized his statements succinctly with: “he put respect for religion and faith above free speech and even defended the possible use of violence when religion is mocked” — and yeah, that’s a really bad thing to do.

One of the things I deeply belief in — my faith so to speak — is that feedback is crucial. Feedback from the world allows us to invent, to advance (empirical science), and feedback of other human beings also allows us to invent and advance — both personally and socially. Without feedback, how can you improve? The worst places I have ever been have been places where there was no feedback, where criticism was seen as negative or as a personal attack. It led to a deterioration of the place itself (e.g., a department and institute going down the drain), and severely hampered the people working there (including their future careers).

Of course, feedback should be constructive — it should be more than simple name calling. But even the lowest “valueless” speech still has its uses. It is pretty clear feedback — about education and socialization, but rarely about the work that is “criticized”.

And religions can’t be excluded from feedback. Not terrorists who kill people in the name of their religion (to point to the recent attacks in Paris by terrorists ostensibly in the name of Islam), and not pedophiles who sexually abuse children under the cover of their religion (to name just one type of scandal the catholic church is frequently involved in).

If people have a problem with criticism they can try to argue rationally against that criticism — if they think they have good arguments. In the case of the many deficits major religions have, I doubt that they have much success. But they do not have the right to silence what others might think, or say, or draw, or write. The critics likely are not members of that religion, and even if they were, they are also the members of a society which values and protects freedom of speech.

BTW, you find the Pullman video here.