It is a time of moral decadence, a time in which child molesters are sentenced
to mere weeks on probation; where bleeding hearts want to guarantee Constitutional
rights to the bloodthirsty enemies of our country, captured on the battlefield;
where the privacy of criminals and terrorists is valued over the lives of innocent
civilians whom they threaten. It is a time when politeness threatens the freedom
of expression in a stifling new orthodoxy of toothless inoffensiveness. Amid
the luxuriant jungle of ironies, a new, as yet quite small but virulent poison
weed begins to sprout.
I have written before of the clever stratagem of certain secularists and civil
“libertarians” who seek to restrict freedom of religious expression
in public places. They have forgotten what “public” means: it is
not private; it is a marketplace, a bazaar through which one must learn to navigate,
in which one must suffer boom boxes with misogynist Rap “music,”
in which one must try not to laugh at ludicrous-looking fashions and hair-dos.
In which one must politely decline Hare Krishna fundraisers and evangelistic
pitchmen, etc., etc. Granted, it should not be dangerous to take a walk through
the public world; hence, the restrictions on public smoking. But certain hypocritical
“libertarians” would equate religious expression with hate speech
on the grounds that members of religion Z might feel uneasy, reminded of their
minority status, by the conspicuous expressions of majority religions A and
B. So Christmas trees and Easter bunnies are under attack, as if they were swastikas.
The hypocrisy is a matter of using “liberty” as a cloak for depriving
the majority of citizens of that very commodity. There is no use trying to maintain
an illusion that a racial or religious minority is not a minority. That is not
the way to achieve pluralism. The goal of the ultra-Left is a society that will
allow only the expression of secularism. The griping minority is to control
the climate of expression, if not opinion.
But they ought to take care. I do not think it can yet have occurred to them
how their plans may backfire. Don’t they, don’t you, see where this
must lead, this advocacy of the “right” of prickly religious minorities
not to be “offended”? It must inevitably lead to the pathetic knuckling
under that we are witnessing in Britain and other Muslim-harassed countries
where they have passed laws against blasphemy, offensive speech against religions,
usually Islam since they’re the only ones we have to worry about. Decadent
and cowardly European governments feel it is better to restrict freedom of expression
on the part of rational critics of fanaticism since they fear they will prove
unable to restrict the outrages of fanatics who cast civility aside. This is
just the way they used to “settle” conflicts on the school buses
in effete Montclair, N.J.: if the bully demanded someone else’s seat,
the “authorities” would ask the innocent kid to give the bully her
seat just to avoid further “conflict.”
On many points I am allied with organized secularism. I am against the nonsense
that they are against, including the twisted apologetics (as Albert Schweitzer
called them) of orthodox religion and fundamentalism’s crusade to set
back the clock of scientific discovery. I am against theocratic zealots like
Pat Robertson (though I do not count George Bush among them). And so I heartily
join them in the very public criticism of arrogant and obscurantist religion.
But this is something the law may soon forbid us to do! Do you think fundamentalists
who sue to eject the teaching of evolution from public schools on the absurd
grounds that evolution is a religion will hesitate to sue critics of their nonsense
on the basis that our criticisms “offend” them? If you think they
won’t, then your blind faith far exceeds theirs!
I regularly crisscross the country debating fundamentalists over whether Jesus
existed, whether the resurrection happened, whether the gospels are reliable.
I do not want the day to come when the law will not allow me to do so because
my vocal raising of doubts will disturb my pious audience. But that day may
well come if secularists continue in their ill-advised course of stamping out
public religious expression in the name of protecting religious minorities from
What is this “offense,” this taking of offense against which we
must guard? Here, I may say, is the anatomy of offense: someone’s feelings
may be bruised if they learn that another hates what he or she loves. Accordingly,
for instance, it is good manners not to deride music that you hate, because
someone listening may love that music, and they will feel bad. What is the proper
response to offense? Is it coddling and resentment? No, the mature person asks
himself: to what am I vulnerable? Am I afraid that the attacker, the critic,
is right and I am wrong? Is what I cherish unworthy of the love I have for it?
If it is, I think I would rather know it, because I value not being a fool more
than I value whatever cherished thing has come under attack. Such thinking enables
us to put away childish things at last.
But it may be that the person who abuses what we hold dear is himself immature,
merely spiteful. Then his name-calling need not concern us. We need only take
a long second look at what we love and another hates to judge who is right.
Or we may decide it is all a mater of subjective taste. In any case, there is
no good reason to protect people from being offended. I may not want to offend.
But it is patronizing and over-protective to think people must be sheltered
and shielded from offense. That is to shelter them from reality, which may have
lessons to teach them.
And in the case of religion, it is particularly egregious to try to safeguard
believers from being offended. Why? First, we must realize that there are various
levels of offense. The first is the mere shock a child faces upon recognizing
that not everyone he meets shares his inherited beliefs. Such a fact implicitly
challenges the validity of one’s beliefs. One is thrown back upon oneself
to ask, “Do I have any real reason to prefer my beliefs to theirs? They
inherited theirs like I did mine.” The second is the anxiety one feels
when one’s beliefs are overtly challenged, say by a teacher or a book.
But this challenge must be met! Anxiety will never be dispelled until the matter
is faced squarely, and one concludes one’s faith can or cannot withstand
unblinking scrutiny. A faith that survives the ordeal will be stronger and more
mature. Then one sees in retrospect how salutary was the offense, like a sharp
rebuke from a caring friend.
What mischief is done, however, when one clings tenaciously to the teddy bear
of faith while pretending to scrutinize its credentials, all the while slanting
the evidence. The hobbling of one’s own intellectual honesty breeds in
the apologist a cynicism regarding belief which subordinates truth to preferred
doctrine and gives permission to twist the facts in any way conducive to making
one’s faith look good. This is what many of us feel we are facing as we
criticize religious orthodoxies and their spin doctors.
But one wonders if apologists will have worked themselves out of a job if one
day laws against religion-offensive speech prevent people from ever feeling
the challenge of criticism. If the school children of Creationists can be legally
“protected” from having their fairy-tale faith in a seven-day creation
“offended” by the teaching of biology and geology, if some new Ingersoll
can be gagged in the name of piety lest he offend the pious prigs in his audience,
then our “Christian” society will have shown again just how little
they have understood their Jesus, who is reported to have said, “Let him
who seeks keep seeking till he finds, for when he finds, he shall be troubled,
and when he is troubled, he shall marvel, and when he has marveled, he will
attain mastery.” That is a formula for learning any new subject matter.
It is also a set of stages for coming to grips with the death and dying of old
beliefs when they cannot withstand the light of truth.
And I believe secular critics of religion are unwittingly hastening the arrival
of such a “brave new world” of religious anaesthesia by playing
the “offense” card to “protect” some religious elements
from being “offended” by others. They are ultimately calling for
their own silencing, as in Great Britain.
What we need instead is what we have in fact enjoyed through most of recent
American history: a climate in which all public expressions of religion, the
metonymous iceberg tips of peoples’ divers ethnic heritages, are welcome,
and in which criticism and humor at the expense of any religion are protected,
too. Do you think the Hindu who runs the convenience store fears to celebrate
his Hinduism because he knows most around him don’t share it? That’s
not my experience. Rather, they seem to be proud to place the icons of their
faith alongside those of the majorities. It is a way of affirming that they,
too, are ready to make their unique contribution to the amazing kaleidoscope
I do not believe America is a place in which religious expressions by minorities
are most likely to bring reprisals from bigoted majorities. I regard as more
typically American a report from a few years ago when a Jewish house displaying
a Menorah was defaced by local neo-Nazi subhumans, and the unanimous reaction
of the whole Christian, gentile neighborhood was to display Menorahs of their
own! That’s America. But will it be America if the day comes when criticism
of religion is forbidden as if it were on the same level as swastika painting?
So says Zarathustra.