Giving religion the respect it deserves

If a religion finds a particular action offensive to its beliefs, shouldn’t we at least attempt to avoid the action, if only out of a show of respect?

In the wake of yesterday’s massacre at a Paris newspaper, the public’s answer tilts clearly towards “no” — at least for those who have adopted “Je suis Charlie” as a rallying cry. More precisely, people are proclaiming that potentially offensive free speech and free expression should not be censored — certainly not by the violent acts of a few. The people at Charlie Hebdo had every right to publish what they did — even if, by depicting satirical images of Muhammad, they were offending many Muslims.

Given the violence that occurred, this is a relatively easy call to make. If the alternative is to defend the terrorists, there isn’t much room for debate.

The question often becomes more nuanced, however, if you remove the violence and simply ask the question I posed at the top of this article.

For me, however, the answer remains the same: No.

Let me back up a bit. I am not advocating being gratuitously insulting to a religion. Nor am I in any way supporting behavior that could be viewed as discriminatory or racist. I also believe that unqualified respect should be expected in certain cases. For example, no matter how much you disagree with a particular religion, I believe you should be respectful when on their turf. In other words, if you are inside a synagogue, church or mosque, you should observe the customs of the institution, even if you disagree with them.

Beyond that, we should give and expect to receive respect in most interactions. But there are limits. In the context of public discussion, for example, we should be as free to be critical of religion — even to the point of being insulting or offensive — as we would be for any other entity. In the op-ed pages of a newspaper, it is acceptable to be hypercritical of politicians — or political groups as a whole. Similarly, movie reviewers are permitted (some might say encouraged) to say extremely negative things about a film, even things that will undoubtedly be hurtful to the people who made the movie. No one claims such writing should be off-limits, out of respect to the people who might otherwise be offended. Even if you believe a writer has gone beyond the limits of decency and good taste, you would still defend his right to state his opinions. At least I hope so. I see no reason why critical writing about religion should be an exception. Religion deserves no more or less respect than these other institutions.

More generally, you can be offensive to a religion even without the intention of being critical. Depicting (non-satirical) images of Muhammad potentially falls into this category. Attempting to avoid such actions is an especially slippery slope on which to embark. For example, suppose I told you that there is a religion that believes all paintings hung in public places, such as museums, should be hung upside down. This is out of respect to God, as it allows him to see the paintings properly oriented when he looks down on them from heaven. If you were the curator of a museum, would this knowledge lead to rehang all your paintings? I would hope not. Would you change your mind if I told you that that there were more than 10 million members of this religion and they all found your behavior to be extremely offensive? Again, I would hope not.

There is a limit to what we will or should do to accommodate others’ religions. We cannot allow free expression be held hostage by the myriad of odd beliefs of the hundreds of religions that exist in the world. I’m not advocating unnecessarily going out of your way to be provocative. But neither should you be fearful of being provocative if you feel it is justified. That is why I believe it is acceptable for publications to include images of Muhammad, whether or not members of the Muslim religion object. In Paris yesterday, we saw one horrific consequence of believing otherwise.

[For related coverage, see yesterday’s column.]

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