The Political Animal

The Right to Denigrate Religion


Over at Jeffrey Goldberg’s place (there’s coffee, hamentashen) we have seen a little exchange between Goldberg and Neera Tanden of the Center for American progress. The subtle but not insignificant difference of opinion has been over the balance between the right of free speech and the responsible exercise thereof. The latter, in this case, relative to that stupid movie and the infinitely more ignorant reaction to it in some Muslim quarters, concerns responsible exercise in relation to the wildly inflammatory sensitivities of some people regarding beliefs they hold. Tanden’s most recent reply to Goldberg, today, is thus:

Murdering four people for any statement is obviously both horrifying and barbaric.  And should be condemned totally. My only point to free speech advocates, of which I count myself, is that we can both believe strongly in freedom of expression and also believe that freedom should be exercised responsibly. Obviously making a blasphemous video should not be equated with murder; that doesn’t mean making a video designed to denigrate a religion, any religion, should be celebrated as an act of freedom. Its contents can and should be criticized.  One can believe absolutely in the protection the First Amendment affords a certain expression, and believe a certain expression is dumb.  It is a conflation to equate support the First Amendment and support for all content. In that way, Americans can adhere to our most fundamental principles of both freedom and tolerance. [Emphasis added]

One can see, just by the several calibrations back and forth in Tanden’s response, that this is a matter of very subtle balancing, accomplished in the end by what follows the final “but.” I find the weakness in Tanden’s argument in the two statements I have emphasized. She says,

It is a conflation to equate support the First Amendment and support for all content.

However, the issue is not “support for all content.” It is support for the expression of all content. This is the crucial issue that, in her apparent distaste for what the video expresses and her support of tolerance toward religious views, Tanden overlooks. This is specifically an argument over a principle, and the principle has nothing to do with the content, but with the expression of it or any content.

More closely relative to the content of the video itself, Tanden says

that doesn’t mean making a video designed to denigrate a religion, any religion, should be celebrated as an act of freedom.

Actually, it does. I do not say this because of the content of the video; other than a few tidbits from news reports, I am unfamiliar with the content. Once again, though, Tanden is missing where the emphasis should be in clarification of the principle. No, the content should not, all depending, necessarily be celebrated. But the “making [of] a video designed to denigrate a religion”; that is to say, the right to make such a video should be celebrated, and – this is so fundamental as to be inseparable from the right – a right that cannot be exercised without unjust consequence, and must therefore be voluntarily restricted,  is no right at all.

I will go a step further. I will say, even, that the critical content of a video denigrating a religion should be celebrated. I do not mean any particular critical content. From the little I know, the content of this video is puerile – so by critical content, what I mean here is critical nature. The critical nature of any expression against religion, or any other set of ideas, should be celebrated as the very action of critical discourse – for which in an enlightened world there should never be violent consequence – regardless of the quality of the criticism or discourse.

People’s reactions to politicized debate consistently reflect an unexamined piety that transcends any political divide, even that between the religious and the secular. Whether about Islam more globally, or, these days, Christianity and Mormonism domestically, that piety is the profession that people’s faiths, even if they are not shared, should at least be respected. But there is nothing other than circular reasoning to argue that a nonbeliever should acknowledge any religious doctrine, far from sacred, as anything more than just another set of ideas. From the standpoint of reason, we know religious doctrines are generally something less than just another set of ideas.

For the past week I have severely criticized the ideas of Judith Butler; one might say, in the ridicule I have leveled at them, that I have even denigrated them. There is no question in anyone’s mind of empathy for any violent response to such criticism. There should not be, either, any empathetic consideration for a violent response to criticism, now matter how severe, of the doctrines of religious faith.

From that standpoint of reason, we need to consider religious doctrine as we would any other set of ideas, any other conduct, any other argument or claim about the nature of the world. There is no good reason – no reason at all – to treat faith any differently. No faith, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others commit their lives and pray to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, including that of faith, must earn our respect intellectually, not be awarded it uncritically.


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