A guest post by Professor David Spurrett
It has come to my attention that some folks really don’t get it, at all. Some seem to believe some common but obviously wrong-headed views, some seem to be too lazy for more than 15 seconds of clear thinking, or possibly having the energy, sadly to lack the ability. I doubt this will help.
The reasons why the only stable intellectually respectable position is to allow a maximally wide right to freedom of expression, including expressing opinions others find offensive, aren’t new. There was a prolonged period (centuries ago) in which much of the population of Europe spent years and years pursuing wholesale slaughter of itself, mostly over different versions of Christianity. After that, as much out of exhaustion as anything else, attention was turned to the question how to stop this murderous stupidity. Leaving out many details, they hit on the (at the time) startlingly new idea of knowing that someone had different beliefs without feeling obligated to kill them.
After a good few more years of serious thinking, the arguments got worked out more clearly and plainly. I don’t know anyone who has ever given them a clearer and more compelling defence than John Stuart Mill. Here’s an excerpt from “On Liberty”:
“There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person’s taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse.”
It’s actually very simple. The fact that someone is offended by what another says just isn’t a good reason to compel the speaker to be silent. The same goes for offense over what people do. So the fact that great herds of tiny minded bigots in Sub-Saharan Africa are so offended by homosexuality that they may split the Anglican Church in two is NOT a good reason for North American Christians to be more tolerant. (Even though this means ignoring bits of what they claim is the word of God.)
Gods, according to the plain words of the texts religious believers regard as holy, seem very clearly to be a violent, bigoted and crazy lot. They positively encourage slavery. They explicitly condemn females to a second rate status in practically all matters of politics, law and domestic life. They stipulate that horrible violence be visited upon non-believers by believers, and promise vastly more horrible violence later at the hands of God. They insist that homosexuals are wicked and deserve ghastly punishment. They demand suffering or death for whole lists of minor penalties (such as shaving), at the same time as encouraging slavery, etc.
Blasphemy, at minimum, is not ‘revering’ at least one of these sets of bigoted, jealous and bloodthirsty demands.
Saying, plainly and clearly, “I revere no such bigotry”, or saying for *whatever* reason “I don’t believe this” is not tit for tat. It’s principled rejection, and it ought to be allowed even if it offends some.
– It is no more tit for tat than saying “Nobody should be a slave” was tit for tat against the slave trade.
– It is no more tit for tat than the suffragettes were engaged in tit for tat against legislative and political misogyny.
– It is no more tit for tat than the work of Stonewall (the UK organisation) is tit for tat against homophobic bigotry and violence.
There are far too many places on earth where the purported word of this or that God is the official justification for murder, the de facto enslavement of women, organised and premeditated mutilation of girls, and systematic abuse of what should be universally respected human rights.
I have to say it takes impressively muddle-headed thinking (I use the term loosely) to end up with the position that (a) religious people should be allowed to worship texts calling for all manner of mayhem and bigoted violence, yet at the same time (b) non-believers really are being a bit rude saying that they don’t believe, and ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Again, as so often, Mill put it stunningly well, and a long time ago. Thomas Carlyle famously argued that slavery was the will of God. In his reply Mill said “If the Gods will this, it is the first duty of human beings to resist such Gods”. That’s your quality blasphemy, right there.