Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, February 06, 2006

Those damned cartoons

Here's an interesting problem for me... two people who I respect, disagreeing over the importance or not of those cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that satirise Islam. One, PZ Myers (yes, I can spell his name) argues that we should not seek to offend a religion by playing on stereotypes (and also makes the point that the Muslims who are rioting aren't helping with those stereotypes at all). On the other hand, Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, makes the point that the cartoons were supposed to illustrate the very problem here - that Muslims will forbid the use of images, however vaguely like Mohammed they may be, by non-Muslims.

Who to agree with? Well, I agree with parts of both - they are both curate's eggs. The issues as I see them are these:

1. In a secular democracy, even one in which the majority are of a certain religion, the rules of a religion are non-binding on unbelievers, and this is a good thing.

2. In any society, we have to strive to not offend others' way of life and beliefs, no matter how silly we might think they are, as a matter of public order and social cohesion.

3. One of the things that makes secular society possible is freedom of thought. This doesn't automatically translate into freedom of speech, however. But atheists and non-Muslims are as free to think Islam is a reactionary (or whatever) religion as they are to think that of Scientology or Mormonism.

4. Agressive atheism, while entirely understandable given the fact that atheists are disadvantaged in nearly all societies because they are always a minority, is generally unhelpful. There is something to be said for the genteel contrarianism of Bertrand Russell or Thomas Huxley. We want people to think, not react by reflex.

So how do we balance all these? Islamists want for there not to be a secular society. Christians object to this unless it is they who want control over the social reins. Given the fact that the secular society is a protection from religious oppression by other religions, we should reject entire and without hesitation any attempt by a religion, be it Catholic, Baptist, Wahabist, Hindu fundamentalist or Marxist, to impose its values and restrictions on t hose who do not choose to be part of that faith community. This is the basis for civil society. It takes priority.

Once that is satisfied, we can attend to the feelings of minorities (and majorities) and try to reduce offense. My home state of Victoria introduced "hate speech" legislation to prevent the demonisation of minorities like Jews (as it happens, in part by Muslim imams in Australia). It should be applied evenly. If racists can't incite hatred against Jews legally, Christians can't incite hatred against Muslims, or atheists, or (even them) Scientologists (despite the idiocy of leading members of that "church").

But none of this overrides the right of those who oppose aspects of the religion to express that opposition. We might not be able to sow discord about Scientology as a faith, but the illicit activities of that church can be, and should be, opposed. Likewise Islamism. But that doesn't equate to stereotyping all Muslims. I know several educated and civil Muslims. You probably do too, although they're most likely a bit scared to identify themselves as such in your society given the hatred drummed up by no less than the American government (at least here there's been a fair bit of possibly disingenuous effort by the government to dissociate Muslims from Islamism). So we shouldn't do that. It's just bad manners.

I find evangelical atheists a bit hard to take, myself. Surely, if atheism is correct, there's more to life than trying to convert people away from a religion, or to try to reduce the role religion plays in society. I don't mean the secular arms of government and public policy - religion can influence, but not be allowed to control, that. But no matter what a rationalist or skeptic might think, religion will always be a large part of society, and the only acceptable way to oppose it is by education and debate, not stereotyping.

So I'm sort of with both Paul and Ed, and against them too. The problem we face is trying to balance and properly weight competing ideals. Some ideals are more fundamental than others, however, and the right of a non-Catholic to mock the Virgin Mary, or a non-Muslim to mock Mohammed, is very basic indeed, or else everyone's religion is at risk of being marginalised.