We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.

Religion and free speech

Religion has always been a problem for free speech and free speech for religion. It seems plausible to suggest that something akin to what we now call religion was the first major voluntary constraint that groups of human beings put on their own defining power of speech. Is there a recorded culture, which has not had some areas of the sacred or the taboo? In the transatlantic west, the discussion of freedom of expression that developed from the 17th century onward, through what in the west is called the Enlightenment, was all about how to deal with religious authority and conflict.

In the mid-20th century, it was widely believed in the west that modernisation would inevitably lead to secularisation. But religion has never gone away. In Europe, some of the most acute free speech controversies of our time have erupted in the electrified triangle between Islam, Christianity and atheism. You have only to look to India and the Middle East to see how words, images and symbols related to religion can become the occasion for hostility and violence involving other groups defined in whole or part by religion: Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Ahmadis.

The things that we hold sacred are, by definition, amongst our most important things. In Poland and Russia, the legislation limiting what we can say about religion talks of “offending religious feelings” – and religious feelings are some of the strongest that human beings have. Muslims are taught to hold the prophet Muhammad dearer to them than their own children. To listen to the late Pope John Paul II praying to the Virgin Mary was to hear a son speaking to his mother. Even for a non-believer, it was profoundly moving.

Most societies in history have reinforced these feelings, and buttressed their own social and political orders, by enforcing taboos. In modern states, this has often taken the form of blasphemy laws, which protect some but not all religions. In Britain, a blasphemy law that protected Christianity alone was repealed only in 2008. Most majority Muslim countries have blasphemy laws protecting only or mainly Islam. In Pakistan, article 295 of the penal code stipulates that “derogatory remarks” about the prophet Muhammad “by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly” shall be punishable by death. One woman, Aasia Bibi, was actually sentenced to death under this article. In a number of Muslim countries, such protections are included in the terms and conditions of internet service providers.

“Defamation of religions”?

As everyone becomes neighbours with everyone else, either physically or virtually, there are two ways we can go. We can dismantle those selective taboos, which protect just one or a few religions predominant in a particular territory, or we can spread them to all religions equally, on the lines of, “You respect my taboo and I’ll respect yours.” In Britain, for example, Muslim community leaders argued that the blasphemy law should be extended to include Islam. Internationally, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, an association of 56 majority Muslim states, spent years pressing the UN to adopt what it called “new binding normative standards” prohibiting “defamation of religions”.

But what is meant by “religions”? Beside the three so-called Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – most people would readily acknowledge such established religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Sikhism, Jainism and Yoruba. Confucianism would also qualify by virtue of antiquity and number of adherents, though some question whether it is strictly a religion. But what about, say, Scientology? What about astrology? Secular Europeans often scoff at the naive religiosity of Americans, but according to one survey, more than half the inhabitants of France, Germany and Britain say they take astrology seriously. And what about the 390,000 people in the 2001 British census who identified their faith as “Jedi”?

Who decides what is a “serious” religion? In the US, the law treats Scientology as a religion like any other; in Germany, Scientology is outlawed as a dangerous sect. (A German Scientologist was actually given asylum in the US on the grounds of religious persecution.) Is the qualification being around a long time and having a lot of supporters? In that case, Christianity certainly did not qualify in the first century CE. Or is it simply having the power to compel people to take you seriously?

The qualification clearly cannot be some standard of generally agreed reasonableness. For faith is, by definition, not subordinated to reason. Theologians of many religions argue that reason can support and accompany faith, but that’s a different matter. Moreover, some central claims of established religions plainly contradict each other.

And what about atheists? Don’t their claims have a right to equal protection? Indeed they do, says Britain’s Public Order Act, which defines a “religious group” as a “group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or a lack of religious belief”. So being irreligious makes me…religious. Historians also point out that adherence to several religions is established not by belief but by ritual observance. You can be a Jew, in the religious sense, without believing in God.

These are not frivolous objections, or an attempt to “reduce to the absurd”. So wide and fluid are the boundaries of what may be construed as religion, so important to human lives are the questions it raises, that any attempt to impose such limits will end up severely restricting what knowledge we can pursue (see P3), what differences we can speak openly about (see P5) and what public policy options we can debate freely through open, diverse media (see P4).

The UN’s Human Rights Committee agrees. Its authoritative interpretation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that, “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant.” Such displays must not, however, violate Article 20’s ban on, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” This still leaves a wide margin for interpretation, but the criterion is not disrespect for (or “defamation of”) any religion as such.

Two kinds of respect

Yet, as has been stressed throughout these introductions, saying that it should not be banned by law is only half the story. That does not mean we should in fact choose to say whatever we like, as offensively as we like, about something so important to other women and men. Principle 6 draws on a useful distinction made by the philosopher Stephen Darwall between two kinds of respect. When we say, unequivocally and unconditionally, that, “We respect the believer”, we mean what Darwall calls “recognition respect”. When we say, “but not necessarily the content of the belief” we mean what Darwall calls “appraisal respect”.

So the first part of this principle means: I recognise that, even if you believe something that I regard as dangerous nonsense, and wish to persuade you not to believe, you have the same basic humanity, the same inherent dignity, the same inalienable, universal rights as me. Your human and civil rights, your equality before the law, the respect owed you simply as a member of the human race; none should be reduced one jot or tittle on this account.

It clearly also embraces the core freedom of religion, which Article 18 of the Covenant defines as the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of your choice, and to manifest it “in worship, observance, practice and teachings” either individually or in community with others, in public or in private.

This unequivocal respect for the believer may also (though need not) include an empirical recognition that most, if not all, human beings do hold some beliefs not susceptible to scientific verification. Evidence from cognitive and neuroscientific studies suggests that a religious component may be “hardwired” in the human mind. I have heard the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledge that religious belief may, in the past, have been an evolutionary advantage.

Moreover, everyday human experience suggests that the fact that people believe, in some corner of their beings, things that appear to others profoundly untrue, does not make them any less trustworthy as accountants, car mechanics or even (strange but true) as wives or husbands. Obviously, the more irrational and wrong their belief system seems to us, and the more it intrudes on wider areas of life, the more problematic it becomes. You may be happy enough to have a creationist as your dentist but not want him to teach your son biology. Having a High Fiver (a believer that 2 + 2 = 5) work as a company accountant might create some difficulties. But there are vast stretches of life where, in practice, such problems do not arise. We can respect the believer while not respecting the belief.

Appraisal respect

Appraisal respect is more demanding. This is the kind that says, “I respect your skill as a footballer, your work as a writer, your courage as a soldier, your dedication as a nurse.” So the second part of this principle calls on us to appraise the claims, track record and current practices of a religion. That appraisal can end in full-frontal rejection. As one atheist writer reportedly puts it, “I respect you too much to respect your ridiculous beliefs.” At the other extreme, it can lead to total acceptance: I am so convinced by the claims of your religion that I convert to it. Either way, we must be free to have an open, no-holds-barred debate about the claims of any and all religions, up to and including conversion to another faith – or to atheism – without fear of reprisals. In much of the world, this is not the case. Questioning or abandoning the faith you were brought up in, or that prevails in your community, meets sanctions ranging from social ostracism to death.

There are also less frontal forms of appraisal, which may yield more qualified forms of respect. One of them is described by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Reflecting on the “mutual recognition which is constitutive for shared citizenship”, Habermas says, “Secular citizens are expected not to exclude a fortiori that they may discover, even in religious utterances, semantic contents and covert personal intuitions that can be translated and introduced into a secular discourse.” If I translate what you are saying in your own religious vocabulary into my own language, I may find that you are saying something I can agree with – or at least, that contains an element of truth. This is not an entirely new idea: you can find a germ of this thought in the 12th edict of the 3rd century BCE Indian king, Asoka, where he recommends people to learn from “the essentials” of other religions.

There is also a form of genuine appraisal respect, which can be divorced from the content of the belief. I can find your beliefs, even when translated into my own language, to be irrational, yet still both admire your personal conduct and recognise that, at least by your own account – and who should know better? – your admirable conduct is largely or wholly motivated by those beliefs. You do things I regard, by my own criteria, as good, brave, noble, on grounds that make no sense to me. Suppose it were the case that, say, 99% of the small but select church of High Fivers (believers that 2 + 2 = 5) performed extraordinary, selfless service to the weak and suffering in their societies, always insisting that this was a commandment of their faith. Would we not be moved to express a genuine appraisal respect for their behaviour, even while continuing to insist that the central tenet of their faith was untrue?

Yet even if we have none of these kinds of appraisal respect, either for the belief or for the conduct based on it, we will still, unconditionally, have that recognition respect for the believer. To maintain this distinction is the only way in which people of all faiths and none can live together in freedom.

Isn’t this privileging one belief?

This principle asks of all believers something which many find very difficult: to make and maintain this difference between the self and the belief. And it invites this last objection: are you not, in fact, asking us to put one belief above all others? The belief, that is, that everyone should rub along together in this way. This belief in the liberal virtue of tolerance makes the remarkable demand that we should accept others continuing to believe and act upon convictions that we think are both intellectually and morally wrong.

How can it be right to accept what is wrong? Answer: because there is a higher good, which is that everyone should be free to choose how to live their own lives, so long as it does not prevent others doing the same. History suggests that we end up killing and coercing each other if we wish to impose our own “one true way” on them. So, on closer examination, this is not just another “one true way”. It is the only true way whose purpose is to make it possible for human beings to live out a multiplicity of other true ways.

So this draft sixth principle does put that one (non-religious) belief above the others. But it does not put it beyond question. If you want to question it, or flatly disagree, start here. The platform is yours.

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Comments (6)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. très intéressant et utile dans ce monde de violence. c est un bon message a passe

  2. Violence is justified in defense of life in response to violent provocation. While I believe in the Christian principle of pacifism in the way I lead my life, I cannot say that violence to defend life and self and community is aways evil. In 1939 war was the right course of action by the British and French governments against Nazi aggression. But war should never be the first course of action. We need global peace, but we should never ignore aggression for its sake.

    • Sure, World War II would be a great example of how violence can be used in order to prevent life, but unfortunately not all the conflict situations are as black and white. Take for the nations in Africa. The borders of the countries were drawn arbitrarily which left some ethnic groups separated by border and other mixed. Some found themselves on the wrong side of the border. Eventually that led to massive ethnic clashes leaving millions up to this day dead. Violence in Africa happens daily and it needs to be stopped, but who is wrong and who is right? Sure we can keep blaming 20th century European Imperial nations for their ignorance but that wouldn’t help much. So the question is who do we help? Who deserved to get the support of the West and who deserves to be hated? Unfortunately nowadays not least effort is put into trying to determine that and the only factor which makes the biggest difference national interest

  3. What does this have to do with free speech?

    • Threats and acts of violence, and intimidation are often used to curtail free speech.

  4. What about violence against animals?Is it a less important?

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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