Walking on eggshells - the liberal dilemma
How far should we go to avoid the risk of upsetting the sensitivities of religious people?
Why is it always assumed that non-religious people don't have any sensitivities?
How far should we go in demanding that religious people should not offend our sensitivities?
Why is it that non-religious people are always expected to compromise for religious people?
Why is it that people are afraid to criticise and laugh at religious ideas - even when they think those ideas are nonsense?
Why is that well-meaning, liberal people feel uncomfortable when someone else criticises and laughs at religious ideas?
Who really has a problem? Who needs to get their head straight? Who needs to sort out their priorities in life? The person who laughs at silly ideas or the person who takes undue offence when those ideas are laughed at?
Everyone is welcome to criticise our ideas, laugh at them, mock them or even annoy us by saying silly things (we are used to people saying silly things.) We may argue back and we may be offended but we don't demand the right not to be offended.
Channel 4 bows down to religious threats
Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the anti-extremist organisation the Quilliam Foundation (about which Muslims have very different views - but it is not our place to become involved with intra-religious squabbles), dared to say that, as a Muslim, he was not offended by the long standing satirical cartoon "Jesus and Mo".
The response has been entirely predictable and Mawaz has received death threats similar to those issued against Danish cartoonists in 2005 - after which dozens of Muslims died during violent protests in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Many of us have been great admirers of Channel 4 News - it tends to get behind things rather than uncritically regurgitating press releases as other channels often do.
On this occasion we were badly let down. The programme decided to censor the cartoon and replace the image of Mohammed with a black egg. Quite how representing Mohammed as a black egg is less offensive than representing him with a cartoon we do not understand.
We find it deeply offensive when threats of violence cause a major and previously highly respected British broadcaster to censor itself. Self-censorship in the face of violence is intellectual cowardice.
Most religious people are fine. Most religious people do good work. Most religious people are tolerant. Most religious people can keep things in proportion. Like us, most religious people are secure enough in their beliefs not to be offended when people poke fun at those beliefs.
Some religious people are bonkers and potentially dangerous - bowing down to their threats is totally unacceptable.
Tip-toeing round religion
We find it hard to understand why normally intelligent, well meaning, middle class people (some of whom even read The Guardian!) go all of a dither when it comes to criticising or laughing at the ideas of religions.
A lot of religious ideas are superstitious nonsense left over from the bronze age when people understood very little of the world - so why not laugh at them just as we would laugh at any nonsense or silly ideas?
Imagine not laughing at the idea that the Earth was at the centre of the solar system! What a hoot! Oops - only a few hundred years ago Christianity was killing people for laughing at that idea - maybe not so funny after all.
Rather than confront the unacceptable face of religion head-on, these well-meaning people think it is "good manners" and "polite" to tip-toe round the edges - rather like attempts at "interfaith dialogue" that usually end up as tea and biscuits with nothing of substance being discussed - "in case someone takes offence." Would they have tip-toed round the edges of Nazism or Fascism simply because they might offend someone?
This is sad - and rather an insult to their intelligence.
This is a refusal to accept social responsibility by holding everyone to account for what they believe and for what is done in the name of those beliefs.
No society can function without moral values and social rules - yet the assumption is that religious people must have acceptable moral values simply because they are religious.
This is ridiculous - every day we see bad and immoral things done in the name of religion. It is also a profound insult to those of us who have strong moral values without need of gods and religions.
We are all human and there are good religious people and bad religious people, just as there are good non-believers and bad non-believers - we make no claim to being perfect. However, like every primary school class, we know how to create a set of moral values that underpin social rules (laws) and we accept both personal and social responsibility for what we say and do.
Does anyone have the right not to be offended?
We are not talking about the verbal abuse of a living person - we are talking the right to criticise, laugh at, satirise and generally make fun of, ideas which we find funny, silly or dangerous nonsense.
Some people are incapable of placing an idea on the table and discussing it - they take everything said as a personal insult, they are offended on behalf of an idea or on behalf of someone long dead.
If we do have the right not to be offended then here is a personal list.
I am offended by:
- People who put their god above their fellow human beings.
- People who commit violence, or call for violence, in the name of their god, prophet or religion. Too much testosterone, not enough sex.
- People who deny children the right to make a free and informed choice about belief by exposing them to single, narrow religious world view - at home, in the community and in religiously segregated schools.
- People who discriminate on the grounds of gender and sexuality because of what it says in their holy books. "A woman is equal but subservient and a man shall have the right to chastise his wife" as the Christian Southern Baptist Church has it.
- People who try to force their religious values and laws on to me.
- People who deny others the right to change their beliefs.
- Intra-religious violence and sectarian squabbling.
- Inter-religious violence.
- People who are incapable of developing a personal moral code and instead have to rely on rules set down in holy books written by iron age societies in Judea and Arabia.
- People who claim that I cannot be a moral, good and responsible person because I don't believe in their god or religion.
- Politicians who fail to make their religious bias clear when passing laws for the rest of us.
- Politicians who would not recognise a principle if it stood up and punched them in the face.
- A political and legal system which favours landowners and the rich over the rest of us.
- People who demand respect without being willing to earn it.
- Religions which try to control the sexual lives of their followers.
- People who claim that their interpretation of their holy book is correct and all other interpretations are wrong.
- Groups of people who separate themselves off from the rest of society (self-segregation) along religious and ethnic lines.
- People who claim that "cultural traditions" are more important than human rights. For example: genital mutilation and forced marriages.
- Countries which do secret deals to enable religions to control many aspects of society (Vatican Concordats for example.)
- People who claim the world is a few thousand years old and that "evolution is just a theory." They need to take a walk below the cliffs at Lyme Regis!
- Countries which have followed religious edicts and failed to make a significant contribution to the world's scientific knowledge for the last 400 years. How many religious Nobel prize winners for science have there been?
- People who use past wrongs to justify current oppression - such as the government of Israel.
- Hypocritical religious leaders who preach one things and do another. Evangelical Christian preachers who visit prostitutes and take drugs. Members of the Saudi royal family who visit London to drink, use prostitutes and gamble. The Christian church which tries to cover up the abuse of children by its priests.
- Arrogant and ignorant young people, just out of school or college, who claim to have discovered the "right" way for the world to be run according to their religious beliefs - even though they have been exposed to a single narrow view and have failed to examine the alternatives.
- People who take religion far too seriously. Grow up, get a life, relax, laugh a bit, recognise that love is more fun than hate, enjoy the world and the people around you, form a loving personal and sexual relationship - and do some good as you pass through the one life we share together.
I am in favour of passing a law which prevents people doing anything that would offend me - the world would then be a happier place.
What about our sensitivities?
We are concerned about real harm done to real people - not "taking offence" about what someone says, writes or draws. We put people first. You are free to laugh at, criticise, mock, or insult our ideas as much as you like - we won't take the slightest offence.
In November 2012 Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old Hindu dentist, died of septicaemia in an Irish hospital after being refused an abortion because, as she was told, "Ireland is a Catholic country."
Is it fair that Christianity in Ireland should impose a monopoly world view on all Irish citizens, no matter what their beliefs? Should non-Christians die because of Christian beliefs?
According to WHO figures, each year over 70,000 women die and over 2 million are seriously injured, in back street abortions in countries where Christianity has dictated that abortion should be illegal
Each year hundreds of thousands of people contract STDs and HIV/AIDS in countries where Christianity has dictated that contraception should be illegal.
Religious people destroy schools because they do not want girls to be educated.
On October 9th, 2012, 14 year old Malala Yousufzai was shot by the Taleban because she campaigned for the rights of girls to go to school.
Religious people blow up themselves and others in the name of their god, their prophet and their religion.
There is more intra-religious sectarian violence than inter-religious violence. Even those sharing a religion cannot agree on the meaning of their holy books and the moral values they should live by.
Women in theocratic countries have their freedoms severely constrained.
Religious people demand the death penalty when they take offence at what someone says, draws or writes.
Religious people establish taxpayer-funded segregated religious schools because they don't want young people to see all sides of the debate about religion and they donít want them to develop open and enquiring minds - they want to impose their own monopoly world view.
Religious people fight amongst themselves for the right to impose their monopoly world view on all citizens of a country.
"Liberal" religions cannot agree on the role of women and gays - they prefer to bury their heads in the sand than remove all forms of discrimination.
So-called secular countries still grant special privileges to religions - privileges not enjoyed by the non-religious.
In the USA, creeping Christianity has taken over in a country which was established to guarantee freedom of belief by separating church and state.
Under religious law, Sharia law, a Muslim wanting to change religion is subject to the death penalty.
"Moderate" religious people take offence at criticism of their religion and immediately "walk off with the ball" and refuse to enter dialogue.
Why is so much of religion negative, humourless, funless and full of "don't do this" and "don't do that"? We've had enough of "thou shalt not enjoy life" thank you. We want to enjoy the one life we share together in as happy and as responsible a way as possible.
- How far should we go in censoring ourselves just in case we upset the sensitivities of the religions that do the things listed above?
- Who needs to get their house in order - us or religion?
- Unfortunately they have had centuries to get their houses in order and they have totally failed. In many cases they have become worse - they are now adopting the paranoid "victim" mentality claiming that "militant secularists" are out to get them.
- Now they threaten us with censorship, violence and murder if we mock and laugh at their ideas on web sites, in novels and in art
- Religious people are fortunate that they live in a society influenced by secular values that guaranty and protect their right to believe what they wish. Before moaning and taking offence perhaps they should try living in the theocracy of another religion and see how far their views are tolerated.
- Our tolerance is finite - especially with the intolerant.
- We are old enough not to be idealists, but we are very conscious of the harm that continues to be done in the world in the name of religion - so we have reprinted John Lennon's lyrics at the end of this page.
- Has someone got their priorities wrong? Has the world gone mad?
Do we tar everyone with the same brush?
Is anyone suggesting that all religious people are like those described above? Of course not.
Is anyone suggesting that people should not be free to follow a religion if they want to? Of course not.
The Liberal Tradition we have fought long and hard for in this country guarantees freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of action - as long as:
- you don't cause harm to anyone else.
- you don't call for harm to anyone else,
- you don't restrict the freedom of others.
- you accept personal responsibility for your actions.
Some people wear their religion lightly, others use it to justify violence.
The problem we non-believers have is that the "moderates" and the "extremists" worship the same god, have the same prophets and read the same holy books. Their religions are riven with sectarian strife over a million arguments on the head of a pin. We have no right, and no interest, in joining in these arguments - after all, with over 1,000 gods and 200 religions/sects in the world today, our brains can only handle so much.
We need a yardstick by which to judge which interpretations are socially acceptable and, to us, that yardstick comes down to what is in the best interest of humanity - our yardstick is Humanism. If anyone puts their gods, their holy books or their prophets ahead of their fellow human beings than we judge them to be unacceptable. They have no moral values and no place in a civilised society.
On 23rd November, 2012 a state dinner was held at Windsor Castle for the Emir of Kuwait. The Queen who hosted the dinner is head of the Church Of England and the Emir, his family and their entourage are Muslim.
We are aware of an increasing number of events where people from many faiths, and none, will be present and where there is a general fear of offending someone. No offence has been expressed but the organisers feel it their duty to assume offence on behalf of others and therefore "play on the safe side."
It is good to see that those who organised the state dinner did not suffer from such ludicrous religious correctness.
The enlargement of the lower left of the photograph shows that in front of each Muslim guest are two glasses, one containing what looks like orange juice and the other presumably for water.
In front of each non-Muslim guest are nine glasses - probably for wine and water. Yes, nine glasses may seem a little excessive but presumably we, as tax payers, are paying for some decent wines for the occasion.
No-one seems to have taken offence at alcohol being present and no-one has felt the need to hide away all signs of alcohol in case someone takes offence. Those who wish to drink alcohol are free to do so and those who don't are free not to do so.
There may be some double standards here because visitors to London from the royal families of the Middle East are notorious for indulging in all sorts of behaviour (drinking, gambling, using prostitutes) that would be unacceptable in their own countries under their own religion - hypocrisy is alive and well amongst the rulers of theocratic oil-rich states. The recently published book: "The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade" by Andrew Feinstein contains numerous accounts of this as well as of the bribery and corruption within many Middle Eastern theocratic kleptocracies, particularly the one responsible for the holy places of Islam.
(Centre spread photograph published in the The Guardian newspaper, 24th November, 2012)
"Imagine" by John Lennon
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one