Lately, the issue of criticizing religion has been a hot topic. On one extreme are those who want absolutely no critique of religious belief and or holy books whatsoever. On the other extreme are those who are tying criticism of faiths to their own brand of bigotry and vitriolic language. Of course, there are many folks in the middle. In particular, the criticism of Islam has landed itself into the midst of this.
All belief systems need criticism, including those that I hold dear. For instance, I tend to champion secularism, the scientific method and democracy, to name a few. I not only accept that these things will be criticized, but I understand that such scrutiny helps improve these thought systems. Ideas and ideologies can thrive as a result of being exposed to criticism, scrutiny and even parody. This allows invalid ideas to be discarded, paves the way for ideas that need improvement to be modified, and illuminates the strength of really good ideas. Religious belief is no exception. It is vital that in a free society, folks discuss and debate ideas. Religion touches upon our world in so many ways and must be included in the debate and discussion.
When a belief system is not open to criticism, it creates all sorts of problems. First, if I were to accept that religion should not be criticized, than I would logically insist that a whole range of other beliefs that I cherish, should also not be criticized. In addition, when folks commit irrational or immoral acts in the name of the religion, a prohibition on criticism removes the ability to examine the motivations as well as to fully expose these actions.
Ironically, though I am a nonbeliever and I often argue that we need to be free to criticize religion, I often find myself praising it as often as I disapprove of certain aspects of it. I also prefer, but do not insist, that criticism be polite and sensitive to the feelings of reasonable believers. This is not just because I like to be nice. When people’s thought systems come under scathing attack, they become understandably defensive. In addition, a one-sided view of religion, its history and how it motivates people to act does not seem reflective of reality. There is a lot of good motivated by and done in the name of religion. There are worthwhile ideas and concepts that come out of it both historically and in our present day. I wrote about the need to have a balanced view on these topics in more detail here.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a group that is called the “New Atheists.” Richard Dawkins is the most prominent of this group that includes Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others. This group uses strong rhetoric and has little respect for any religious ideas. Though they seem careful not to attack individuals, their commentary on religion is often scathing.
Though I agree with much of what they say, I find that not only is their tone too harsh for my taste, but that their view of religion is too lopsided, never emphasizing the good that comes out of it. There are also those who go well beyond this group. Social media is full of people who express biting hatred of religion. Sometimes this hatred is paired with racism. Nevertheless, in a free society, such voices will inevitably speak, and unless they are calling for violence, they should not be censored.
Just because speech is permissible does not make it right. I support reasoned criticism of all belief systems. I also like to be respectful unless a belief is hateful or promoting discrimination or violence. With that, I also think that parody as well as harsh criticism is often in order. This is especially true when the subject is murder, violence, brutality, discrimination, etc. that are driven by the things written in holy books. Simply put, there are abominable things in both the Old Testament and the Koran. The fact that these holy books also include a lot of good things does not alleviate the need for scrutiny.
As of late, Islam seems to be at the center of this debate. There has been very harsh criticism of that belief system lately. There has also been outright hate, bigotry and violence directed at Muslims. There has also been lots of fair and reasoned criticism that has unfairly been labeled “Islamophobia.” Maryam Namazie, a critic of extremist violence and mistreatment of women in Islam, has been exposed to caustic verbal attacks and harassment by extremists. Even worse, violence has been aimed at religious critics. The very worst of this involved the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. The Charlie Hebdo attacks served as a stark reminder to those of us who believe in freedom of speech just how far people will go to suppress that liberty in the name of religion.
There have been cases where non – Muslim commentators, such as Emmanuel Todd, have joined in and partially blamed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for the violence and excoriated those who are criticizing Islam. In turn, some secularists have coined the term “Regressive Left” for liberals who they deem to be apologizing for violence and discrimination in the name of Islam.
Folks will point out with much truth that these violent fanatics do not represent the Islamic faith. It is absolutely true that most Muslims do not support such things. However, the Koran (Since the question comes up when I discuss this topic, I have read the Koran twice), which despite containing a lot of good things is full of racism, misogyny and calls for violence, points to the fact there is some connection. The fact that many of those who perpetuate oppression and violence directly cite the text of this holy book further supports this contention.
A popular response to criticism of Islam is that parts of Old Testament advocates terrible barbarities. This is true. Though it seems apparent that it is not driving as much violence and oppression in out current age, belief in certain aspects Old Testament ideology drives some discrimination and violence. Since it is connected to all three Abrahamic Religions, this is particularly significant. This is another good argument as to why it is imperative that people be free to criticize religious belief systems.
Though in my opinion the New Testament does not advocate violence and discrimination like other holy books do, it is full of ideas about how people should live. It touches upon morality, human nature, the nature of existence, and even economics. Such a comprehensive set of beliefs also lends itself and must be open to scrutiny.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention the positive actions that the various religions as well the texts of the holy books seem to motivate. All the major religions drive an enormous amount of charitable and humanitarian action. With that, such positive aspects of these faith - based systems do not exempt these systems from scrutiny and criticism. However, such activities must be considered when formulating any comprehensive view of these belief systems.
Though I have read multiple texts connected with the Eastern religions I am less knowledgeable concerning these belief systems and their impact on humanity. With that, I believe most of the issues and arguments that I raise here also apply to Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, etc.
Folks may disagree with some of my opinions on various belief systems. Such disagreement is actually part of the very important discussion that humanity needs to be having about the enormously influential group of ideas known as religion.
No doubt religion will always be criticized, in ways that I agree with and in ways that I disagree with. There will also be folks who defend these belief systems. There will be others who insist that religious beliefs are above criticism. I have argued before that a society where folks are free and open to various ideas as well as to criticize these ideas is ideal. I have also mentioned that I am a believer in The Marketplace of Ideas. In such a marketplace, all ideas, including religious ones, must be open to discussion and debate.