I wrote a first-draft version of what follows in a comment on a friend’s blog, and I think that in the process of writing it I got as close to a reasoned articulation of my problems with the organised (and even the disorganised) faiths of the world as I’ve ever managed. So I’m revising it, expanding it slightly, and posting it, in the hope that it will either change some minds, or that someone out there will change my mind by explaining the bit of logic I haven’t considered.
The background to what follows is that it’s born out of a conversation about Draw Mohammed Day. My friend was pointing out that said day was tasteless, as it was offensive to millions of Muslims the world over, and that while it was one thing to object to the extremists who prompted to the day in the first place, the act remains offensive to millions of people who are not extremists.
So here’s the bit I don’t get: why, just because it is a tenet of someone’s faith that they should not (or should) do a thing, is it automatically reasonable that they are offended when people who do not share their faith do (or don’t do) said thing? No-one is asking them to behave the same way. No-one is asking them to approve of it, or to think it is morally right. They’re not even being asked to look. They are simply being asked to acknowledge the right of others to not think or act like them.
My friend used an argument above about not offending her conservative aunt with her behaviour – that when she’s around that aunt, she dresses and acts a bit differently. I’m sure we can all relate to that – I don’t swear in front of my grandmother, I don’t talk about certain subjects with my aunts and uncles. But is that because I believe my relatives’ moral codes are correct? Absolutely not – if I did, I would live by them. It’s because I want them to continue to think well of me. And they understand that while I modify my behaviour in front of them, when I am at home I might behave differently, and they accept that I make a compromise in front of them in exchange for them not condemning the fact that I behave in other ways when they’re not around. They acknowledge my right not to think or act like them.
I am a non-believer in Islam. In the eyes of a member of that faith, which is the bigger sin – not believing in Islam at all, even a little, in fact rejecting many of its forms as oppressive superstition, or drawing the prophet?
So I make a compromise: I don’t go around beating my bloody great atheist drum all the time, in exchange for them not condemning me as an infidel simply because I don’t share their faith. I am, however, allowed to beat on it now and again, in the same way that they are allowed to tell me how they think I should be living my life from time to time. That’s public discourse for you. And if one wishes to partake of public discourse, by, say, belonging to a faith whose members do things in the public arena, then one must accept that not everything one hears is going to be in accordance with one’s private views, and that it is simply not reasonable to take offence at some of the things said. One must admit that others transgressing against one’s personal moral codes can, in fact, be about their right to self-expression, and not about attacking others.
Anyone who is really, genuinely and actually being seriously offended by something like Draw Mohammed Day has presumably already sat in greater judgement on the non-faithful, and on that basis, I find it easy not to worry about whether or not they’re offended over little things. I imagine that the great mass of the reasonable faithful, the ones that one might suggest are being offended here, are actually not seriously offended. Because the reasonable faithful, in order to be considered that, must surely acknowledge the right of others not to share their faith? Otherwise, how are they the reasonable faithful, and why should we listen to them, when they will not to us?
I did not, in fact, draw Mohammed, the other week. Because I don’t need to. But ultimately, it is important to me that I be able to say “it is not a sin to do so, should I wish to” and to reject the judgement on me of anyone who would condemn me for doing or thinking so. I acknowledge that they are free to judge it a sin, but they are absolutely not free to call me a sinner. I do not presume to judge them, why on earth should they be free to judge me, just because they believe differently to me?
Can someone tell me, then, what is offensive about this position? Or why we automatically think it is reasonable for people to be able to say “I’m a Christian/Muslim/Jew/Pagan/Buddhist/33rd degree anti-mason and I find that offensive?”
(I will pre-empt one possible line of argument: there are certain commandments/guidelines/articles of faith that I think we can acknowledge as universal – murder, theft, and so on. The sorts of things we enshrine in law. It is reasonable (if a little ludicrous) to say “I’m a Christian and I find murder offensive” because it reflects a very basic principle that transcends the codes of any of faith in a way that “I’m a Christian, and I find your worship of that idol offensive” does not. If you really think there’s a solid counter-argument to be spun out of that line of thinking, be my guest and try, but I suspect I am unlikely to buy it.)