Why should we respect religion?

by Graham Adams / 05 January, 2018

Dudley Moore in Bedazzled, 1967.

Tolerating religious beliefs is essential in a free society, says Graham Adams. So is mocking them.

In 1989, Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie’s assassination following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. At the time, I mentioned this to a devout Catholic I knew – a kind and learned man I had always respected. I expected him to think this was abhorrent, but I was shocked when he told me he wouldn’t condemn the fatwa because, “People shouldn’t mock other people’s religions.”

Say what? Why on earth not? At that time, the Catholic Church happened to be in the throes of a 13-year investigation into its condemnation of Galileo in 1633 for asserting that the Earth revolves around the sun. It didn’t formally pardon him until 1992.

So one of history’s most revolutionary and influential scientists, who was forced to recant his scientific findings and spend the last eight years of his life under house arrest to avoid being burned at the stake, was finally pardoned 359 years later after a 13-year investigation – and that’s not worth mocking? To my mind, that requires mocking.

The Church’s dedication to magical thinking and rejection of science continues. Recently, the Pope banned the use of gluten-free bread as communion wafers. Catholic teaching maintains that the bread and wine served during Eucharist – aka Holy Communion – constitute the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ through a process called transubstantiation. Gluten-free bread presumably doesn’t allow that miracle to happen. Another example, obviously, that demands widespread mockery.

It wouldn’t matter if the Catholic Church kept to itself and didn’t try to influence anyone other than its followers, but it runs extensive campaigns against a host of social reforms, including abortion, same-sex marriage and assisted dying. Close scrutiny of all the Church’s beliefs helps weigh how seriously we should take these campaigns and what reasoning, if any, they are based on.

Where religious organisations warrant respect – say, for feeding the homeless – it’s right they should be accorded it, but not as a default position for all their beliefs and actions. When they propose ideas that are offensive or silly, they should be roundly condemned or mocked.

This applies to all religions, including Islam. Many Muslim attitudes to women alone require condemnation and mocking.

That prospect makes some people nervous, not least because Muslims in other parts of the world have been so quick to see criticism of their religion as an unforgivable insult (and to avenge it). But New Zealand is a secular state and criticism, or even ridicule, is part of living in a free, democratic society and their faith should be no more immune to it than any other belief system – or politicians, for that matter.

In fact, all we are required to do in a just and democratic society with a commitment to freedom of speech is to tolerate others’ beliefs (as long as they do not harm anyone) and defend their right to have them. We are not obliged to respect them.

It is common these days to hear that we should “respect all religions”, which is ludicrous. It’s as silly as insisting that everyone should respect all politicians – implying we should defer to their opinions and not criticise them. For a start, that would mean politicians themselves would have to stop criticising each other and their policies.

The call to respect all religions is an insidious one that has infected even universities. The Auckland University of Technology (AUT) has announced it is a “pluralistic community of people, who hold various religious, spiritual, faith-based and non-faith based beliefs”.

It proudly states that it is “the first university in Aotearoa New Zealand to pioneer a multi-faith chaplaincy and spirituality model to serve its tertiary institution. AUT’s multi-faith chaplaincy and spirituality model demonstrates its commitment to championing its respect for religious diversity, including non-faith and spiritually related beliefs.”

What is a university doing “championing its respect for religious diversity, including non-faith and spiritually related beliefs”? Surely these are private matters and have no place in a university, which should be dedicated to rational inquiry, not faith (which is always a euphemism for superstition).

There is also a rank hypocrisy in what religions we can criticise and those we can’t. It seems perfectly acceptable to mock a church leader such as Brian Tamaki for his outrageous statements, including that gays, sinners and murderers cause earthquakes, but most of his utterances are found in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. No Christian church renounces that part of the Bible but most are less outspoken in referring to the many overwhelmingly stupid parts of scripture.

Most people happily mock Scientology too, often as a UFO religion. But is its belief that humans are immortal, spiritual beings (thetans) resident in a physical body any more outlandish than the Christian notion of an immortal soul and that the son of God descended from Heaven to live amongst us and die for our sins?

I suspect we are prepared to mock cults and avoid doing the same to longer-established religions because they have fewer adherents and most of us probably don’t socialise with Scientologists or Tamaki’s followers. The chances of antagonising or offending someone in our social circles is low.

The idea of religious groups themselves calling for “mutual respect” between them is also laughable for anyone with a passing acquaintance with theology. Most religions aren’t compatible with their competitors – and for most of their existences never pretended to be. In fact, they used to spend much of their time squabbling over minor points of doctrine and happily ridiculed each others’ beliefs – and that’s when they weren’t actively engaged in wars or other hostile actions to suppress rivals, including torture.

As a child, I was brought up in an offshoot of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and laughing at the Pope and his funny hats was a staple of our religious upbringing. And the criticism went much deeper: we were taught the Pope was the anti-Christ and possibly the Beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation, bearing the number 666.

We were encouraged to view Catholics as deluded fools. This despite the fact we were taught that everyone who had ever lived (apart from the few who qualified for heaven) was going to be resurrected on Earth in Christ’s Kingdom and given a new chance to win God’s approval. As laughable as that belief is to me now, it seemed entirely reasonable at the time.

Religious groups calling for mutual respect among themselves is a relatively recent development. The non-Abrahamic religions have been open to the idea for some time, but Christianity, Islam and Judaism not so much.

An attempt at peace broke out in 2000, at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held at the United Nations in New York. More than 1000 religious leaders representing 70 faiths decided it was time – as the Baha’i newsletter put it – for “the world’s religious communities to stop fighting and arguing amongst themselves and in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, to begin working together” on the world’s social and environmental problems.

This approach wasn’t welcomed by everyone. When the Hindu delegation insisted that “mutual respect” replace the word “tolerance” in the official draft, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), who led the Vatican delegation, objected. Adopting the idea of “mutual respect” and that all religions were compatible meant there would be no point in converting anyone to Christianity.

It’s impossible not to conclude that pretending the world’s diverse religions are all manifestations of one godhead is a desperate move by religions wanting to circle the wagons against a hostile world. In particular, it is a way to insulate themselves from criticism in an era when the number of faithful is declining. If they were continuing to criticise each other, why shouldn’t we? But if they can be persuaded to stop criticising each other – in public, at least – perhaps the rest of us can be persuaded, too. 

Trying to silence criticism and ridicule in nations with a strong belief in freedom of speech hasn’t been a great success. French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo reliably lampoons both Islam and Christianity, even after the murders of its cartoonists and editorial staff in Paris. In January 2015, our then Prime Minister, John Key, stood in solidarity with the magazine and condemned the slaughter by aggrieved Islamists – describing the murders as an attack on “democratic principles of freedom of speech and expression”.

But in a country where various government ministers made it their job in 2016 to get Wicked Campers and their risqué slogans off the roads, it’s very doubtful any politician would defend someone insulting a major religion in New Zealand on the grounds of freedom of speech.

And it’s worth remembering we still have a blasphemy law in the Crimes Act, punishable by up to a year’s imprisonment. When Parliament had the opportunity last May to change that, after Labour MP Chris Hipkins introduced an amendment to remove it, both the National Party and the Maori Party voted against its repeal.

Bill English wanted public submissions to be made to a select committee before the law was changed. So we have to debate in Parliament whether we should have the right to mock religion? Really?

This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.


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