The freedom to offend religious sensibilities

Popular Atheist Sam Harris has commented on the recent uprisings in the Middle East against American Embassies with some glib but true observations:

( The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn.


Our government followed the path of appeasement further by attempting to silence the irrepressible crackpot Pastor Terry Jones, who had left off burning copies of the Qur’an just long enough to promote the film. The administration also requested that Google remove “Innocence of Muslims” from its servers. These maneuvers attest to one of two psychological and diplomatic realities: Either our government is unwilling to address the problem at hand, or the problem is so vast and terrifying that we have decided to placate the barbarians at the gate.

The contagion of moral cowardice followed its usual course, wherein liberal journalists and pundits began to reconsider our most basic freedoms in light of the sadomasochistic fury known as “religious sensitivity” among Muslims. Contributors to The New York Times and NPR spoke of the need to find a balance between free speech and freedom of religion—as though the latter could possibly be infringed by a YouTube video. As predictable as Muslim bullying has become, the moral confusion of secular liberals appears to be part of the same clockwork.


Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.

Despite his tangential riff on Mormonism, the tone of his commentary doesn’t give the impression that Harris is merely seeking to preserve the ability to mock religious adherents in the same vain as Richard Dawkins, though it’s probably a twofer.  Instead he rightly reminds the reader of the importance of preserving the American doctrine of free speech — which comes at the cost of possibly causing personal offense at times.

Some Muslims — mostly those from Islamic nations — have decided that their religious sensibilities are exempt from offense.  They react with swift ferocity targeting anyone they deem culpable.

I find it difficult, however, to believe that their level of offense is what drives their violence.  In reality they are training critics to weigh the consequences of criticizing Islam.  They want you to think it over before you dare insult their Prophet: is it worth the bloodshed to make this joke; publish this cartoon; make this movie?

Prohibiting open mockery of religions, their convictions, and their adherents, sadly wont stop there.  In time — if not currently — investigative criticism will be met with the same indignation once reserved for mockery.  Soon enough revised histories will shape the perception of the religion by censoring information which reflects upon it negatively (see this in real-time with California’s SB 48).

Nothing good can come with capitulating to people who insist that their sensibilities be coddled.  As in poor taste as it is, we should be free to criticize — and be criticized — even to the point of offending religious adherents with our voiced opinions.  Who knows, perhaps I speak from the position of being difficult to offend.  When someone spouts off disrespecting Jesus, my first thought is to ‘consider the source’, not plot revenge.  I believe the freedom of speech (and by extension, to offend) is as sacred as the freedom to choose one’s religious beliefs, and it’s a worthy enterprise to defend — with force if necessary.


  1. “investigative criticism will be met with the same indignation once reserved for mockery”
    Hmm… maybe we need only wait one paragraph:
    “When someone spouts off disrespecting Jesus, my first thought is to ‘consider the source’, not plot revenge.”
    So your response to criticism of your religion is ad hominem. Your first thought should be to ‘consider the strength of the argument’ or possibly ‘consider the insight of the satire’. To hear criticism and immediately reject it or to find some reason to discredit the speaker is a great way to insulate yourself from truth.

    • Jason. Perhaps you should reread that portion you quote. I said I consider the source (not an ad hom) when someone disrespects Jesus, not when someone is critical. If you equate being disrespectful with investigative criticism that says something about how you view people criticizing. If you equate critical investigation with disrespect then that explain s a lot of the hostile comments you offer.

  2. Perhaps had some christians burned down the museum where Andres Serrano displayed his artistic “masterpiece” Piss Christ folks would have been as understanding as they are with the religion of peace.

    Also, I’ve seen some pretty offensive quotes from atheists regarding Christianity, I’ve often wondered why they aren’t so quick to go after Islam.

  3. Jason,

    In the words of Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.”

    So your response to criticism of your religion is ad hominem.

    To consider the source is not automatically an ad hominem. If someone is disrespecting Jesus, Christianity, and religion in general, and doing so rather passionately – perhaps angrily – it’s a safe bet that person is an atheist dedicated to that orthodoxy. Such a person will probably ignore most anything you say, so before engaging in heated debated – or, worse, blowing up embassies – it might be well to — consider the source.

    Those atheists worth debating will not bother insulting someone they don’t believe exists; they operate with a measure reason, not rigidity. John said nothing about immediately rejecting those people.

    Perhaps you might consider a reading comprehension course – and I mean that in all sincerity. Too often you address that which you think John has said, rather than what he has actually said.

  4. Great post. Those who condemn freedom and free speech are out to change us and limit us. We need to be vigilant.

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