Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

A slow examination of my conscience in the course of which I will try to keep my temper

Clearly I am not the free speech fundamentalist I sometimes think I am, because, as my friend Shutters points out in his comments to the Sacranie post of a couple of weeks ago, I do seem to think that people have some sort of duty - albeit not one to be enforced by law - not to offend gratuitously in polite society.

As biascut points out, the idea is being pushed in some circles that free speech advocates are fundamentalist secular liberal believers and morally and intellectually equivalent to Islamists and fundamentalist Christians. Now, clearly, inasmuch as liberal humanism is a slowly evolving work in progress rather than a set of ideas carved in stone, it is always possible to point to failings on the part of secularism that make this plausible - I'd welcome some comments to this effect, because I think them highly relevant. In what follows behind the cut, I don't define secular liberal humanism for precisely that reason. I would argue, however, that what I mean by it is a set of thoughts and behaviours that are sceptical, rational and humane, in which we examine not only ideas but also their practical consequences and question our own motives as much as those of others.

I would suggest that that secular liberal humanism tries to derive its precepts from rational thought based on simple premises, whereas almost all actually existing religious thought, and certainly all fundamentalist thought, bases any rational thought it goes into on the far more elaborate premise of sacred texts which are either inerrant, or even the word of God that existed in their current form before time and were only written down by the prophets. This means in turn that, where slh tries to link its treatment of other people in something like Kant's categorical imperative, itself merely an elegant formulation of something said many times before, not least by some of those prophets, the equivalent for religious believers is a) valid because a prophet said so rather than because it is a good idea and b) likely to be subordinated in a variety of actual cases to other things stated by the prophet.

Thus, while Christians acknowledge that Christ told them to love the Lord thy God, and love thy neighbour as thyself, they have on occasion decided that the first duty obliged them to interpret the second duty as obliging them to stick said neighbour on top of a bonfire for the good of their souls and the souls of those around them.

At its best, secular liberal humanism is profoundly aware of the depth of human ignorance and thus unprepared to move to options that close off further argument, whereas much religious belief is a total system in which everything is already known and has only to be interpreted in practical terms. If it is known that there is a god, and that there are souls which are eternal, and that the mind of god in respect of the fate of those souls is already laid down in a book, then it is possible to lay out your duty clearly whatever the consequence for short-lived human bodies.

This is, of course, the point at which people chip in and say what about the Nazis and Stalin? To which I return the remark, what about them? The reason why I talk of secular liberal humanism quite specifically is because I refuse to take any responsibility for atheisms that derived their dogmas from half-assed interpretations of non-religious but sacred texts. The Nazis were obsessed with pseudo-scientific claptrap like racism and the world ice theory, and Stalin's particular take on Marxism-Leninism led to equally bizarre obsessions like Lysenkoism. Neither belief system included much place for rationalism or indeed rationality - they had no taste for sceptical enquiry or for the slow working out of what justice might aspire to be.

And of course all religions with the possible exception of the state religion of the Aztecs produce a lot of believers who lead moral lives of loving-kindness towards most of the people around them most of the time. Until, that is, they decide to vote for a completely immoral adventurist imperial government because their pastor tells them to, or until they decide to disown their children because their scripture tells them that their children's sexual orientation is a damnable choice, or until they murder their neighbours who are leading moral lives in accordance with the views of a different prophet.

There is a sense in which we cannot check whether the moral lives of most believers are a product of that belief, or what human beings are like anyway. You might argue that the average lives of ordinary godless Britons and Europeans might be a test, though I would point out that those lives do not include any great degree of commitment to secular liberal humanism either. Those lives, though, are not especially immoral or especially depraved - their besetting sins are those of the leopard rather than those of the lion or the wolf.

(Digression - that's a distinction Dante makes in the Inferno and it is rather a useful one. He distinguishes between sins of the flesh, sins of anger and violence and sins of cruelty and treachery. Everyone in the Inferno is damned, of course, but it is clear that the violent and the treacherous are considerably more damned than everyone else. And, of course, the lesser the sin, the easier the repentance - in the Purgatorio, we meet far more of those who sinned in the flesh but repented.

One of the things that perpetually amazes me about believers is how much more tolerant they are of such sins as spiritual pride and downright hatred than they are of minor sexual offenses. I don't believe in the inerrancy of scripture, but I am constantly amazed how most fundamentalist Christians neglect the simple spiritual wisdom contained in the gospel accounts of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.)

Which leads me to one of the bottom lines of this discussion. Precisely what can I, as an agnostic, and a secular liberal humanist, say about religion that some believers somewhere are not going to find grossly offensive? When I talk about the prophets, I may manage to refrain from personal abuse of them, and may bend over backwards to acknowledge the good faith in which they spoke, but, when it comes to the question of whether they had the direct and privileged access that they claimed to the mind of the god in whom I do not, as such, believe, I am obliged to say that I think they were mistaken. Not mad, not lying, just wrong.

I am at least moderately well read in the spiritual writings of many religious traditions and I don't reject all the wisdom that is contained therein. I find the personality of Jesus Christ at least moderately congenial - his snappy comebacks and parables resonate with good sense. Parts of the Koran as inadequately translated from the Arabic resonate for me with spiritual intensity, as do the Psalms and the writings of some Buddhists and Taoists. Do they in any way move me? Yes they do. Do I for a second think that they are the product of a privileged access to something beyong the human in a way that, say, the Ode to a Nightingale or Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 132 is not? No,they are not.

I say these things, not to cause offense, but in the sure and certain knowledge that some will be offended by my saying them. Am I obliged to be silent about my own convictions for fear of causing that offense? I do not think so.

There are, furthermore, many believers who would be offended by my agnosticism, which is pretty militant. I do not believe that there is a god, though I do not regard such belief as inherently irrational, merely inadequately documented. I further believe that, if there were a being vaster and better than us, we could not possibly come to any conception of who that being might be without hideously constraining that conception by purely human preoccupations and prejudices. If there were a god, any human discussion of tha god would be impious, any worship of that god would be idolatry. To treat the abstract constructs of the human mind as more important than mere ordinary human life is wrong; to wreck other people's existences because of one's misconception of god is to go into a burning house and save the ming vase and not the crying baby.

I would expect believers to be as offended by my position in this matter as I am by their cocksure certainty that the sublime and the ineffable can be clearly linked to a specific point in time and space. Moreover I do find myself questioning their apparent preparedness to tolerate each other. I mean, either Christ was the Son of God, or he wasn't; saying, as Muslims do, that OK, he was an important prophet just not what Christians think, really shouldn't cut it. Similarly, either Mohammed was the Messenger, or he wasn't; most Christians presumably think most Muslims wrong. All religions cannot be true, because they contradict each other; they can, however, be equally false. Given half a chance, they kill each other and anyone else who gets in the way. As well as those they can agree to hate, like us queers.

And then there is that degree of offense likely to be caused by my pointing out the crimes of believers.
I hope and trust that I am not Islamophobic in the sense of using hostility to Islam as a cover for racism, any more than I am anti=Christian because many Christians are not white. However, just as it is not anti-Christian to point to the crusader mentality of Bush, the folly of the Reagan administration in regarding environmental issues as irrelevant in the face of the end time, the murderousness of the Orthodox Serbs, the lies of the Catholic Church about the efficacy of condoms, and the idiocy of preaching creationism in the face of all scientific evidence, so too I am forced to condemn the idiocy of preaching Islamic creationism, the brutality of sharia punishment of women in Nigeria, the racist and sectarian persecution of the inhabitants of Irian Jaya by the Indonesian state, and the extent to which the Iraqi insurgency has become an occasion of the murder of Shia by Sunni, and vice versa ( a bit ). When talking about false prophets, Jesus said intelligently that we would know them by what they produce, and the mass murder, calculating cruelty and wilful ignorance of both his followers and those of Mohammed looks pretty bad in the light of those remarks. Lazy secularism produces booze cruises, porn videos and Big Brother, perhaps, but there is really no comparison; it also produces great art, good science and feminism.

I think that some of the Danish cartoons were stupidly rude - no-one ever talks about the cartoonists whose response to the Danish editor's request was to draw cartoons whose text was a refusal to cause offense, which are several of the twelve - and in a world even of rational belief they should have been mentioned briefly, condemned in passing and then ignored. Once people regard that sort of offense as so important that people have to die over them, and half the world goes into uproard, both giving and taking offense have become an idolatry, a placing of the trivial above our real humane duty.
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