You can’t read this post

In the post entitled Prayers work, say British Politicians, I got the following response from scripturesearcher. (His blog is here, and it’s well worth a read)

I have to disapprove strongly with a government agency making any regulation on religious advertising. Even if these people were outright lying, which is doubtful, there would have to be some sort of money or binding committment at issue in order for a government agency to step in.

That’s just my opinion, of course. I do think it’s important to stay with individualism and religious freedom in order to create a society built on freedom of thought.

Buyer – and prayer – beware. The responsibility is on the individual.

Now the post wasn’t primarily concerned with government censorship or regulations as much as the laughable attempts by some politicians to get government support and approval for the claims in question, which was that prayer is a legitimate form of medical assistance. Incidentally, I’m pleased to see that the main evidence for the politicians’ claims, the footballer Fabrice Muamba, now seems to have recovered enough to leave hospital and give interviews. Although Muamba does give credit to the medical teams that helped him, he has joined the politicians, his girlfriend and countless others in claiming that the paramount reason for his recovery is intervention by God following prayers. While he’s welcome to his view, I note that at least two footballers, to my knowledge, have died following heart attacks during games, including one in a minor from the same county as one of the MPs.

scripturesearcher’s response led me to reappraise – a little – my own view. Coincidentally but fruitfully, I also read Nick Cohen’s new book You Can’t Read This Book in the interim. Cohen is an English journalist, commentator and author who has worked for The Observer for many years. A prominent critic of the left from within the left (in his own estimation), his stance shows to some extent the redundancy of those terms left and right in political discourse. Cohen is a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, a document with which I’m mostly in agreement with, although I wouldn’t identify myself as left-wing by any means.

In his previous book, What’s Left?, Cohen excoriates many politicians and opinion-formers of all stripes for their willingness to subvert truth to their own agenda. In particular, he laments the failure of so-called leftists (think: Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, Ken Livingstone) to see the world outside their own narrow anti-western confines. The upshot is that these people end up in effect supporting Islamism, for example, as a bulwark against imperialism, and as a result emerge as anti-democratic friends of totalitarianism, just as much as so-called right-wing administrations were guilty of acquiescing in despotic brutalities in order to serve their own agendas. Saddam Hussein was never short of western friends, although these friends changed along with time, place and influence.

You Can’t Read This Book is about censorship. We think of ourselves in the west as living in an age of unprecedented freedom, where even someone like me has the means and the technology to put down my thoughts, yet Cohen argues that this view is dangerously naive. The book is in three parts – a description of how religious sensibilities act as a constraint, then the means available to the powerful or famous, particularly in England, to suppress criticism and investigation, and finally, the methods by which technological progress can and has become a double-edged sword in the wrong hands.

And we censor ourselves. Sometimes this is reasonable, sometimes not. Cohen uses the examples of Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to confront the dangers of self-censorship in religion. He notes that although these two had their supporters they also had many detractors who amazingly held them responsible for the results of their own actions, and these detractors didn’t even come from the standpoint under criticism. If you cause offence to Islam then don’t be surprised when a bearded fanatic slices your head off, the thought-process goes – and it’s all your fault. The Jyllands-Posten affair was another example that to any rational mind comes across as completely absurd. Cartoonists in Denmark are in hiding, or operate extreme security measures for the “crime” of drawing the prophet Muhammad. Calling something a “faith”, it seems, gives something protective privileges which other ideas are exempt from. To be fair, you wouldn’t catch me walking down the streets of Peshawar wearing an “Allah does not exist” T-shirt, for reasons of personal safety. But this is a symptom, not a cause, of a more general malaise. Cohen notes that, with few exceptions, no-one else has taken on Rushdie’s mantle, and Rushdie himself  has taken measures to exculpate himself, at one time converting to Islam. Instead, media organisations and academia have largely caved in under the pressure. Respect (for a view, not a person) is the enemy of tolerance, not its enabler. See Adam Lee’s take on this.

The result is, firstly, a false recognition that certain beliefs, being “deeply-held”, are in themselves due any form of respect, and secondly, that the threat of offence should be seen as a constraining factor. In going along with this, we ultimately hurt ourselves, and more offence is dealt to the ideal of freedom of expression than anything else.

Cohen then goes on to describe the ferocious, iniquitous and anti-democratic nature of English libel laws and the forces confronting whistle-blowers. He could have given more space to the Official Secrets Act, certainly. Those of us who care are still fighting, against no less powerful forces, to uphold the ideals of Tom Paine and JS Mill.

One wonders what Pastor Dennis Terry and Rick Santorum would make of all this. Thankfully, even if we know that Terry thinks that anyone who doesn’t share his thoughts shouldn’t share his space, there’s not much he can do about it. As Cohen says:

If you have the chance to enact one law…

…make it the First Amendment [of the US Constitution]. For all the crimes and corruptions of American democracy, the stipulation that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is the best guarantor of freedom yet written.

What Americans like Terry don’t seem to realise is that this freedom built into their very identity is the thing that, by creating a free market in political and religious thought, is the very thing that allows them to express the thought that the thoughts and actions of others ought to be restricted. I don’t have a problem with Terry’s thoughts and declarations, in that he thinks and declares them, as long as those of us that take a different view can think and declare against him and his like.

Which brings us back to Healing on the Streets. However ridiculous or unpalatable, do they have the right to make outrageous claims? They’re certainly not calling, Abu Qatada – style, for the execution of unbelievers, and their freedom is restricted only in the sense that they failed to adhere to advertising rules. I confess I’m feeling more uneasy about the restriction than I did earlier. I’d like to think that we should we have grown up enough as a social species that we didn’t have people prepared to promote such palaver, but although I think of myself as an optimist, that’s a bit too far. Obviously HotS could do real harm, more real harm than Budweiser does by suggesting that drinking their product makes a man attractive to women. But the harm isn’t of the same nature experienced by Rushdie, Hirsi Ali or Danish cartoonists. In those cases, because harm should not arise from ideas, it is quite right to curtail the activities of those who would perpetrate such harm.

But should HotS be prevented from doing what they do, is this not a violation of their rights? Do idiots not have rights, too? The best strategy against idiots, just as the best strategy against dictators, despots, autocratic business, partisan government and intolerance itself is the ability to argue against it.


3 responses to “You can’t read this post

  • scripturesearcher_20

    In one of my university classes last semester, I wrote something that included a line like, “Even though I’m not religious, I like to study religion, and I haven’t gotten along well with the people who don’t appreciate religious beliefs other than their own.”

    I’ve felt a bit of cognitive dissonance about that statement, because I think just about all religious stuff is just silly. I would agree with you that it shouldn’t be respected, as far as its own merits go. However, what I was really meaning, and why I might not need to feel that I was contradicting myself, was appreciation for each person’s process of evaluating the religious influences that he or she experiences — and especially, a believer in one religion or in none at all trying to see things from the standpoint of someone who believes in a different religion.

    So then, I wouldn’t respect the religion, but I would respect the person, and I would appreciate his or her beliefs. Still, that almost sounds like splitting hairs. Maybe I’m being too nuanced.

  • Headbutter of the Gods

    Well, of course. It’s one thing to respect a person for having a belief, quite another to respect that belief itself. I don’t see any cognitive dissonance on your part there. Some of my best friends, and some of the nicest people you could meet in my experience, are Christians and Muslims.

    A lot of religious people don’t actually think too much about why they think it – the Catholic Church would like to keep it that way too – and that’s a personal tragedy they aren’t aware of. But some do, like Smellin Coffee on the FFF, and you can’t help but respect him for it.

    I have to also say that, although some fellow non-believers on that forum – yourself included – got some unfair disrespectful treatment on the forum, my experience was largely positive. A lot of them let me know that although they didn’t agree with me ultimately they did appreciate what I had to say.

  • scripturesearcher_20

    Thanks for the nice word for my blog, by the way. I don’t know when I’ll find the time to go back to it, with all my classes now. And it was just when I was getting used to blogging, too.

    I don’t have time to read your new post about childhood indoctrination,but it’s a great topic for discussion of reformation. That’s an issue that’s close to my “heart,” so to speak, because it’s what I’ve experienced. It’s just a tragedy what society says parents should teach their children. I’ll have to read that post.

    About appreciated beliefs, I can also add that I think the reason I can most apppreciate all religious views is from my own years when I still believed Christianity. I was taking a close look at everything, but I still found merit in some things for awhile. I can understand why some people, if they have the chance, might just change denomination or churches or affiliation and just stop there for awhile. Religous apolegetics can put on a good show for those trying to get a good look.

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