In our pluralistic society we often encounter views on religion that differ from our own. These differences may be great or small but due to their nature, have the potential spur interesting conversation, vigorous debate, or heated argument. Religious belief, amongst the many types of beliefs every person holds, are unique in that they tend to be a large part of how a person defines themselves and heavily influence individual behavior. Given the unique place an individual’s views on religion occupies within a wider spectrum belief I have often wondered if it is right or moral to mock and belittle the religious views of others. After some consideration I am confident in stating that yes, mocking and belittling the religious views of others is immoral and wrong. Of course, there are important caveats that go along with such a position; caveats I will discuss below.
Before discussing the detail of why I hold this view it is important to make a few things absolutely clear. First, there is always a difference between what is moral and what is — or should be — legal. For example, we may consider adultery to be morally wrong but very few of us would seek to criminalize this behavior. Similarly, just because I believe mocking religious belief is generally immoral, I do not advocate the suppression of speech in any form. Indeed, I sternly believe that an environment where any ideas can be expressed and discussed is the most effective way of identifying divisive or destructive views. Nothing I write here should be misconstrued as an argument for censorship. Censorship of speech that may be considered offensive is no excuse to suppress this speech. Pluralism demands tolerance; tolerance of the views of others and patience when others choose to mock or criticize our own views.
I base my position that mocking religious belief is immoral on the broad moral principle that intentionally seeking to harm others — emotionally or physically — is wrong. Given that religious belief often plays a central role in how a person defines themselves it should not be surprising that insults to religious views are often an indirect insult to the person who holds them. As a result if we were to belittle the person of Jesus, this would likely be hurtful to a person who maintains belief in the divinity of Jesus. Similarly, if we refer to monotheism as belief in “an invisible Sky Daddy” we insult not only the major Abrahamic religions of the world but also those who accept those systems of belief. A Christian who presents a caricature of atheism and irresponsibly makes blanket statements about atheists is equally insulting.
But why should religious views be given special consideration? Certainly not because of their religious character. Rather, religious beliefs fall under a type of belief that William James called “instrumental truth” or truth which human beings utilize to create cohesive “truth narratives” which helps individuals make sense of the world. There are many types of beliefs and views that are major components to a truth narrative. These can include, but are certainly not limited to, views on science, politics, philosophy, economics, etc… Mocking or belittling views that define truth narratives is bound to be hurtful to individuals. It is no wonder then, that it is commonly said to avoid both religion and politics in polite conversation. These beliefs are much more than abstract notions. Rather, they define how a person understands the workings of the universe and perhaps most importantly, an individual’s place within it. These beliefs are shared among all people to one degree or another. Some are more deeply committed to metaphysical claims while others are similarly committed to logical positivism. Religious views, therefore, should not be given special treatment because they are religious but simply because mocking or belittling them is very likely to be hurtful to those who take such views seriously. Many ideological views should be treated the same way.
So speaking more broadly it would be more accurate to say that it is immoral to mock or belittle views and beliefs that are central to individual identity.
There is, of course, a significant difference between mocking and offering thoughtful criticism. No set of beliefs should be free from criticism. Indeed, if we see that the religious belief of others are themselves morally problematic — such as beliefs that discriminate against women or minorities — we are under moral obligation to criticize such views. Some religionists have tried to spare themselves from criticism by hiding behind so-called blasphemy laws. Again, pluralism requires tolerance of alternate views — especially when those views challenge or critique our own.
Of course, it should go without saying that none of us should take offense at critique of our own core beliefs and views. Just as we expect others to respect our views in respectful discourse, we have the duty to accept criticism. Besides, when someone criticizes our beliefs it may be an opportunity to have an interesting and enlightening conversation. Who knows, we may actually learn something from such conversations!
Is there ever a time when religious views should be mocked? Perhaps, but I think these instances are few and far between. As emotionally satisfying it may be to mock the Westboro Baptist Church, such mockery is ultimately unsatisfying. These folks are generally looking to provoke an emotional reaction and then use the reaction as evidence that they are doing God’s work. As such, the most effective way to to express abhorrence of the Westboro Baptist Church may be to simply ignore their offensive remarks and protests.
It saddens me that people are so hesitant to discuss religion (and politics). It seems to me that we would better understand each other were we able to discuss these things respectfully free from judgement and unkindness. There is so much to learn about what makes someone a unique and valuable human being by understanding the views that shape their conception of the world. The fact that we often feel compelled to avoid such conversations is a collective indictment or our inability to be civil even in the face of significant disagreement.