When we think of ‘enemies of the gospel’, I suppose high on the list of mental pictures would be atheists. Probably atheists with black eye-makeup and poorly concealed red horns. I have a fair number of atheist friends, and they’re all rather nice, actually. They’re passionate, thinking people; they just really don’t like my Bible.
In a strange turnaround, it seems that a rather more serious threat to the gospel than atheism is bubbling up from our own ranks. True, it has its origin primarily in the oil-on-water that is Islam mixing with the West, but these moves are being vocally supported by flocks of Christians. It has to do with religious attacks on the concept of free speech, and despite the serious implications of this attack upon our entire society, and indeed upon our faith, it is only the atheists who are speaking up about it.
The challenge to free speech from religion
Salman Rushdie, Danish Mohammad cartoons, The Jewel of Medina… These are three examples in a horrifyingly long list of ideas that are offensive to Islam, and resulted in rioting Muslim extremists and countless death threats levelled against the authors. Islam has never being particularly amenable to criticism. That is not breaking news. However, Islamic fear tactics and international tantrumming seems to have applied enough pressure upon policy makers that the UN has made a minor change to its policy on free speech that effectively sees it now protecting religion against those who would speak freely against it. Listen to the following quote from Johann Hari in his must-read report from the centre of this furore:
The UN’s Rapporteur on Human Rights has always been tasked with exposing and shaming those who prevent free speech – including the religious. But the Pakistani delegate recently demanded that his job description be changed so he can seek out and condemn “abuses of free expression” including “defamation of religions and prophets”. The council agreed – so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.
Anything which can be deemed “religious” is no longer allowed to be a subject of discussion at the UN – and almost everything is deemed religious. Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union has tried to raise topics like the stoning of women accused of adultery or child marriage. The Egyptian delegate stood up to announce discussion of shariah “will not happen” and “Islam will not be crucified in this council” – and Brown was ordered to be silent. Of course, the first victims of locking down free speech about Islam with the imprimatur of the UN are ordinary Muslims. (from http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-why-should-i-respect-these-oppressive-religions-1517789.html)
So now, instead of condemning (as any good parent would) the petulance of any religion that throws its toys from the cot if it can’t or won’t answer its critics, our international human-rights body has decided to let the spoiled child get its way. It is now forbidden to speak of anything that might ‘defame’ religion.
Gallingly, it seems as though groups of Christians have short-sightedly seen this as a means of quashing vocal opponents who ask uncomfortable questions. And so, to make life easier for ourselves in the short term, we’ve celebrated this kid-glove treatment of religion as a way of avoiding ‘persecution’ (read accountability) for our beliefs. And so, we’ve decided to support injustice, oppression and the violent march of extremism just so that we don’t have to ‘gently and respectfully give [atheists] a reason for the hope that we have’ (cf. 1Peter 3:15). Great. Well done.
Why it is incredibly stupid for Christians to oppose free speech
In some ways, free speech looks like a bad thing. I found myself opposing it when National Embarrassment TM Julius Malema began calling for the agitated masses to kill in support of Zuma. It means that any idiot with a platform is allowed to flap his lips hard enough to run a cool breeze through an empty head. From a Christian perspective, it means that I have to put up with people who spit bile over my most cherished beliefs, such as a Simpons episode in which Homer eulogised the ascent of Colonel Sanders to the right hand of God, or a book I saw on sale at the airport about a man who decided to call himself god and to pull off the greatest con act, namely rising from the dead. On one level, we’d all like to remove those elements in society that tread heavily upon our toes. But therein lies the problem. What about those who find my faith offensive? Why should I have my wish and not him? Why should we remove things offensive to Christians but not things offensive to atheists? Because there are 10 times as many words in the Bible as in The God Delusion? Because if you don’t listen to my group we’ll strap explosives to indoctrinated children and run them into crowds?
The wonderful thing about free speech is that it is fair and it is self-regulating. If Julius Malema speaks nonsense, I am free to demonstrate what is nonsensical about his speech. If books and TV spit upon the death of Jesus, I am free to explain why it is an act of great love, beauty, wisdom and grace. As soon as freedom of response is removed, tyranny takes its place. If I may not answer Julius, he might get his war. If I may not answer scorn of my faith with my love for my faith, then the gospel will go unheard. And yet this is exactly what we are advocating as Christians when we celebrate the end of free speech. Sure, the ruling superficially favours us this time, but at massive cost. What objection will we be able to give when despots like Mugabe (who, according to Hari, calls the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘colonialist’) refuse to tolerate criticism of their methods? Free speech is an essential (perhaps the only) safeguard that we have against tyranny, and if our God really does love justice as He claims to do in our book, then, as socially responsible believers, we need to fight bravely and sacrificially for free speech.
I suspect that Christians and Muslims have an added impediment to their thinking on this issue. Because service of God is holy and respectable, I think we sometimes imagine that, despite millennia of evidence to the contrary, religious leaders cannot be tyrants and charlatans. Johann Hari cites these recent examples from Islam:
Here is a random smattering of events that have taken place in the past week in countries that demanded this change [in the UN resolution]. In Nigeria, divorced women are routinely thrown out of their homes and left destitute, unable to see their children, so a large group of them wanted to stage a protest – but the Shariah police declared it was “un-Islamic” and the marchers would be beaten and whipped. In Saudi Arabia, the country’s most senior government-approved cleric said it was perfectly acceptable for old men to marry 10-year-old girls, and those who disagree should be silenced. In Egypt, a 27-year-old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman was seized, jailed and tortured for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah.
To this we could add countless more cases of priestly child-abuse, evangelical money-grubbing, fraudulent charismatic healing crusades, fundamentalist homophobia, etc. etc. etc. There is plenty within religion that needs to be criticised. Yet we’ve opted instead for the tyranny of the false teacher.
Why it is hypocritical for a Christian to oppose free speech
What is remarkable about both Christian and Muslim support of religious exemption from criticism is its blatant hypocrisy.
Firstly, both of our faiths are deeply committed to proselytising. In other words, at the core of our religions is the command to make disciples of all nations (Christians are less keen on the ‘or else kill them where they stand’ idea). But at the heart of any call for new faith is an inherent criticism of the person’s old beliefs. Certainly Christianity recognises that its message is offensive, and the Apostle Paul had the scars to prove it. But even in Islam, the recognition that infidel may have to be killed shows that there is an expectation of rejection.
So, if we agree that it is wrong to criticise any religious belief, then we tacitly disagree with our own religions that it is right (and essential) that we call people to faith, because that call is criticism of whatever old religion we seek to replace.
Secondly, both our faiths hold exclusivist beliefs. Christianity and Islam concurrently believe that they are uniquely true and that other faiths are inherently false. Therefore, simply by virtue of their existence, exclusivist religions stand as critiques of one another, because, at the most, only one of us can be right. For this reason, it is ridiculous and hypocritical for an exclusivist religion to demand that it is exempt from criticism when it is by definition a living criticism of every other religion (or irreligion) in existence on the planet.
So, if we make exclusivist claims, and we do, then we cannot reasonably request exemption from criticism. In fact we should court it, because bearing the truth, as we must believe that we do, is a great temptation to arrogance and abuse, and if we are wrong, there is no greater service that can be done for us than to disabuse us of our delusion. If we are right, the truth will defend us.
Call to action
In conclusion, what should we do in response? Primarily, Christians need to oppose the misguided attempts of the religious to insulate themselves from criticism. The further that we can distance Christianity from this anti-gospel nonsense, the better.
Secondly, we need to stand up with our atheist friends and oppose these political capitulations to religious bullying. In the case of Islam, and increasingly in Right-wing Christianity, oppression, hatred and murder are being called holy. Good is being called evil, and evil is being called good.
Read Johann Hari’s articles below, and support organisations like his or like ‘One Law For All’ in Britain that opposes allowing Sharia to exist alongside British law (effectively introducing a double standard in governance, and a hugely dangerous precedent). This will mean standing alongside the likes of Richard Dawkins and opposing some of our Christian brothers. But if we are standing for justice and integrity, this will be a tremendous testimony to the God of justice whom we serve.