Yes Pope Frank, we can mock faiths
17 January 2015
If you are offended by criticism of religion, or of your religion, then either close your browser now or be duly warned, because we are going to exercise more freedom of speech than you might like.
Pope Francis (the professional name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio) has been buzzing around Asia this week on a promotional tour for his organisation, the Catholic Church. In between visiting franchises in Indonesia and the Philippines, Pope Frank chatted with reporters on the plane. In the context of the recent massacre of the staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and of the police who were protecting them, a reporter asked his Chiefiness:
"yesterday at mass you spoke about religious freedom as a fundamental human right. But in the respect for the different religions, up to what point can one go in freedom of expression? That too is a fundamental human right."
To which he pontificated in part:
"Let's think, if a member of parliament or a senator doesn't say what he thinks is the right path then he does not collaborate for the common good. Not only these, but many others too. We have the obligation to say openly, to have this liberty, but without giving offence, because it is true, one cannot react violently.
But if Dr. Gasbarri (the papal trip organizer who was standing beside him), a good friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him. But it's normal, it's normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people's faith, one cannot make fun of faith...
And so many people who speak badly about other religions, or religions [in general], they make fun of, let's say toy with [make into toys] other people's religions, these people provoke and there can occur what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mother. That is, there is a limit. Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects life, human life, the human person. And I cannot make fun of it. This is a limit and I have taken this sense of limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that in regard to my mother"
(partial video on the Guardian web site, transcript on Vatican Radio)
Well, sorry to offend you Frank, but your mother gave birth to an authoritarian idiot, and no, that insult doesn't give you the right to punch us. No insult justifies an assault, whether it's an insult against you, your mother or Muhammad, and if you go down that path, then you are on the way to saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had it coming to them, or that wives who insult their husbands deserve to be beaten. You are in essence saying that people cannot make fun of religions because of the way that their followers might react with violence, and the more fun we make of them, the worse it would get. And seriously, get a new outfit. That white smock makes you look like a cross between Tom Wolfe and a geriatric ice-cream saleswoman. OK, insults done. That last one was just to make the point. Really, we do like ice cream and did not wish to offend any ice-cream saleswomen. And we like your outfit too. It hides your tummy nicely.
Of course, the Pope is talking his own book - no religious leader likes their organisation being ridiculed - it tends to undermine them, and all of them will claim that "faiths" have a special place within society, unlike other groundless beliefs such as astrology, feng shui or palm-reading which lack organisations to advocate their protection. Religious leaders say that their religions have a "right" not to be insulted or mocked by others - what religions often call "blasphemy", and they claim that this is necessary to protect the feelings of their followers, rather than their market share. Some religions are or were so powerful that they succeeded in shaping the "right" into a blasphemy law to limit criticism. Dictators and monarchs tend to use similar laws to insulate themselves or their regimes against criticism and scrutiny. Just ask Raif Badawi, currently being flogged in Saudi Arabia for insulting Islam.
Blasphemy laws make it easier to sustain organisations built on a complete lack of scientific evidence for their central claims. Such laws have now been abolished in many secular countries, but not Hong Kong, where blasphemous libel could still land you in jail. The biblical take on blasphemy, which called for death by stoning to offenders, is found in the Old Testament, Leviticus, 24:13-16:
"The LORD then said to Moses: "Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and when all who heard him have laid their hands on his head, let the whole community stone him. Tell the Israelites: Anyone who curses his God shall bear the penalty of his sin; whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; alien and native alike must be put to death for blaspheming the LORD'S name.""
Galileo Galilei is perhaps the most famous scientist to have run up against the power of the Catholic Church with his heretic Copernican heliocentric view of the universe, which went against the church's geocentric teachings. After trial by the Roman Inquisition he spent the final years of his life under house arrest. Giordano Bruno is less well known but went further, theorising that the stars were just distant suns surrounded by their own planets which might harbour life, and that the universe was infinite. He also held the heretic view that Mary was not a virgin but was just your typical unmarried girl who got pregnant and came up with a rather original excuse by blaming it on the holy spirit (or at least, on a few shots of tequila down the pub). After a 7-year trial which makes Rafael Hui's look like an open-and-shut case, Bruno was burned at the stake.
Religions are just the survivors of ancient cults which competed for mindshare to explain things which are either unanswerable or could not (at the time) be explained with evidence-based scientific methods - such as the origin of species, until Darwin came along with natural selection. Fewer people today cling to the literal belief that the world and its species were created in 7 days or that all humanity is descended from two people and their incestuous children, but we can still argue about what, if anything, "happened" before the big bang, what is consciousness, or (and this is a "killer application" for religions) whether there is an afterlife and what you can do now to make it a good one. Religions also tend to capitalise on the inherent randomness of the world - typhoons, illness and disasters are sent by your god to test or punish you, while all the good things in life come from him. Or her. But mostly him. It's kind of a win-win situation if you are in the faith business.
Despite the gradual rollback of theology by scientific investigation and discovery, people haven't stopped trying to launch new cults/religions, or attempting spin-offs. Perhaps the last successful one to gain traction was Joseph Smith's Mormon spin-off of Christianity, although science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard had a good crack at starting one from scratch with Xenu and the deceptively-named Scientologists.
Religious violence is incentivised by laws that restrict free speech. Such laws raise the expectations of the people they purport to protect, increasing their intolerance of criticism and legitimising their outrage against those who break them, often resulting in violence and deaths in the name of their god. In modern open societies, laws against criticism, mockery, ridicule or insult have no place.
As for your Popiness, next Christmas we will send you a DVD of the Life of Brian, if you promise not to hunt down the Monthy Python crew and punch them. In the meantime, here is a clip to whet your appetite. You have the right to your beliefs, and we have the free speech right to mock them, however rude or impolite that may be. You don't have a right not to be offended by free speech.
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