"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 6 February 2012

Open letter to the offended faithful

Dear Believer
I would like to start by clearing up what may be a misconception among theists about the secular movement. In the main, we are not deliberately going out of our way to cause offence to individuals of any given faith, nor are we wantonly disrespectful of your right to believe in the tenets and sacred icons of your religion.
We understand that you feel uncomfortable when the doctrines of your holy books are questioned and that it annoys you when the errors in your inerrant scriptures are pointed out. We also know that you are offended when your prophets and your saviours are caricatured and in some cases even when represented at all. Also we know how you feel when the truths you find self-evident are not only dismissed but also satirised by those whose views differ from your own and we empathise with the frustration and anger that can be borne of seeing your own righteous view of the world ignored.
The secularists, humanists and atheists of the world acknowledge and understand all of this because we experience it too. We feel uncomfortable when evidence is ignored in favour of dogma and annoyed when Neolithic and medieval mores are maintained at the expense of equality. We too are offended when our spokespeople and luminaries are reviled as racist for condemning cultural practises that oppress minorities. We feel frustration and anger that progress in realising fundamental individual human rights for everyone is impeded by calls from religious leaders for their faith’s communitarian “rights” to be respected at the expense of the rights of individuals.
So if we are so aware of the offence we can cause to some of you religious people why do we continue to criticise and satirise your beliefs in public? In part it is because you have made those beliefs central to the public discourse on both a political and social level. You are using scripture and religious tradition to justify opposition to social reforms that will allow marginalised individuals access to the benefits of institutions previously closed to them. You are using putative offences against supernatural beings as an argument against voluntary euthanasia and in some parts of the world to deny legally sanctioned sexual health care for women. You are also appealing to communitarian rights to exempt your institutions from complying with democratically sanctioned social legislation where they conflict with your doctrine. Some secularists find all of this very offensive.
Consequently, we who hold opposing views on these vexed and pressing issues are forced to address your arguments. If you only argue from evidence, or political conviction we can stay on that agenda, but if you insist on using your faith in a supernatural supreme being of whatever tradition please don’t be surprised if we meet you on that turf too. If you see your beliefs as sacred, and you expect to be offended if they are challenged or ridiculed, as all beliefs will be in the cut and thrust of debate, leave them out of the argument. If your worldview is such that your faith is central to the debate, then fine, but accept that you will be offended.
But, you may say, is it necessary to be offensive when challenging religious justifications? To which the answer is yes, if all the normally accepted tools of rhetoric are being deemed by you to be offensive. In any other sphere of debate, pointing out that an argument is absurd, that it lacks supporting evidence, that its sources are unreliable and its proponent’s motives suspect are all reasonable tactics of discourse. Publications of a particular political view may even lampoon the significant individuals in the debate by publishing a satirical cartoon or two, so by citing your prophets and your messiahs, you are exposing them to the same treatment and it is unreasonable of you to try to prevent the use of these legitimate tools by special pleading.
So, this is part of the reason you will continue to find that secularists are treading on your religious sensibilities. But there is also another one: Some of you think that we must all hold sacred, all that you hold sacred.
Those of us arguing for secularism will not accept this and in any event in a democratic pluralistic society it is impossible to accommodate everyone’s religious foibles without seriously compromising freedom of expression. By all means if you want to believe that pork or shellfish is unfit to eat, that a cracker is sometimes more than an accompaniment for cheese, or that drawing representations of certain seventh century Arab chieftains is forbidden, then fine! Go ahead. But, don’t expect me to do the same and don’t threaten me with violence if I spend my lunch break eating prawns and bacon off a communion wafer while reading Jesus and Mo. Because if you do I will oppose you in the only civilised way possible, which is to do more of it, and this time with deliberate intent to offend until you realise that being offended or not is your choice, but being shielded from offence is not anyone’s right. Freedom of expression is incompatible with freedom from offence and we sacrifice the former at our peril because if you actually lived in a society that protected religion from dissent, there’s no guarantee it would be your religion that was so protected.

Yours Truly

Steve Bowen
AKA Atheist MC

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