The Good Friday editorial in yesterday's Melbourne Age newspaper gallops over a whole host of issues involving the relationship of religious belief and non-belief in contemporary society. I can't deal properly, or at all, with every irritating sentence. For example, what can I say about the observation, cited from Barney Zwartz, that the atmosphere of Melbourne's recent Global Atheist Convention (GAC) resembled that of evangelical meetings that Zwartz has covered? Well, it's a cheap shot, for a start, and in any event this can only mean he's been to very tame evangelical meetings.
If Barney Zwartz thinks the good-humoured, but relatively sedate, atmosphere of the GAC resembled the atmosphere of an evangelical meeting, then he hasn't been out much. Barney, you need to get yourself along to some wilder and wackier evangelical meetings, like some of the ones I've been to in my time.
Again, I don't want to say much about the issues of whether or not to retain Christmas and Easter in modern liberal-democratic societies characterised by pluralism and by lawmaking based on secular reason. As a non-believer (to use the term popularised by Barack Obama) I'm relaxed about these festivals. They were originally pagan, and they are largely pagan again. I feel no affront that they continue, even if some of the sanctimonious pontificating (as it were) by religious leaders at these times of year makes me want to grab for the nearest sick-bag.*
But one claim in the editorial does merit more than a quick, off-hand comment. This is an issue relating to free speech and to the marginalisation of religious speech.
According to the editorial, "the rhetoric of some militant atheists, which is dogmatic rather than sceptical in tone, should worry anyone who values tolerance and cultural diversity." Oh, go on: please, name names.
It then adds:
It is not only censorship - now rarely encountered in the West - that can threaten freedom of speech, but also any campaigning movement that denies intellectual legitimacy to its opponents.
Well, I'm not so sure that censorship is rarely encountered in the West. This seems like an odd thing to say at the very time when our federal government is planning large scale censorship of the internet that will be wide open for scope creep in future years. But leave that to one side.
Some ideas do merit marginalisation, and some opponents do lack intellectual legitimacy. That isn't to say that these ideas and opponents should be censored. There are many reasons why it is best to allow people to speak their minds. But the political freedom to speak your mind does not entail a right to be taken seriously or given deference, or even to be accorded intellectual legitimacy. Indeed, there are plenty of ideas that people should be free to advocate, but which are so clearly foolish or even repugnant that they will, quite rightly, be ignored or treated with derision. Often, ideas that are treated with respect in one generation come to fall in this category in later generations.
For example, a contemporary defence of slavery would fall on deaf ears. Or it might, depending on its context and the way it was expressed, provoke nervous laughter, scorn, repugnance, or even fear. It would not receive a respectful hearing, and anyone who put this idea forward would instantly lose all intellectual credibility (at least in Australia!).
Of course, we should not censor someone who wants to defend slavery. They should have that freedom. They can plug away with their arguments and try to persuade us to take them seriously. But the playing field is strongly tilted against them, and quite properly so. The onus is on them to explain why it shouldn't be. Likewise for someone who advocates torture or suicide bombing or female genital mutilation or forced abortions.
Furthermore, to take less troubling matters, it is unlikely that anyone advocating public policy by telling us that her proposals are in accordance with the will of Aphrodite or Zeus or Odin would receive a respectful hearing in 21st-century Australia. She should be allowed to put her case, can try to persuade us that it is not so outrageous, that it deserves a respectful hearing, and so on. However, the playing field is tilted against her speech, and again quite properly. The onus is on her to explain why not. Prima facie, the will of Zeus is a very poor reason for public policy, and anyone claiming otherwise will, quite properly, be marginalised in serious policy debates.
While slavery is an extreme case, there are some other cases that are almost as extreme. One would be any proposal to reinstitute the criminalisation of homosexual conduct. I hope that we have now reached a point in our society where any proposal along these lines would be looked at with no more sympathy than a proposal that we reinstitute slavery. Why inflict serious harm - in the form of criminal penalties and stigma - on somebody merely because of his or her consenting sexual practices? The idea is barbaric and outrageous, and it no longer deserves a respectful hearing. It had its chance, and we can put the very idea behind us.
Over time, some speech does become marginalised, and there is nothing wrong with this as long as political freedom remains and the proponents of this speech are not condemned as criminals or otherwise subjected to punishments by the state. In Victoria, where The Age is published, there is a controversial and poorly-drafted code in place forbidding some speech that supposedly "vilifies" people on the grounds of religion. This should be repealed; if it is replaced with anything, and I'm not sure that it should be, it must be a very narrowly-drafted provision that bans only the most extreme kinds of hate speech that dehumanise classes of people (homosexuals for example) or foment violence. We should reduce actual censorship to a minimum.
But some ideas, though not censored, should be given only a marginal place in our society. In every generation, we continue to debate which those are. I am hopeful that future generations will include not only the examples I've given, such as the ideas of reinstituting slavery or punishing homosexuals, but also such examples as the ludicrous idea that the Earth is only 6000 years old (contrary to all conclusions from rational investigation). Likewise for the idea that there is something even "sinful" about (as opposed to grounds for banning) consenting homosexual conduct between sufficiently mature people, or that "sin" attaches to the use of contraceptives or to masturbation. Like the advocacy of slavery, these foolish ideas no longer deserve a level playing field in our society. Let them be freely derided, ridiculed, and driven to the margins. The sooner, the better.
As for religious leaders, they certainly do not deserve the kind of deference they currently receive, or the megaphones they are provided by the news media for their pronouncements. They do not deserve to be looked upon as moral or community leaders, or to be given a privileged voice in public debate. Some - such as those Protestant fundamentalists who claim the Earth is only 6000 years old or the celibate, white-haired dinosaurs of the Vatican who think that the use of contraception is a sin - deserve to be accorded little more intellectual credibility than would be given, in a modern city such as Melbourne, to a slavery advocate.
Not all ideas deserve to be taken seriously and considered respectfully, and not all people deserve to be accorded intellectual legitimacy. We can argue about who and what falls into which category, but there is no doubt that some speech deserves to be marginalised ... and that certainly applies to a lot of religious speech. There's no need to be backward about saying so.
* Leaving aside the current mass, so to speak, of extraordinary statements by the Catholic hierarchy as they defend their thin shreds of credibility over institutionalised sexual abuse of children.