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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The next step is to prohibit religious expression" - really?

Anti-religious speech is often criticized in a way that goes beyond refutation to a suggestion that it is somehow socially unacceptable. Consider Tom Frame's recent attack on what he calls "contemporary anti-theism," in which he includes such books as The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins:

When it becomes acceptable, and even admirable, to mock and ridicule a person's religious convictions and customs — and especially when the intention is to provoke an indignant reaction — the next step is to prohibit the expression of religious sentiment in all public places and forums.

But this claim verges on paranoia. Frame is Australian, and should be well aware that there is no prospect in his (and my) home country of any prohibition on public expressions of religious sentiment - though he claims, vaguely, that there are "signs" to the contrary. If he were writing in the American context, where the presidency is intimately linked with religious ritual and involved in interaction with religious leaders, the claim would appear even more bizarre. The freedom of speech enjoyed by "contemporary anti-theists" is more than matched by that of their religious opponents.

Accordingly, Frame is legally free to liken these examples of "contemporary anti-theism" to religious fundamentalism.

But although this slur is perfectly legal, it is unfair: Frame suggests that "contemporary anti-theism" has "some of the characteristics of fundamentalism and, like all fundamentalisms, needs to be opposed." But which characteristics of fundamentalism is this anti-theism supposed to show? Frame does not say, and it is not at all clear.

For example, the anti-theists he refers to have no holy text that they treat as inerrant: they may give respect to each other's writings or to classics of science such as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), but that is a very different thing. They do not show extreme resistance to modernity through acts of violence, resistance to science and scholarship, and subordination of women. Dawkins and others may be confident of their positions, but not with the extreme dogmatism that clings to a position even when it is plainly contrary to robust scientific findings (liberal or moderate religious leaders may be equally confident of their positions, but that doesn't turn them into fundamentalists).

Frame appears to use the word "fundamentalism" for its hurtfulness rather than its accuracy. That is, of course, his legal right in a liberal democracy. However, his analysis exemplifies the illiberal view that satire and robust criticism are illegitimate forms of speech when directed at religion.


Jeffrey Shallit said...

His commentary is one in a long chain of similar attacks, wherein theists use religious language (e.g., "fundamentalist", "dogma", "high priests", "holy book", "prophet") to disparage scientific and secular thought.

I guess if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

March Hare said...

Well, it would be fair recompense for their blasphemy laws...

People have been programmed to ridicule certain beliefs (e.g. Elvis is still alive) but there has never been any move towards outlawing this speech - with the sole exception of holocaust denying in Germany and Austria(which is wrong imo).

Allowing people to spout nonsense enables you to get a read on them in 5 seconds that might have taken 15 minutes in a conversation where nonsense is illegal. No-one wants to ban talking nonsense as the extra time we'd waste deciding we didn't want to speak to you would be horrific.

Michael Fugate said...

Not to mention Jon Cruddas and Christine Odone in their converstion with A C Grayling and Evan Harris on the Guardian site calling Dawkins a fundamentalist. I don't think Cruddas/Odone know what the word means. I wish Harris or Grayling would have asked them to define it rather than trying to defend Dawkins.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

If religionists ever tried to say which characteristics of fundamentalism atheism or antitheism shares with religion, they would be forced to remain silent.

idealfree said...

I agree in you refutation here, mostly. Anti-religious speech cannot in broad terms fairly be compared to, and doesn't have many common denominatiors with, fundamentalism.

But where I do see a convergence of the two terms is, when anti-religious speakers don't go to lengths with a way of expression so as to avoid building already growing prejudices in society. Religion-bashing, or how to call it.

This is mostly a concern for criticism of islam, which at least in Europe has started to grow into something rather awry, where the right wing extremists are taking advantage of the situation.

When not taking our responsibility as free-thinkers to counteract other prejudices as well as religious fundamentalism in society, or even denying that our criticism can have such effects...

That's where anti-religious speech and religious fundamentalism turns into the very same thing.

Daniel Schealler said...

I always chalked this kind of thing up to projection.

"If I was saying that kind of thing about atheists," thought the theist, "the next step would be to pass a blasphemy law to restrict their speech! That must be what these nasty atheists are up to here! I'd better take action against them now, while I still can!"

meryl333 said...

Vedanta is a religious philosphophy and teaching that does not rely on a holy book for authority. In fact, it's teachers urge one to question, to do the practices themselves and test to see if they can duplicate the experience of emptiness/fullness /God/Brahman/ That (what ever one wishes to call It) EVEN then, people who study these teaching can become fanatic. So can atheists. More it is that we need to be aware of the causes of fanaticism than seeing theism as inherently problematic.

Kelly said...

Chris Hedges refers to new atheists as fundamentalists and rightly so. I find their characterizations of Islam to be one-dimensional and wrong. They make broad statements about religions without any legitimate understanding. They characterize all religious people with the brush of fundamentalists.
Further, atheists reject all metaphysical propositions a priori - a fundamentalist idea. They pretend to be open to such ideas - 'if you can show the evidence,' but then they ignore it, even when it comes from fellow neuroscientists!
It's hypocrisy - and before I get attacked - I'm an atheist.

Russell Blackford said...

Wow, talk about wild generalisations and blatantly illogical reasoning. I think you deserve some sort of prize for that effort, Kelly.

Anonymous said...

Very good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Very good stuff.

fatpie42 said...

Frame is Australian, and should be well aware that there is no prospect in his (and my) home country of any prohibition on public expressions of religious sentiment

Weren't there recently attempts to ban the burka and the nikab in Australia? I suppose it's arguable that those are cultural styles of dress rather than specifically vital parts of the religion, but even so it's a thin line.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not aware of any serious proposal to ban the burka and similar garments (chadri, niqab, whatever) in Australia. On the contrary, we are usually under pressure to be welcoming of them.

But even if they were prohibited, it would be despite the fact, if it is one, that they express a theological viewpoint, not because of it.