The recent killing of diplomats at the American consulate in Libya raises questions about the balance between freedom of speech and religious liberty.
This subject is dear to my heart, since I've been blogging on this here Church of the Churchless for eight years, attempting to do the same thing -- speak my mind about the ridiculousness of organized religiosity while respecting the personal beliefs of individuals (after all, we all believe in weird things; weird, that is, from the perspective of other people; to us, we're absolutely normal).
It's unclear what set off Muslims who attacked American diplomatic outposts in Libya and Egypt.
Part of the impetus clearly was an anti-Islam video put up on You Tube that trash-talks Muhammad. It's so infantile and poorly made, I'm not going to embed a viewer in this post like I usually do with You Tube videos. I managed to watch about five minutes before I got sick of the video and turned it off.
Before crowds attacked the embassy and consulate, but after rumblings of discontent had been heard in the "Arab street," the American embassy in Cairo issued a statement that got Mitt Romney in an unjustified uproar.
PolitiFact demonstrated that this wasn't an apology for the video, as Romney claimed. (How can someone apologize for something they had nothing to do with?) Still, Romney felt that it excused Islamic extremism and denigrated free speech. Here's what the embassy said.
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
Snap judgments aren't helpful here. There are some subtle distinctions to be thought about carefully in this statement. My first reaction was to disagree with the notion that the video was an unjustified abuse of free speech. If Muslims can't take criticism of their religion, that's their problem. Grow thicker skin.
But in the Romney campaign's talking points regarding whether it was appropriate for the embassy to condemn the You Tube video/movie, the response was "Governor Romney rejects the reported message of the movie. There is no room for religious hatred or intolerance."
I agree with this (one of the few times I've agreed with anything Romney says).
To me, Islam is an absurd religion. But so is every religion. None of them are worthy of being believed as objective fact, because there's no demonstrable evidence to support the tenets of any religious faith. Yet (and this is an important yet), most people on Earth believe in an unbelievable religion.
So what is a non-believer like me to do? Spend all of my time going up to the vast majority of my fellow humans and scream at them, "You're an idiot! You believe ridiculous religous crap!"? No, that doesn't feel like a good thing to do.
One reason is that I used to be one of those idiots myself. Another is that insulting people rarely makes them change their mind in the direction the insulter desires. Still another is self-interest: belligerently getting in someone's face can lead to your own being punched (figuratively or literally).
I heard this on a radio talk show yesterday: "Sure, you've got the right to tell your neighbor that his wife is dumb, fat, and ugly. But he's also got a right to sock you in the nose." Today our nation's top military leader recognized the same truth.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called Florida pastor Terry Jones on Wednesday to ask him to withdraw his support for the video that some reports have linked with anti-American unrest in the Muslim world, a spokesman said.
“He called of his own initiative over concern that the violence incited by the film would pose risks to U.S. service members around the world,” said Marine Col. Dave Lapan.
The bottom line for me is this: I'm fine with people criticizing religious beliefs. However, I don't like it when these criticisms are hateful, overly emotional, insulting, denigrating, and aimed at hurting the feelings of believers.
Though I dislike organized religions, I've got no problem with individual religious beliefs.
Like I said before, we all believe things that are deeply personal, can't be proven as objective fact, and offer us comfort in this often-uncomfortable world. Life is tough. We all need someone or something to lean on.
This seems to be what the statement of the Egyptian embassy and Romney's campaign have in common. Me included, I guess. We respect the diversity of religious, spiritual, mystical, and philosophical beliefs in this country, and the world as a whole. We don't like it when haters venomously attack some belief system in a hateful manner, rather than reasonably.
"I don't agree with the premises of your religion" is a lot different than "You're a fool for believing what you do." Personal professions of faith shouldn't be attacked; collective claims that such-and-such is objectively true for everybody deserve rigorous critical debate.
I'd enjoy watching a You Tube video that dismantled in a reasonable fashion the tenets of Islam. But in my five minutes of watching I couldn't discern any coherent criticisms of Islam in the video that got some Muslims so righteously angry.
Of course, they might have gotten angry at reasonable criticisms also.
If so, my one-word response would be tough. Deal with it. On the whole, Muslims seem to be overly touchy about people criticizing their religion. There's no excuse for trashing the American consulate and killing four diplomats.
At the same time, I don't like trash-talking of personal religious beliefs either. Here on the Church of the Churchless I often say, "Whatever works for you, go for it. Just don't expect me, or anyone else, to agree with you."