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how to avoid insulting a prophet?

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The term ‘insult’ is probably impossible to define objectively. We all know of people who have been genuinely insulted at what we thought was a valid criticism, and the sceptical and atheist movements in particular have been strong lately on the idea that religions shouldn’t be exempt from valid and robust criticism, and even mockery when it’s called for. After all, there are some quite bizarre and ludicrous claims made from time to time in the name of religion. For example, the Catholic Church’s procedures for establishing a person’s ‘sainthood’ are laughable, and their regular calls for more exorcists to cope with demonic possession are best dealt with by a mix of mockery and the bringing of criminal charges.

With Islam, though, we’re in different territory. I know quite a few Moslems – I work with them and I teach them English. I get on well with them all, and never mention the subject of religion, and neither do they, except, say, to mention Ramadan and the practicalities around that. I don’t doubt though, that my avoidance of any mention of religion has a a degree of self-preservation about it. As an atheist I don’t want to put people on the defensive, but more importantly, don’t want to make myself a target. Watching demonstrations of hatred against those who ‘insult the prophet’, though those demonstrations might take place on the other side of the globe, is an intimidating experience for those of us – and there are many – who happen to believe that all human prophecy is bunk.

And the fact is that, as communities become more mixed and mobile, Moslem demonstrations are taking place in every major western city these days. Like most demonstrations, at least in the west, the majority of participants have peaceful intent, but there is a hostile and violent, usually testosterone-driven periphery.

But demonstrations in the west in recent decades have not featured religion as a major theme, and this raises the question of whether Islam, though still a minor presence, population-wise, in Australia as in other western countries, is a potential threat to the secular state. When we look at countries where Islam is the dominant religion we find it also playing a dominant role in the political organisation of those countries, and recent calls by the President of Indonesia, the world’s largest Moslem country, to criminalise blasphemy [worldwide?], incoherent though they may be, should be a warning to us all of the dangers of religious dominance of any kind.

And I mean of any kind, for anyone familiar with European history will know how horrifically dangerous it is when political figures claim the backing of religious authorities, and, worse, supernatural creator beings, with all the righteousness that this entails.

Moderate Islamic leaders have expressed dismay that legitimate demonstrations against those who refuse to respect long-held beliefs have been hijacked by the angry few. While I sympathise to some extent, it’s clear to me that a long-held belief, or a belief system that has a long history, doesn’t automatically deserve respect on that basis. The argument from antiquity is a well-known logical fallacy. The real form of the fallacy is that a belief’s antiquity has no bearing on its truth. I’m taking the slightly different line that a belief’s antiquity has no bearing on whether or not it should be respected – though you can tie those together by arguing that only the truth is worthy of our respect.

The recent Islamic protests, resulting in the loss of scores of lives, are supposedly caused by an apparently shoddily-made video [I’ve not seen it] which mocks the ‘prophet’ Mohammed. I say ‘supposedly’ because any of us who write about and research religion on the net will know that there are a multitude of anti-Islamic hate sites out there, sites that would certainly out-insult this particular video by a mile, as well as Islamist anti-western and anti-Christian sites of a similar nastiness. Hard to imagine that these protesters, or a proportion of them, don’t know about these sites.

Anyway, regardless of the trigger, the fact is that there are a lot of angry and intolerant Moslems out there just itching for a bit of mayhem, and we need to hold our nerve. I was happy to hear Obama speaking up for free speech, with an almost casual dismissiveness, in response to Yudhoyono’s call for blasphemy laws, just as I was disappointed that a New Zealand politician expressed approval at the arrest of the video’s maker [apparently unaware that the arrest was on unrelated charges]. As far as I can see, the only thing this individual has done wrong is to make a crappy, dishonest video. If this was a serious crime, most of Hollywood would be in jail right now. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

We live in a bitsy, complicated world, in which neuro-anatomists, paleo-anthropologists, not to mention doctors, lawyers and tribal chieftains live alongside fervent religionists who know nothing about evolution and would hate it if they did. We have children in our neighbourhoods who are sent to special schools or no schools, to avoid their being tainted with any kind of modern knowledge, while others are groomed to be cutting-edge theorists of the coming singularity. Holding all this diversity together and trying to be optimistic about it is no mean feat. It’s a diversity that we’ve created through our belief in freedom, in non-coercion, with regard to knowledge and behaviour – within obvious limits. I share this belief, together with the hope that, given all the options, we’ll find our way to the best understanding of our world and ourselves, and how that understanding can best guide our actions. It’s on this basis that I hope we can stand firm, defend and argue for the spirit of inquiry and constant questioning – of religion and science and everything else. Inquiry involves criticism – of the claims of so-called prophets, of saint-makers and the producers of crappy videos. They’re all fair game.

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Written by stewart henderson

October 6, 2012 at 3:18 am

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