How far should we respect religious beliefs? I would suggest, not at all. The multitude of religions that exist in the world, not least the big five – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism – are all built on mythologies that require belief in supernatural beings, highly improbable events and meaningless rituals. There is no evidence these beings exist or have ever existed, no evidence the improbable events ever occurred and none that the rituals lead to results of any sort.
Most religions have their revered teacher, prophet or saviour who died centuries or millennia ago, and about whom stories are told that cannot possibly be true. How can any thinking person respect the idea that one of these figures rose from the dead? Or that another flew to heaven on a winged horse? Or another grew a jewel tree from a toothpick? These stories deserve as much respect as other ancient tales – like the one about the man who killed a one-eyed giant or the dude who returned to life after being hacked to death and eaten. The preposterous stories told by today’s religions are of the same order.
For this reason, as well as many others – not least how religion causes some of its adherents to act and relate to others – religion is not above criticism. Indeed, there is a moral imperative to criticise world views based on far-fetched stories, especially when they cause some who subscribe to them to discriminate against others, advocate murder and take it upon themselves to carry out executions like the ones we’ve seen in Paris this week. I’ve written before about how, while most religious believers are not themselves extremists, it is moderate believers who sustain the culture responsible for those who are. Fanatics, extremists and terrorists do not spontaneously create themselves; they emerge from mosques, churches, synagogues and temples. As Bill Maher said about Islam this week, ‘when there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard.’
While some have argued that the magazine Charlie Hebdo provoked Muslim extremists to attack it with its satirical drawings of Muhammed (among many other religious ‘leaders’) it is absurd to suggest that publishing provocative pictures automatically leads to murder, as if the perpetrators have no choice in the matter. Of course they do. Caricatures of the pope have also appeared on the magazine’s cover and, as bizarre as the Catholic church is, it has not responded to these depictions with violence.
There is, in any case, a good argument to be made that offence can’t be given, only taken. While no doubt there are Muslims who don’t find rather poorly drawn, largely unfunny cartoons of Muhammed offensive, there are those who choose to. (Just like I could choose to take offence at the cover above.) But provocation, whatever the context, is no defence and no excuse for the slaughter, violence or incarceration of those with whom we’re offended.
The religious need to grow up and put away childish things; to stop taking offence so readily, insisting they’re being persecuted when they’re not and constantly assuming they and they alone have the right to mete out punishment. Is the god each religion claims for itself so weak and feeble he cannot look after himself, his standards and his reputation?
Well of course he can’t, because he doesn’t exist. Every god there has ever been, from Osiris to Christ, from Zeus to Allah has been a human invention. And if no god exists, then neither do his standards and reputation, nor his prophets and teachers, his Sons and emissaries; they’re all largely made up too. No-one should be punished for failing to respect the figments of primitive people’s imagination. It is beholden on all of us who have indeed put away such childish things, to disregard the sensibilities of those who subscribe to and peddle puerile nonsense and point out as often as we can that not only does the Emperor have no clothes but there’s not even an Emperor. Only then can the world work towards being free from the tyranny of religion.
Simplistic maybe, but the alternative is to continue tolerating the intolerable. And look where that’s getting us.