“Stop the Madness!” The Problem with the Violence Stemming From Religious Criticism

The Problem is With the Violence, Not the Criticism

The recent attacks on American Embassies in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen have produced a tremendous amount of commentary by pretty much every person who has a podium or pulpit.  This is, of course, expected.  Some of those comments are well thought out and help to calm tension, others, such as Mitt Romney’s are embarrassingly short-sighted.  Some comments are in the middle and are only made because everyone else is saying something and no politician wants to miss a chance at a sound byte.  There is one set of comments that I want to focus on for this post.  Those comments are from the Vatican.

The Catholic News Service has an article on its website titled “Vatican laments US deaths in Libya, disrespect against religions”, which you can read in full by clicking on the link.  The quotes for my post come from that source.  The Vatican said all of the things that you would expect them to say.  They condemned the violence and hope for peace.  No big surprise there.  The problem that I have is related to their other comments.

The same article states that “…the Vatican decried disrespect toward all religions and deplored all violence as unacceptable”.  I have little issue with the Vatican opposing the type of violence that we are witnessing.  However, I do have a problem with the Vatican decrying “disrespect toward all religions”.  Let me explain.

The article states:

“Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions are an essential precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples,” said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.”

The Vatican views anything other than “profound respect” for other religions as disrespect.  This is where one of the problems lies.  The Church, through its history, and even today, does not “profoundly respect” all other religions.  Just this year Pope Benedict stated, “the church must guard against the risk of believing all religions are equal.”  It seems as though the Vatican’s message is a bit confused.  It would seem that the Pope does not have a profound respect for other religions if he views his as superior.  Is he then only interested in promoting “the peaceful coexistence of people” so long as doing so does not come at the expense of the Catholic Church?

Father Lombardi goes on to say that:

“The serious consequences of unjustified offense and provocations against the sensibilities of Muslim believers are once again evident in these days, as we see the reactions they arouse, sometimes with tragic results, which in turn nourish tension and hatred, unleashing unacceptable violence.”

This statement brings us into some murky waters.  I agree with Father Lombardi to an extent.  Unjustified (and unnecessary) provocations of any sort that will lead to violence should be condemned.  If the goal of an action is to incite violence or if the most probable outcome is violence, one should give some serious thought before carrying out that action.  Where I disagree with Fr. Lombardi is in the particular case we are dealing with.  Some American made a film that apparently portrayed the Islamic prophet Mohammad in a negative manner.  I feel confident in saying that the filmmaker’s goal was not to incite violence across the Middle East.  Why do I feel confident in this assertion?  Because there are many other reasons for making a film that are far more probable than to incite violence.  There is the goal of money, the goal for a filmmaker to get noticed, there is also the real possibility that the purpose of the film was to criticize parts of Islam, who knows why it was done…but to purposefully incite violence?  I find that highly unlikely.

This dovetails nicely into the next topic.  One of the key words in Fr. Lombardi’s statement is the use of the word “sensibilities”.  The Vatican is arguing to silence religious criticism.  They are making a case against speech that would offend the “sensibilities” of the religious.  Lombardi continues by stating:

“The message of dialogue and respect for all believers of different religions, which the Holy Father is preparing to carry with him on his forthcoming trip to Lebanon, indicates the path that everyone should follow in order to construct shared and peaceful coexistence of religions and peoples.”

What the Vatican is in essence saying is that we should refrain from criticizing religions.  Doing so may offend the “sensibilities” of believers and look what can occur when that happens—violence.  This is utter nonsense.

Religion has had a free pass from criticism for far too long.  Many religions insert themselves into the political and social fabric of societies to devastating effects.  Look at how the interplay between Islam and politics/society has played out across the Middle East.  Women are second class citizens, laws are barbaric and anachronistic, education suffers, poverty is rampant, etc.  Look at what the potential effects would be of Christianity gaining a stronger foothold in the U.S. would be: women would lose complete control over their bodies, science would take a strong hit, homosexuals would be marginalized, etc.  Religion not only deserves to be criticized, but it needs to be called out.

If this criticism leads to violence, the problem is not with the critics, but is internal with the religion.  We do not silence our criticism out of fear that we will offend.  Criticism often hurts.  The truth is often painful.  Rather than criticize the filmmaker who made the offending film in question, we should instead be criticizing the outrageous response to that film.  We should not criticize the free speech that allows a filmmaker to create such a film.  We should criticize the fact that religious people’s “sensibilities” are so offended that they feel that violence is justified.  That is where the problem lies.  The simple fact that a cartoon or film of a religious figure can incite this type of violence is not a problem with the filmmaker, it is a problem with religion.

So while I feel that Mitt Romney’s comments were asinine, the reason I feel that way is because he did not have all of the facts before speaking, chose to politicize an event that he shouldn’t have—at least not so early, and the fact that what he said was just plain false.  Obama never did what Romney said he did.  However, I do agree with Romney on one point—we should not be apologizing to the Arab world for the film.  We should not be saying that this film was insensitive or should not have been made.  What we should be saying is that it is a freaking movie, a work of fiction and it is in no way acceptable for any movie to cause the type of violence that we are seeing today.  No one should ever die because someone made a movie that others find offensive.

Critics of religion should not be cowed from speaking their mind.  Instead, outrageous responses to that criticism should be pointed out as unacceptable behavior.  The violence that is erupting across the Middle East is unacceptable.  I understand that careful diplomacy will be needed to calm the storm.  What would I like to see?  I would like to see Pres. Obama talk to the leaders of those countries and say what I have just said.  I would like to see the leaders of those countries stand up and say “Stop!  We Libyans, Egyptians, and Yemenis are better than this!  We do not need to attack American Embassies just because some guy made a movie!  Stop this madness!”

That is what I want to see happen, that is what should happen, but I am not going to hold my breath waiting.  Religious “sensibilities” often get in the way of the appropriate rational response.  Until we are free to criticize religion at the table of rational discourse, peace will always be far off in the distance.  So no Pope Benedict, Fr. Lombardi, and all other religious leaders, we should not just sweep all religious criticism under the rug.  The criticism of religions by atheists and by adherents of other religions has never nor will it ever be silenced.  That is not the problem.  The problem is inherent in your religion thinking itself above all others.  The rest of us should not be silent simply because something offends your “sensibilities”.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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7 thoughts on ““Stop the Madness!” The Problem with the Violence Stemming From Religious Criticism

  1. @BarrelOfOranges from Traverse City, MI, United States

    Great post, RB, I feel the same way. Was the movie tacky and disrespectful? Perhaps, I haven't seen the 7 minutes available on YouTube. However, no matter how tacky, disrespectful, or painfully blasphemous the film was toward the holy prophet of Islam, violence and the sort of outrage that followed cannot be excused or used as a tool to silence religious dissenters.

  2. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    Catholicism is no stranger to violence. Up until recently, "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland were considerable testament to the considerable violence spawned from disagreements and old complaints between protestants and catholics. Yet they seemed to manage to recognize that their struggles were not in any way being productive and, insofar as I know, they have managed to set those struggles aside.

    Contrary to that example, islamists appear to be incredibly thin-skinned. ANY remark or action against their religion, regardless of how obscure, is taken as an egregious affront, to be dealt with passionately and violently, and therein I think lies a very important clue.

    My suspicion is that islam is taught purely from an emotional angle, with very little reason or thought associated with it, and that such emotion has become an integral part of the islamic culture. So, big surprise: when muslims feel challenged or insulted, they react emotionally. Telling them to get over it, though, won't be enough, so embedded is this attitude. Getting them shut of this overreaction will be as difficult as persuading them that it and the religion behind it are not worth their time.

    We're expecting them to think and reason. They are not used to either. Time, persistence, and if necessary, an assertive counter to their violence may be the only way they may come to understand that their temper tantrums are counterproductive. Oh, and as to insults to islam – they had better get used to them. They are not liable to stop.

    1. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

      The real shame is that your question isn't a rhetorical one, Cephus. The answer is that religion is taken to be default normal behavior and for the mindless answer that nearly everyone indulges in religion … or so "everyone" thinks. And for the umpti-umpth time, we run into the "Emperor's New Clothes" paradigm, where a minority calls the majority on its irrationality, where that minority are atheists.

      Religion is acceptable irrationality, that simple. Its problem is, taken to extremes, you get the kind of behavior we see in Yemen and Libya in reaction to a stupid film, which may or may not have been a put-up job. The ONLY cure for this, I suspect, is for people to be willing to acknowledge, one way or the other, that religion IS irrational, that it makes no sense in a modern, sophisticated world, and therewith at least to reduce its influence in their lives if not remove it altogether. In the current culture and especially in many islamic cultures, that is an enormous, perhaps unthinkable leap. Still, if we are ever to get past this brand of stupid and useless behavior, it is absolutely necessary.

  3. @LaughPurgatory from Bridgewater, MA, United States

    What's going on in many of the Arab Spring states is common to revolutions: more radical elements are trying to take over. These radicals are intentionally stirring up trouble to gather support so that they can obtain political power. The strategy the US needs to do is to say that we are not the enemy of Islam (though we are because freedom is bleach to viral memes like religion) and that violence should not be tolerated by the state.


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