On Religion, Choices and Criticism

Credits: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Credits: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

All issues involving Paris/religion are too sensitive and dense to talk about lightly. Lives have been lost; families are smaller, emptier. But there is one thing, I feel is right, to talk about: criticism of religion, since a lot is being said how it might have been unwise of Charlie Hebdo to do what they have been doing: criticising a religion.

My basic understanding (at this point in my life) is it is very wrong of us to criticise someone for things she didn’t choose. Like a person’s surname, her colour of skin, and the like. Things beyond her control. But a religion is very much something we have to chose for ourselves. In fact, we have to chose two things here:

  1. Whether to embrace religion.
  2. Whether to embrace ‘X’ religion.

A religion may well be, once you’ve chosen, the bedrock of your life. But so could a stray dog a lonely homeless person found on the streets and now gives her life some meaning be (or <insert your preferably grand scenario to assuage your offended-by-religion-being-compared-to-a-stray-dog heart>).

But tomorrow Mrs. M feels the dog to be a nuisance for the neighbourhood and very loudly badmouths the dog to her neighbour, which the entire neighbourhood hears. This comes to the attention of our homeless person. As it turns out, our homeless person doesn’t shoot down M, but tries to make the dog, her life’s one shining light, more acceptable.

There are two things of note here:

  1. The homeless person realising it is not unnatural for a fellow human to not value the dog as much as she does or speak of the dog as highly as she does. (Thus allowing freedom of opinion, free speech)
  2. The homeless person realising it is even possible for fellow humans to hate the dog she so loves. (Thus making use of Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ by putting herself in other’s shoes)

If a person cannot think this way, what that person needs, more than a religion, is a simple lesson in humanity and common sense. The important thing is to realise that choosing a religion or a dog to be the centre of your life doesn’t make them the right and perfect choices for you or everybody.

As Wittgenstein talks in his book On Certainty, it is very difficult to be absolutely “certain” about things we take for granted everyday. And we can only be certain, if at all, by eliminating all other possibilities. Where there is a choice, there is an alternate possibility. And even though our choice may seem to be the correct one at this moment, in the long run, it may well turn out to be a disaster (or may not). Moreover good and bad, right and wrong are all relative terms, never absolute. What is right for you (Wittgenstein whispers: Are you really sure it is right?) may not be right for the girl next to you and vice-versa. So how could a human who cannot figure the chain of hundreds of reactions her simplest choices trigger off until it is too late, whose choice of embracing religion and choice of embracing ‘X’ religion both have competing choices in atheism and other religions, respectively, can be so sure that her choice is absolutely (not relatively) correct? How can that religious person be so arrogant to feel offended by another human questioning and slandering her choice when that same religious person has the very same right to question and slander the choices made by her fellow human and it is nobody else’s fault but her that she chose not to exercise that right?

I’ll end my chain of thoughts here and let more famous people hog the limelight.

It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that.” As if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more… than a whine. It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I am offended by that.” Well, so fucking what? – Stephen Fry

To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. A law which attempts to say you can criticise and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed. It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended. The right to ridicule is far more important to society than any right not to be ridiculed because one in my view represents openness – and the other represents oppression. – Rowan Atkinson

There are just no grounds for any person to be offended by any other person over anything, much less over a choice which practically begs criticism, as every choice warrants criticism. Simple as that.


4 thoughts on “On Religion, Choices and Criticism

  1. People of reason and logic in the civilised world have enjoyed significant success in moving public opinion away from sexism and homophobism. Isn’t it time we did the same with religion?

    1. It is time, yes, some would say it is almost late now, too late for the lives those are lost over religion with each passing day.

      Shame that we only really think of issues like these when events like these happen, but for those of reason and logic should not let these sacrifices go to waste and do their utmost best, like you said, in moving public opinion away from religion. More than anything, more and more people need to reason.

  2. How many of us are really taught to reply to something like “you’re the worst thing that happened to this planet” with “maybe for you, but not for me”? We have been told that the importance of something to us is measured by how much we fight for it. Doesn’t that directly contradict tolerance? Is it about common sense or is it something that is fundamentally wrong with our society? Couldn’t agree more with “How can that religious person be so arrogant to feel offended by another human questioning and slandering her choice when that same religious person has the very same right to question and slander the choices made by her fellow human and it is nobody else’s fault but her that she chose not to exercise that right?” . You have the right to rebel but do it in the same way you’ve been hurt, or a better one.

    1. You’re right. Much of what we become, our thinking becomes, depends on the kind of environment/society we grew up in. That said, fighting for our beliefs is not something that is (or should be) within the teachings of any religion. It’s definitely something that was taught to us separately, apart from our religion, because tolerance must be (I’m not sure but I’m guessing) a part of every religion’s purest/unadulterated teachings. So it boils down to what a person should follow, just the religion or along with her religion a few things outside the religion (that was taught to a person by those influential to her while she was growing up – in our case, to fight for our religion/our beliefs)? Here I am considering religion (any religion) as a guide to leading a good life (and staying away from the topic of higher power) individually and as a society.

      I’ll concede for that person to follow both her religion and things outside it during her formative years (let’s say before 18 or so, an age when even criminal punishment is relaxed owing to her thoughts still being vulnerable to outside influences). But a person cannot hide forever under the cozy blanket of outside influences and after a certain age (varies – earlier for some, little later for others), she has been blessed with enough sense to think for herself, if not everything, at least, the very foundations of what she believes in. What I’m getting at is people need to reason everything and build their own beliefs, as every person has been blessed with enough sense to accomplish just that, and therefore cannot and should not be allowed the excuse of their thinking being irreparably influenced by society.

      And even for the worst case when it is, more than being taught the principles of their religion (as they were thinking negative thoughts even when being fairly religious people, which shows religion wasn’t effective enough), they need to be taught the simple principles of being a human and Humanity 101 starts with tolerance. We’re all humans first and followers of our custom beliefs next, hence fitting to learn and exercise the principles of basic humanity above everything else. Granted, society plays a big role, but as humans blessed with fairly advanced faculties for sense and reason that improves with age, we should, after a certain age, come out of our cocoon and own responsibilities for our own beliefs.

      “You have the right to rebel but do it in the same way you’ve been hurt, or a better one.” Very well said. 🙂

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