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.