The Right to Be Rude Why All Religions and Secular Philosophies Must Tolerate Criticism

I’m not in the habit of giving unsolicited advice to the Church of Scientology, but if I were, it would be straightforward: You have critics. Get over it.

The controversial church has been accused of attempting to silence its detractors with a barrage of lawsuits, personal attacks, and other forms of intimidation. Anticipating as much, HBO reportedly hired 160 lawyers to fend off Scientology attorneys in advance of airing a critical documentary about the church.

But, really, isn’t it better to accept that some people who don’t like what Scientology has to offer will attack and ridicule it? Isn’t it easier to respond to critics in a civil manner if you are so inclined and move on from there?

I would extend that advice to all religions by reminding them that people have an absolute right to mock, ridicule, poke fun at and satirize anyone’s deeply held beliefs. Learn to live with it.

Parody or ridicule of religion doesn’t have to be sophisticated or clever; it can be crude and mean-spirited. It need not even be accurate. It is still, in the United States at least, protected speech.

And let’s be clear that this cuts both ways. Religious people have an absolute right to make fun of and ridicule humanism, atheism, freethought, etc. Their parody also doesn’t have to be sophisticated. It too can be inaccurate and rude.

Of course, an assault on any religious belief or secular philosophy is likely to provoke a reaction. Some reactions are acceptable, and some are not. Challenging a satirical lampoon by presenting additional facts or asserting that its authors are mean-spirited is one thing; demanding that critics be censored or somehow punished (or killed) is quite another.

Finally, there is this: Just because you have the right to engage in parody and be loud and raucous about it, doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. Your timing may be poor. You may be insensitive. If so, people will call you out on this. Again, this criticism can and should stop short of attempting to actually prevent you from speaking.

For a long time, I had just assumed that these free-speech ground rules were fairly obvious. I could understand why people living in nations where there is no tradition of (or legal protection for) free speech might not honor them. But in the wake of the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Muslim extremists, I have been surprised at the number of people—even on our own shores—who seem to believe that sharp satire or mean-spirited speech is somehow not worth protecting.

“What about hate speech?” some people ask. Legally, prohibitions on even unpleasant speech simply can’t survive court scrutiny in the United States—nor should they. Certainly hate speech that is deemed to be inciting imminent, unlawful, dangerous action is illegal and not protected, but “hate speech” is a notoriously slippery concept. I have no doubt that some Christians consider billboards put up by the American Humanist Association and UnitedCor (not to mention the more aggressive ones posted by other nontheistic groups) to be forms of hate speech. The concept is simply too nebulous to be awarded broad legal status.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that people who support the right of groups to employ ugly forms of speech agree with its content. Right-wing groups have been placing ads on public transit systems in some parts of the country attacking Muslims with simplistic arguments that tar all members of that faith with the fanaticism espoused by some. A UK-based group called the Freedom Defence Initiative placed ads on San Francisco buses that compared Muslims to Nazis. Humanists can and should condemn the content of these ads while supporting access to the forum—after all, we’ve sought to place our own ads on those same buses and subways.

Others have raised questions of slander. Slander (and its cousin, libel) are legal concepts that apply to specific individuals. If a newspaper knowingly prints something false about you that depicts you in a negative light, you may be able to sue successfully for libel. If a newspaper columnist asserts that all atheists are liars and you happen to be an atheist, you have no redress in court. Try a letter to the editor instead.

My point is that anyone who belongs to a group, be it religious or secular, must be willing to accept that critics of that group will ridicule it, attack its doctrines, and sometimes even spread inaccurate information about its core beliefs. That’s all part of the give and take of a free society.

Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to hear religious right figures expound on humanism, and I’ve read their scribbling about nonbelievers. They never get it right. They probably don’t intend to get it right. Their goal is to make their followers fearful of humanists.

What’s the proper response to this? What’s right is to pick up a pen—not a gun. It’s to call for a response based on facts, not censorship. It’s to acknowledge that the truth will be unveiled by more speech, not less.

Of course we must strongly refute those who attack humanism and misconstrue its principles. We must engage these critics in the court of public opinion, and we must call them out on their bigotry and lies.

There are many ways to do this. A reasoned argument is best, but in some cases ridicule and lampoon may be appropriate. I think it’s fine to poke gentle fun at our opponents on the religious right and have done so. TV preacher Pat Robertson says so many strange things that it’s hard not to make “tinfoil hat” jokes from time to time.

Any limits on this must be self-imposed. As humanists, I believe we are called on moral grounds to base our critiques of religion on facts; we should also retain awareness that our opponents, no matter how angry they may make us, are fellow human beings.

Some attacks hit below the belt and are not in keeping with the principles of humanism. I have read attacks on religion that I believe to be juvenile and counterproductive. The proper response to that is to offer a better alternative, not seek to silence those who trade in rude and crude forms of criticism.

Pope Francis and Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister of Turkey, both said recently that people don’t have the right to insult religion. (In Davutoglu’s case, he was speaking specifically of Islam.) They are wrong, and their comments are an indication that some people in powerful places still just don’t get it.

Worse yet are people like William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue’s response to the bloody assault on Charlie Hebdo was to assert that they pretty much had it coming because their criticism of Islam and the Catholic Church was over the top.

The right to criticize—and yes, mock—the beliefs of others is a fundamental human right. It may not be recognized by all nations, but that doesn’t make it any less important. After all, no one ever changes his or her mind about religion, politics, or any other deeply held belief unless a seed of doubt is first planted. That seed may take the form of a thoughtful critique—but it could just as easily be harsh criticism, parody or satire.

It isn’t always easy to defend all forms of free speech, especially when the speech is unpleasant or the approach isn’t one we favor. But it’s vital. Our challenge now is to reaffirm that principle to all Americans even as we work to bring an understanding of free speech and the right to question religious claims to nations still saddled with dangerous blasphemy laws.