On The Uses And Abuses Of Religion In Art: The Lines Between Expression, Tolerance, Respect, Fear, and Torture

Gary Bauer thinks Christians aren’t treated as well as Muslims in America because there are greater quantities of art works which use Christian symbols in ways that offend Bauer’s sensibilities than there are ones that use Muslim symbols in ways that would offend Muslim sensibilities:

in a variety of contexts, American Muslims are treated better than American Christians. That might seem like a bizarre assertion, so think about it in another way: What if the Christians were treated like Muslims in America, and Muslims like Christians?

If Muslims were treated like Christians in America, Muslims would have to tolerate the defamation of their holiest images in our national museums, acts which would be called “artwork” — and, if particularly provocative, even given taxpayer-funded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. They would also have to accept Korans being burned and thrown into toilets, which instead of inciting worldwide outrage and retribution would provoke a collective shrug of the shoulders.

First of all, our museums also overflow with reverential Christian paintings and always have.  But I’d be hard pressed to think off the top of my head whether I’ve ever seen reverential Islamic paintings in person.

But that’s besides the point.  There are several issues here:  1.  Many of the artists portraying Christianity in ways that Bauer calls “defamatory” are either themselves Christians or former Christians.   And, if they are Western artists, even if they are not Christians they are people who come from a culture deeply immersed in Christian symbolism and deeply affected (both for good and for ill) by Christian theology.  Christian images are our common cultural property.  They are for all of us to interact with.  We can each think about them and either speak or paint about them however we want.  That’s not “defaming” Christianity, it is participating in our culture.

For some Christians, there is a profound Christian statement in emphasizing the association between the divine and the supposedly filthy that goes all the way back to that founding grotesquery of Christianity—the idea of a god stripped naked and nailed to a cross, bleeding to death, while mocked and spit upon and wearing a crown of thorns.  If Christians want to revive the sense of scandal in the image of the cross by mixing it with the gross elements of life as a way of stressing the radical idea that the divine was embodied in, or is regularly expressed in, even the most denigrated parts of existence, then that’s their right of religious expression.

Gary Bauer does not get to police what is authentic and inauthentic Christian expression and decide what is “defamatory”.  He notably does not tick off a critique of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ among the defamations.  How would the Muslim world react to a film vividly depicting Mohammed being mocked and murdered?  Probably pretty badly.  But Christians go for that kind of thing with Jesus.  And they have for centuries.  They do not find it defamatory at all.

Further, the former Christian and the non-Christian also have their own right to express their own responses to Christianity.  No one is “defaming” it when they express their experience of it or incorporate its symbols to express something about their own psychology or philosophy in contradistinction to the readily accessible and ubiquitous Christian iconography.  Gary Bauer is entitled to respond to Christianity psychologically and philosophically however he likes.  But he’s being a sheer whiner when he refuses to admit the slightest presence of art that counters his own reception and uses of Christianity without getting a persecution complex.

The artistic attacks on Christianity which so vex Gary Bauer, those both real and those only imagined which are actually other people’s expressions of their own Christian experience, are quite fair in our culture precisely because Christianity is the most dominant religious force in the land and because its symbols have gotten more than a fair shake over the centuries (one might even argue, they’ve gotten far, far more play than they deserve and the Christian churches have had far, far more say in people’s perceptions of the truth and value of Christian symbols than they deserve).

It is remarkably petty for Bauer to throw a fit that the voices of dissent which were marginalized or forced to sublimate themselves for centuries–those of the apostates, the pagans, the heretics, the atheists, the agnostics, and other scandalous freethinkers–now have equal liberty and growing opportunity to express their responses to a religion which they are forced to contend with, whether they like it or not, as an ineradicable fact of life in the Western world for the last 1700 years.

By contrast–only a small percentage of Americans are Muslims and so comparatively speaking barely any of the art or philosophy or theology or literature of our experience is Islamic in nature.  Islamic terms, symbols, stories, history, culture, etc., are quite foreign to most of us.  Western artists are simply far less likely to take recourse to the lens of Islamic iconography to understand or express either their devout beliefs, their conflicted deviations from orthodoxy, their atheism, their apostasy,  their sexuality, their culture, etc., because they are foreign symbols to most Western artists.

The ways Western culture engages Islam is either as foreigner or as minority.  As such there are enormous temptations towards xenophobia that would demonize what is foreign as threatening.  Everything from our political discourse to our subtly racist movies is loaded with encouragements for us to fear and loathe the Islamic Other.

Western artists therefore are going to avoid, for the most part, denigrating Islamic images because such a gesture would not represent at an attempt at protest against an unjust hegemonic force (as it is when they deliberately push back against Christianity) but would be either the intolerant bullying of a minority or a jingoistic response to a foreign culture.  Western artists not personally steeped in Islamic images would not be appropriating the symbols given to them for their self-understanding by their own culture itself and then expressing themselves uniquely through them, as they do when the appropriate Christian symbols, but would be trying to understand themselves through something largely foreign to them.  This would be puzzling and counter-intuitive and probably extremely hard for them.   Why would we expect any artist to do this?  Why would we think it unfair of artists only to speak through their native language of symbols, rather than through a foreign set?

Next, it is vital to recognize that there are plenty of justifiable political and moral critiques of violent and authoritarian versions of Islam, and some of these quite defiantly and justifiably appropriate Islamic images.  People have risked, and even lost, their lives to do this.  And, yes, I am one of those who thinks that as a matter of free speech and truthfulness, it is a necessity that we continue to defy violent insistences that we censor ourselves for fear of insulting Mohammed or Muslims when all we are doing is subjecting Islamic agents to the same moral, political, artistic, and, even, comedic standards that we hold ourselves to.  It is good and just that South Park repeatedly has tried to treat Mohammed as disrespectfully as it treats Jesus and Buddha and George W. Bush and Sean Penn and Richard Dawkins and the Pope and every other person on the planet.

But Gary Bauer is right that there is an extent to which prohibitions on offending Muslims, in some particular areas, exceed the point of cultural sensitivity to a foreign culture and reach the point of mandated deference to Islamic concerns for holiness.  To be more specific: Muslims generally declare that depicting Mohammed is off-limits and the West has largely capitulated and gone along with not showing Mohammed.

But this “respect” for those Muslims who oppose the depiction of Mohammed is not born out of any special Western reverence for Mohammed or even out of cultural sensitivity run amok but out of mortal terror.  It is a capitulation to violent extremists.  Christians should not be envying the ways that violent extremists have bullied secular people into laying off their religion with death threats.

That’s sick.  Muslims are not being treated “better” than Christians when secular discourse treats them (or, really, a very small minority faction of them) as an irrationally dangerous threat to be treated with caution.  If all Gary Bauer sees is the result and he envies it without realizing the stain on the character of those who get the result he wants so badly, then he has less interest in his religion’s integrity or commitment to liberty than he does an interest in having a world where no one can ever disagree with or offend him–regardless of whatever violent, authoritarian, or bullying methods are needed to attain such a world.

Another reason that the West does not further pillory Islam in its art is that’s that there is little political or social gain from doing so.  When your country is horrifically responsible, as the US is, for tens of thousands civilian deaths in an illegal war against a country that did not strike first–it is only good taste not to go out of your way to insult their religious sensibilities any more than necessary.  You kind of want to dampen, rather than further inflame, the growing impression your real target is the eradication of their religion and the imposition of your own religion, rather than simply their liberation.

And, finally, the international outrage over Korans being thrown in toilets was really part of a far wider outrage over the barbaric, inhumane, unconscionable torture that our oh-so-Muslim-friendly nation dished out to Muslim people, many of whom were not so much as indicted of any greater crime than being a Muslim.

Yes, I am an anti-religious atheist who thinks there is nothing wrong with putting a cross in a jar of urine or a Koran in a toilet or printing out the full contents of Camels With Hammers and dropping it in a vat of sewage.  Yes, I would much prefer Muslims abandoned their faiths than that they continued to adhere to them (just as much as I would prefer that Christians, Jews, Hindus, et al. do the same).  Yes, I am all for asserting our right to represent ideas or feelings that are truthful, regardless of whether the religious find them offensive or insulting.  I disagree with Bauer when he writes that he doesn’t “think insulting or defaming symbols of any religion constitutes art”.  While insulting and defaming religious symbols does not by itself constitute art, it sure as hell can be an integral and constitutive component of an overall work of art.

But attacking religion without the aim of enlightening the believer or expressing one’s own engagement with that religion but rather only with the aim of harming, torturing, venting vindictive hatred, and coercing the believer’s will for your political or personal ends?  That’s wrong.  That’s abusive.  That’s an assault on human dignity.

By all means attack religious falsehoods on the grounds that they are false or harmful where they are false or harmful and you can demonstrate it.  By all means artistically reappropriate religious iconography in a way that expresses your own individual engagement with it and with the world in general.  By all means refute and, if necessary, mock bad religious ideas and expose bad religious behaviors at the top of your lungs.

But for cripe’s sake, don’t torture people, don’t be cruel for cruelty’s sake, don’t personally assault people’s consciences as a way to coerce or manipulate them or in any other way abuse your power over them.

And, for the sake of jesus-tap-dancing-pig-fucking-christ, don’t turn around and claim that Christians get a rawer deal than Muslims from “elites” in America when the ruler of your country, for whom you voted, repeatedly and methodically ordered specifically religious forms of torture against Muslims who he had indefinitely detained without so much as formal charges.  I mean, really!

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Meko Soell

    Great post. I would think western artists will push back against Islam, and Christianity and all conventions and dogma, as that is what they do. Part of what makes art so valuable to society.


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