Blaspheme and Freedom of Speech

Last night (March 24) I moderated a dialogue between Rabbi Hana Schlesinger, Imam Zia, and Pastor Doug Skinner on Blaspheme and Freedom of Religion. Below are the notes from my closing remarks.

Blaspheme and Freedom of Speech

1. The three religions have different views regarding the capacity of human reason and the degree to which it is subject to delusion. AND these differences are based on different understandings of not merely the degree to which human reason is uniformly incapacitated, but the degree to which it is subject to inescapable outside influences, including both human society and the existence of an invisible force called by Christians “Sin.”

If we imagine the human person defined by a simple matrix that consists of the rational individual, society, and Sin we will find that the three religions disagree substantially on relevance, existence, degree, and type of influence each has on the human self.

2. All three religions agree that free speech is a very useful tool both for human societies seeking the good, and human individuals seeking spiritual truth and a closer relationship with God. They also agree that it is a very dangerous tool that can be substantially abused and create great destruction. And they disagree about how much good it can do and how dangerous it can be.

In general we heard that Jews have an extraordinary confidence in its ability to bring about good, and are relatively unworried about the danger of it being abused. Muslims on the other hand are more cognizant of the dangers it poses and less confident of its contribution to human faith. Christian theology is yet again different, having fully supported blaspheme laws in an earlier era and now tending toward full support of complete freedom of speech.

3. The location of this difference is found in three very different views of how and where God chooses to reveal God’s self and where the authority to interpret that revelation is located. Put another way, the Qur’an, Torah, and Bible all appear to be “books” but are in fact conceptualized so differently by Muslims, Jews, and Christians that using the terms “book” and “revelation” for all three is more misleading than informative. The same could be said for comparing a rabbi, pastor, and imam as interpreter of revelation.

4. All three religions have acknowledged a common question: who is responsible for defending the dignity of God? God? Or humans? And each of the three has come to different conclusions over its history, and the three do not presently agree in all the contexts in which they interact.

5. A religious free market, such as we find in the modern West, is both essential to finding the truth and yet can also by manipulated by those who are powerful, clever, and unscrupulous. Religious communities are not, despite their ideals, self-regulating or self-policing. They are frequently abusive of the power of speech. How one keeps the market for ideas free and still protects individuals and communities from bullying, manipulation, and actual harm is more complex than merely advocating for free speech or trying to outlaw “hate-speech.”

6. Looking at humanity in another way, there is a disagreement as to whether human personhood resides most fully in the free choices of an autonomous individual, or in the integrity, dignity, and honor of the community (and thus its most cherished beliefs). If human personhood lies on a continuum between these two, the three religions disagree about just where it lies, and thus how it must be protected.

7. We must recognize that control of speech does not benefit society as a whole, but those whom exercise that control. At the same time free speech advantages  those who have the greatest power to project their ideas into the public arena.

8. Personal Conclusions: Free speech is a value in a society relative to other values. And where it is found in relation to those values will depend on how one defines the purpose of human society in relation to the individual. And here the three religions do not agree, but have reached at different places and in different times effective patterns of working and living together. Given their differences, and changing patterns of social interaction and power, we cannot hope for an ultimate resolution of difference, but instead must rely on continued dialogue and the creation of working compromises.

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  • Small quibble, and one which I’m sure you’ve already anticipated: you homogenize Islam, Judaism, and Christianity here, where they likely cannot be homogenized. Religions cannot disagree with each other because religions are not agents, let alone speaking ones; people, who hold religious beliefs and participate in religious practices and communities, are the agents who might agree or disagree.

    • Robert Hunt

      You are absolutely right. The underlying mis-representation in all inter-religious dialogue is that it is dialogue among religions, when in fact it is among religious people in all their particularity.