Bill Maher responded to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo by attacking religion, saying,
“First of all, there are no great religions. They’re all stupid and dangerous — and we should insult them and we should be able to insult whatever we want. That is what free speech is like.”
Yes, that is true. That is what free speech is like. You have the right to express your belief that religion is stupid and dangerous.
After all, as liberal activist Sally Kohn wrote yesterday in an op-ed at CNN, I can support the free speech rights of groups or individuals without supporting the message.
And she agrees with Maher that, “the principle of free speech means I can say what I want whenever I want it.” But she stressed her desire to “try to think carefully about the impact of my words — and how they might be felt among others whether or not they share my belief system.”
Maher clearly does not. Kohn says “it’s important we remember that free speech and respect can go hand-in-hand,” whereas if Maher thinks something is stupid or offensive, he is just going to say so, even if, as a result, he is just as stupid or offensive as that which he is criticizing.
This is really no more helpful than Catholic League President Bill Donohue saying the editor of Charlie Hebdo died because he was a narcissist. Is there any difference between Maher’s sweeping condemnations of all religion (i.e. everyone should be an atheist like Maher) than Donohue’s condemnation of radical Islam and secularism (i.e. everyone should be a Catholic like Donohue)?
If Maher were right, if all religion were dangerous, any old Christian (or Muslim) would be murdering people. But this doesn’t happen. We call the ones who do “extremists” for a reason, after all. Most of my extended family is Christian of one sort or another. None of them are killing people.
Sally Kohn pointed to the problem in a December 21 tweet:
And this problem is clearly behind Donohue’s thinking as well.
Screenwriter and producer Kevin Miller took issue with Kohn’s characterization, writing at Patheos that the rules don’t change for whites, that “White police shooter = all white cops racist.” He points out that “everyone has a blind spot, especially when the belief system upon which we have based our identity is threatened,” including Muslim leaders, he says, who want to portray the Charlie Hebdo killers as “lone wolfs” who do not represent all of Islam.
I do agree with Maher that there are no “great” religions. There are just religions. Saying there are “great” religions necessitates the claim that there are “lesser” religions, which means some religions are better, or more true, than others. Since all religion is belief, one cannot be greater, or more “true” than another.
I admit that I am offended by Maher’s remarks, but I am willing to admit also that Jan Assmann may be right when he argues in his “Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism” (2008) that the term “religion” itself is so laden with “biblical implications” that if we call the biblical tradition and its derivatives, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – “religions,” we should substitute another term with respect to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.” And, it follows, Rome and Greece and ancient Scandinavia. He argues that religion, like paganism, “is an invention of monotheism.”
If “the perception of reality proper to monotheism” that is the thing we know of as “religion” is “alien to ‘paganism'” so then is the perception of reality proper to atheism. Though, unlike Maher, I am not offended by the very existence of his belief system, and do not “insult them and [believe I] should be able to insult whatever we want.” If I were to take Maher as an example, I could argue, as Maher does, if an atheists kills someone, that all atheism is stupid and dangerous.
No, not helpful at all. Better we recognize those blind spots Kohn and Miller spoke of, than to embrace the idea of collective guilt, or, as Miller puts it, “the exceptionalism we apply to members of our own group in such situations.” Maher, certainly, would be quick to point out that an atheist murderer was an aberration, and not representative of atheists in general.
There are Christians in prison, there are Muslims in prison, and yes, there are atheists in prison, and even Heathens in prison. Our belief systems are not the only things that guide our influence actions. So all religion is stupid and dangerous? Religion is no more dangerous than any other form of belief or worldview, including political ideologies, as has been proven by godless communism in the past century. Let’s face it: not everybody killed down through history has been killed in the name of one god or another.
What must be condemned is not religion, though I will admit from my point of view, Abrahamic monotheism has given religion a bad name, bad enough that I’m putting myself in Jan Assmann’s court on this one. And I can understand why atheists would be repulsed by religion while pointing out that ancient “cult” (to use Assmann’s substitute) has nothing to do with “religion.”
What we must condemn is extremism of any stripe. Any product of thought, religious, political, or otherwise, taken to such an extreme that its adherents believe everyone else must convert or die, or even that everybody else must be forced to think like us, whether this comes from a liberal or a conservative or a Christian or an atheist, must be condemned.
Bill Maher, like Bill Donohue, exercise his free speech rights. I support their right to say what they want to say because, like Kohn, I believe that does not require that I support what they say. I don’t. Either one of them. Nor they me, I am sure. But I believe we should use our words to try to make people think, to challenge their assumptions, not merely to say something is stupid, which I don’t find to be helpful at all.
And we must remember, and I have condemned the Religious Right on this account, that words themselves can be a form of violence. As Kohn argues, free speech comes with responsibilities.
I will leave you with this, and Bill with this gentle admonishment: If we lived in a fact-based world, and want those facts to matter, we should be less like Elisabeth Hasselbeck, not more.