Religious Beliefs Questioned

Biblical Scene: 'Noah's Sacrifice' Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione known as Grechetto (early 17th Century)

The interesting and thought-provoking  article below reinforces musings on my previous post Are We But a Flock of Sheep?

I am sure that the beautiful religious images painted by Italian artists helped persuade many a young mind toward belief in Catholic dogma and biblical stories.  I know I was captivated by their depictions of saints and martyrdom.

Article below. Source: Council for Secular Humanism:

Author: Peter Singer

Freedom of speech is important, and it must include the freedom to say what everyone else believes to be false, and even what many people take to be offensive. Religion remains a major obstacle to basic reforms that reduce unnecessary suffering. Think of issues like contraception, abortion, the status of women in society, the use of embryos for medical research, physician-assisted suicide, attitudes towards homosexuality, and the treatment of animals. In each case, somewhere in the world, religious beliefs have been a barrier to changes that would make the world more sustainable, freer, and more humane.

So, we must preserve our freedom to deny the existence of God and to criticize the teachings of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, and Buddha, as reported in texts that billions of people regard as sacred. Since it is sometimes necessary to use a little humor to prick the membrane of sanctimonious piety that frequently surrounds religious teachings, freedom of expression must include the freedom to ridicule as well.

Yet, the outcome of the publication of the Danish cartoons ridiculing Muhammad was a tragedy. More than a hundred people died in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and other Islamic countries during the ensuing protests and riots. In hindsight, it would have been wiser not to publish the cartoons. The benefits were not worth the costs. But that judgment is, as I say, made with the benefit of hindsight, and it is not intended as a criticism of the actual decisions taken by the editors who published them and could not reasonably be expected to foresee the consequences.

To restrict freedom of expression because we fear such consequences would not be the right response. It would only provide an incentive for those who do not want to see their views criticized to engage in violent protests in the future. Instead, we should forcefully defend the right of newspaper editors to publish such cartoons, if they choose to do so, and hope that respect for freedom of expression will eventually spread to countries where it does not yet exist.

Unfortunately, even while the protests about the cartoons were still underway, a new problem about convincing Muslims of the genuineness of our respect for freedom of expression has arisen because of Austria’s conviction and imprisonment of David Irving for denying the existence of the Holocaust. We cannot consistently hold that it should be a criminal offense to deny the existence of the Holocaust and that cartoonists have a right to mock religious figures. David Irving should be freed.

Before you accuse me of failing to understand the sensitivities of victims of the Holocaust or the nature of Austrian anti-Semitism, I should tell you that I am the son of Austrian Jews. My parents escaped Austria in time, but my grandparents did not. All four of my grandparents were deported to ghettos in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Two of them were sent to Lodz, in Poland, and then probably murdered with carbon monoxide at the extermination camp at Chelmno. Another one fell ill and died in the overcrowded and underfed ghetto at Theresienstadt. My maternal grandmother was the only survivor.

So, I have no sympathy for David Irving’s absurd denial of the Holocaust-which, in his trial, he said was a mistake. I support efforts to prevent any return to Nazism in Austria or anywhere else. But how is the cause of truth served by prohibiting Holocaust denial? If there are still people crazy enough to deny that the Holocaust occurred, will they be persuaded by imprisoning some who express that view? On the contrary, they will be more likely to think that views people are being imprisoned for expressing cannot be refuted by evidence and argument alone.

In the aftermath of World War II, when the Austrian republic was struggling to establish itself as a democracy, it was reasonable, as a temporary emergency measure, for Austrian democrats to suppress Nazi ideas and propaganda. But that danger is long past. Austria is a democracy and a member of the European Union. Despite the occasional resurgence of anti-immigrant and even racist views-an occurrence that is, lamentably, not limited to former Nazi nations-there is no longer a serious threat of any return to Nazism in Austria.

Austria should repeal its law against Holocaust denial. Other European nations with similar laws-for example, Germany, France, Italy, and Poland-should do the same, while maintaining or strengthening their efforts to inform their citizens about the reality of the Holocaust and why the racist ideology that led to it should be rejected.

Laws against incitement to racial, religious, or ethnic hatred, in circumstances where that incitement is intended to, or can reasonably be foreseen to, lead to violence or other criminal acts, are different, and are compatible with the freedom to express any views at all.

In the current climate in Western nations, the suspicion of a particular hostility towards Islam, rather than other religions, is well justified. Only when David Irving has been freed will it be possible for Europeans to turn to the Islamic protesters and say: “We apply the principle of freedom of expression evenhandedly, whether it offends Muslims, Christians, Jews, or anyone else.”


Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, New Jersey, is the author of, among other books: Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather,  and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna.

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