Getting Offended in a Secular Society

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Every so often we hear yet another story about somebody’s religious sensibilities getting offended by something they heard or saw in the media.  This week, however, we encountered a new twist to this familiar scenario.  Apparently a 60-second advert by the Church of England, featuring the Lord’s Prayer, has been banned from the majority of cinemas in the UK.  The reason?  It “carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences.”

I can’t help imagining crowds of atheists and agnostics, unused to such graphic horrors as asking for one’s daily bread or forgiving one’s enemies, hiding behind cinema seats with their hands over their ears crying for the offence to stop.  Maybe the right never to see or hear anything that offends us should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

It would be easy for us in Ireland to scoff at the British for bending over backwards to ensure nobody gets offended.  But we are even worse.  Since 2010 our political masters have saddled us with a ludicrous Blasphemy Law that makes us liable for a €25,000 fine if we utter insulting material that causes outrage to a substantial number of adherents of any religion.

There are proposals to hold a Referendum (yes, another one!) to scrap the Blasphemy Law and for it to be replaced by a law prohibiting religious hatred.  However, this has the potential to hinder free speech even further.

In Northern Ireland, a retired Pentecostal pastor, James McConnell, is currently being hauled through the courts for declaring from the pulpit that Islam is ‘Satanic’ and ‘heathen’.  While many of us might not have phrased it as Pastor McConnell did, the fact is that his words are entirely consistent with historic Christian belief.  Most Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God – ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6).  Since Christian belief also views the personification of evil as being behind any false religious belief then, by definition, any religion that presents a way of salvation apart from Jesus Christ is, for historic Christianity, satanic and heathen.  Such a belief, by the way, has nothing to do with hating anyone else.  I would utterly repudiate any suggestion that we should dislike, fear, or discriminate against anyone else on the grounds of their religion (or lack of religion).

Equally, any Muslim who holds to their historic beliefs will maintain that God has no prophet but Mohammed.  Therefore my Evangelical Christian religion, according to them, should also be viewed as satanic and heathen.  That doesn’t offend me in the slightest.  Why on earth should I get offended because somebody else holds a religious viewpoint that is very different from my own?  Or why should the irreligious get offended just because someone holds a religious viewpoint and is prepared to fund a cinema advert to that effect?

True, as a Christian leader I try to refrain from expressing viewpoints or making statements that are expressly designed to gratuitously cause offence to others.  But that should not be a legal requirement.  That is a matter of good manners.  It is also a matter of pragmatism – that if I want to convince others to hear my point of view then I hardly gain a sympathetic hearing by acting like a jerk.

I class myself as a Christian Secularist.  I don’t want to live in a theocratic society that affords special privileges, protections or tax-breaks to any religion.  I believe it is inherently bad, both for society and for religious faith, when any religion (including my own) holds a position of political or cultural dominance.

But secularism does not mean that we treat religion as a special category of thought that must be eliminated in Stalinist purges.  Religion should be decoupled from the apparatus of the State, and it should not be afforded special protection or privileges.  But neither should religion be subject to special discrimination or restrictions.  The Church should be treated exactly the same as Atheist Ireland, Islam or the Vegetarian Society of Ireland – no better, and no worse.

In a secular society, religion should be allowed to sink or swim without artificial support.  If religious believers really believe that their brand of religion is the true faith, then they should be free to say so without fear of prosecution, but also without being mollycoddled against criticism.  If my faith really is true, then I should be prepared to compete in a marketplace of ideas and have confidence in ‘the survival of the fittest’ (using that phrase in its true Darwinian sense of being most apt to our lives and future existence, rather than referring to mere brute strength).

And what if we do get offended by someone else’s expressions of faith, or lack of faith?  Then get over it!  It’s high time we grew up and behaved like adults.  Remove the risk of getting offended and you also remove free speech, stifle intellectual discourse and destroy the cherished ideal of living in a modern secular society.

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