Like all right thinking people I was horrified by the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent atrocities in Paris last month, all in the name of Islam.
The attacks rightly caused a wave of horror and outrage across people of all religions. Everywhere people began to proclaim ‘je suis Charlie’ to show their allegiance with the slain and to stand up for our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
I agree with all of this, and yet couldn’t quite bring myself to proclaim je suis Charlie.
As is often the case, I found myself with mixed views, which I found difficult to articulate. Then, last week I noticed a news article about some measures that France is putting into place in the wake of the attacks. These measures seemed to me to be exactly what is needed – and not just for France, for everywhere! They also seemed to address my mixed views perfectly.
Firstly let me be clear: I am not religious. I dislike all religions equally and treat them with disdain. It takes very little digging to find that all religions have long been subject to corruption by people looking for personal power or political gain. Any truth that the original architects of the religions intended has long since been perverted.
Treating religions with disdain is not the same as treating those who believe in them with disdain. In the past I have struggled with this: how can otherwise intelligent, rational people fall for this stuff? Now, however, I try to be more tolerant: if faith makes people happy and helps them to find some kind of peace then who am I to criticise. Now I try to live and let live on the subject as long as people don’t try to inflict their religion on me or use it as an excuse to go around killing people.
I also believe in the right to free speech and, for that matter, the right for people to be offended.
Far too often these days our speech and even our thoughts are censored by concerns that someone somewhere may be offended. Well let them be offended!
People have the right to express their views and they have the right to laugh at things they find ridiculous – this has been the nature of satire and much comedy since man was able to string a thought together.
People have the right to be offended by this, and they have the right to express their unhappiness. They do not, however, have the right to express it in the forms of violence.
My only reservation in this belief is that there is some grey area between reasonable freedom of speech and inciting hatred, which is unacceptable and should be stamped on. The distinction here should not just be whether or not you agree with the views being expressed, however.
But does the fact that we have the right to say something mean that we should say it? With rights come responsibilities, and if all that we are doing is knowingly causing offence for no good purpose should we do it just because we can?
Even before the atrocities in Paris took place I was wondering what had happened to the world. What brought us to the point where people raised in a democratic and free western society would choose to throw in their lot with a bunch of violent fundamentalists that seek to take civilisation back to the dark ages?
Why would they choose a society which severely limits individual freedom, oppresses women and hands out sadistic and barbaric punishment for even the slightest infraction of their rules?
Obviously we in the west are losing the argument, at least in some quarters.
And I think that some of this is due to our own intolerance.
Thinking of my own feelings toward religion and my attempts to persuade the religious of the error of their ways, I came to realise that my approach was no more effective than their attempt to convert me to their religion.
In fact, human nature being what it is, the more that you push the less effective your argument is likely to be as people harden their pre-defined positions. I think the likes of Richard Dawkins are not helpful in this regard.
If you throw in widespread ridicule of people’s deeply held beliefs the situation is only likely to get worse and, ultimately, as we have seen, lead to violence.
So what was the French initiative that I liked so much?
They unveiled measures to promote secular values and religious tolerance in schools. Pupils will learn about separation of the church and the state and about the differences and similarities between the major religions. They will also learn about objective news gathering, propaganda and conspiracy theorising.
How much better that is than what I can remember of RE lessons.
There is no need to ridicule or argue against others’ beliefs: don’t tell children what to think, instead give them the tools to understand different points of view and to question for themselves the dogma presented to them. They can see that religions agree more than they differ and they learn to objectively weigh the evidence.
I believe that this would lead more people down the path of secular beliefs as they learn to challenge the world view presented by the various religions, but if they still chose to embrace faith at least they would do so with greater tolerance and understanding of differing views.
Even putting aside issues of faith, learning to objectively assess the information that they receive will help them in life, from seeing through political fabrications to avoiding internet scams (it dismays me how gullible people are on social networks!)
It is too late for the current generation, but if such teaching became common place I believe it could help enormously with the future stability of the world.