Freethought under Fire

(Photo: Tania Tataata / Flickr)
(Photo: Tania Tataata / Flickr)

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 3: Freethought II: Freedom of Expression

Freethought under Fire

Here I want to close my exposition of the ideals of freethought. Freethought has been characterized by two things; first, the conviction that religions do not have an exclusively positive nature; second, the principle of free speech that freethinkers favor. In the combination of those two ideas we find the specific character of freethought.

In what follows, I want to address some of the criticism that has been leveled at freethought and assess whether – and to what extent – that criticism is justified.

Criticism of freethought used to be directed at its first pillar: the contention that religion has its dark side. The second element (its predilection for free speech) used to be more popular. But that seems to have changed.

In the 1960s and 1970s many people seemed inclined to think that freedom of speech was vitally important. Freedom of speech was not only recognized as a fundamental civil right in almost all constitutions all over the world and in human rights treaties, but also held in high esteem by the intellectual and political elite in liberal democracies.

Nowadays, freedom of speech seems much less popular than it used to be. A common reaction we hear is this: “Why be so crude? Why be so divisive? Why offend people in their most sacred beliefs?” Or someone will say: “Oh, listen, don’t misunderstand me, I am in favor of free speech, but ….” And subsequently he will tell you that freedom of speech is accompanied by “responsibilities.” When asked what those “responsibilities” are people are usually less eager to tell you. But, if pressed, they will say that you should not “insult” people.[122] When asked if this means that we are not to publish cartoons, plays, novels, and even operas that some people claim to be insulted by, the adherent of the new speech codes usually responds with evasion and the contention that this is not what he means. But what does he mean exactly?

There also seems an enormous proliferation of what I would like to call sympathy for people who claim to have been offended in their deepest religious beliefs.

How to explain this? Have people become weaker and more vulnerable in their deepest beliefs? Do they feel more insecure? Have they grown less tolerant toward other people than they were in earlier times? Another remarkable thing is the spectacular growth of a new discourse regarding religion and free speech that seems prima facie innocuous or even fruitful. It refers to concepts such as “respect” and “dialogue.” In the end, however, it turns out to be suppressive of free speech and, what I am inclined to call, real dialogue. Those pious demands for “dialogue” are usually voiced only to silence unpopular ideas.

This new discourse is not only a break with the 1960s and 1970s but also a change from ideas held in previous centuries. In the time of Luther, Spinoza, Galileo, or Voltaire people did not complain because they were “offended” or “insulted” by the ideas these men put forward.[123] New ideas were suppressed, to be sure, and even more brutally than nowadays, but not because people said they felt “offended.” The Inquisition was not “insulted” by the heretics, atheists, and secularists they brought to the stake. Where does this contemporary preoccupation with being “offended” and “insulted” come from? Why do people feel victimized if contradicted? What is the origin of those frequent calls for “respect” and “dialogue,” as if there were people who advocated “disrespect” or would favor stopping the dialogue? Let me give the following imaginary example of a dialogue.

– I think that Jesus is the Son of God.

– Sorry, I don’t believe that.

– You don’t believe that? Why are you insulting me? Why are you so disrespectful?

– I am not; I honor you as a human being by disagreeing with your contentions. Do the same with me: honor me by contradicting my statements. Argue with me, I would love that. And please, criticize my spiritual mentors. I am an adherent of John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell. You do not like them, fine, but provide me the reasons why you disagree with them and I will take notice of your criticism. Let’s have a fruitful conversation; let’s enter into real dialogue. Dialogue means taking each other’s opinions seriously, does it not?

– Sorry, this is senseless. As long as you continue to shout and trample on my holiest convictions any dialogue is fruitless.

Do I exaggerate? A little perhaps, but not much. Much contemporary dialogue on sensitive religious topics develops along these lines. My point is that people like Salman Rushdie, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ayaan Hirsi, and Taslima Nasreen do engage in dialogue. The problem is that, because the content of their ideas is not appreciated by fanatics, their work is decried as “disrespectful.”[124] This is an unfortunate situation and the tactics of the intolerant should be seen for what they are: intolerant. Philosopher A.C. Grayling writes:

Those who claim to be ‘hurt’ or ‘offended’ by the criticisms or ridicule of people who do not share their views, yet who seek to silence others by law or by threats of violence, are trebly in the wrong: they undermine the central and fundamental value of free speech, without which no other civil liberties are possible; they claim, on no justifiable ground, a right to special status and special treatment on the sole ground that they have chosen to believe a set of propositions; and they demand that people who do not accept their beliefs and practices should treat these latter in ways that implicitly accept their holder’s evaluation of them.[125]

Another criticism (the second point) that is launched against freethinkers and other advocates of free speech is that they take an “absolute” stance on freedom of speech. For them free speech knows no boundaries. Freethinkers are free speech junkies of some kind.[126]

I do not think this criticism is justified. We have indicated that John Stuart Mill and other protagonists of free speech usually acknowledge limits to the free flow of ideas in the form of the “clear and present danger test.” If there is a danger that certain expressions increase the risk of physical harm to others, we should acknowledge a limit to the freedom of speech. An absolute right to free speech is defended by nobody, so it seems.[127]

There are people, though, who go a very long way in defending free speech. One of those people was US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black (1886–1971). Black wrote: “My view is, without deviation, without exception, without any ifs, buts, or whereases, that freedom of speech means that government shall not do anything to people, or, in the words of the Magna Charta, move against people, either for the views they have or the views they express or the words they speak or write.”[128] Black did not believe that there was a “halfway ground for protecting freedom of speech and press.”[129] He called the principle of free speech “the lifeblood” of every representative democracy. But Black’s position was not representative of the general position. Many people favor a more limited conception of free speech and they will qualify a proscription like the one issued by Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) against William of Orange (1533–1584) as not protected by freedom of speech.[130] Nor will they consider Khomeini’s fatwa on Rushdie as within the ambit of freedom of expression.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[122] See on this: Neu, Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults.

[123] See: Ruffini, Francesco, Religious Liberty, translated by J. Parker Heyes, Williams and Norgate, London 1912, p. 342 ff.

[124] Ignatieff, Michael, “Respect and the Rules of the Road,” in: Lisa Appignanesi, ed., Free Expression is No Offence, Penguin Books, London 2005, pp. 127–136, p. 128: “The hard part is how to reconcile freedom of expression with respect.”

[125] Grayling, A.C., Against all Gods, p. 19.

[126] See on why this is not true: Jacoby, Susan, “A First Amendment Junkie,” in: Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau, eds., Current Issues and Enduring Questions. Methods and Models of Argument, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, Boston 1990, pp. 8–13.

[127] See: Lewis, Anthony, Make No Law, The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., New York 1992.

[128] Black, Hugo LaFayette, A Constitutional Faith, Alfred Knopf, New York 1969, p. 45.

[129] Ibid., p. 47.

[130] Jardine, Lisa, The Awful End of Prince William the Silent.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Gad Saad and Dave Rubin: Academics, Free Speech, Atheism and Religion

A.C. Grayling – Closing the Modern Mind

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