People Are Not Being Insulted for Having a Religion

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

People Are Not Being Insulted for Having a Religion

Let me summarize. Freethinkers are not (1) motivated by the wish to offend people, nor do they (2) take an absolute stance on free speech. That should be clear by now. A third misunderstanding that must be cleared up has to do with the supposed ambition of freethinkers to insult other people on account of what they believe. This misunderstanding is voiced by the politician and scholar Michael Ignatieff (1947– ). Ignatieff writes: “Since millions of people identify themselves by their religious faith, it is as wrong to insult a person for their religion, as it is to insult them for their race.”[131]

Those kinds of commentaries are rampant nowadays. This is how Jack Straw (1946– ), Secretary of State for Justice in the UK, commented in a reaction to the Danish cartoons: “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or be gratuitously inflammatory.” He continued with: “I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.”[132]

What can be wrong with such seemingly innocuous remarks as those made by Ignatieff and Jack Straw? More than we might think. Let us focus on what Ignatieff writes.

Michael Ignatieff is an important scholar and politician. He was a former BBC commentator and Harvard professor and is now a member of the Canadian Parliament. He rose to prominence by analyses of the war in Yugoslavia, and Christopher Catherwood (1955– ) calls Ignatieff’s book Blood and Belonging (1993) “an excellent account” of the new kind of savage nationalism that re-emerged in the post-1989 world.[133] Ignatieff has one problem, though: he does not understand religion. He was the most prominent among the “politically correct commentators” who disliked the idea that the war in Yugoslavia was really about religion. As Catherwood points out (following Michael Sells in his book The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia) the only real differences among the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians are in fact religious, since they are in all other respects the same.[134] So the term ethnic cleansing is in fact incorrect. It is religious cleansing, “since religious differences alone determined whether or not someone was murdered in the death camps, such as the infamous one that the Serbs established at Moerska, which gained international notoriety when television journalists discovered it in 1992.”[135]

Yet Ignatieff writes: “Since millions of people identify themselves by their religious faith, it is as wrong to insult a person for their religion, as it is to insult them for their race.”[136] I have already said that in a literal sense this is right: it is impolite or wrong to deliberately insult a person for no other reason than personal gratification (whether it is more impolite or wrong to insult a person for his religion than for his ancestral background, sexual orientation, or taste in music, I will pass over without comment here). But the hidden meaning in sentences like this is that we are not allowed to criticize religions, because once we do this we can be accused of “insulting” the believer. So when we analyze the violent passages in Holy Scripture and warn that these can ignite violence we are accused of “insulting” believers for what they believe. This hampers all objective and candid research into the religious roots of violence. Books with titles such as The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2006)[137] are insulting. Great philosophers and scientists like Nietzsche, Spinoza, and Sigmund Freud, who see religion as a source of violence, could be accused of spewing out insulting commentaries. The upshot of all this would be the reinstatement of blasphemy laws on the basis of political correctness. Usually this is done not under the banner of blasphemy laws, but under laws that criminalize “defamation of religion.”

Scholars like John Esposito (1940– ) and Michael Ignatieff do not seem to be bothered about the consequences of their political correctness because they know (or think they know) that religion cannot be the cause of violence. People who think religions have a violent core are simply wrong, so what is all the fuss about? This conviction is not based on scholarly research that they have done, because they have not done any empirical research on the subject. It is their starting point, and in giving vent to admonitions to others they also inhibit research by serious colleagues who have different ideas. This is unfortunate and unjustified.

But there is something else that is conspicuous, because the situation is even more complicated than described above. Is it not strange that, although Ignatieff underestimates the role of religion in his explanation of the conflict in the Balkan, he at the same time proclaims that “millions of people” identify themselves by their religious faith?

Think about this: identify themselves by their religious faith. If that is true (as I think it is), would that not imply that religion could be a potent factor in explaining behavior? And would this not also necessitate inquiring into the religious causes of violent behavior? In other words: should we not give free inquiry free rein? Or is Ignatieff perhaps dimly aware that religion plays a much greater role than he is prepared to acknowledge officially? Could it be the case that, subconsciously, he is worried about the role that religion plays because he does not know how to deal with this problem? And if this speculation makes sense, is Ignatieff right perhaps? Is he one of those people who warn that we cannot “declare war” on 1.3 billion Muslims and is this part of his motivation in turning a blind eye to religion as a factor in this conflict?[138] And is the approach of what I would like to call “strategic ignorance” likely to have beneficial effects?

Or is Ignatieff right that there are a great many people who indeed insult others for their religion nowadays? Do we have a problem, perhaps, with our rough commentators, our cartoonists, our playwrights?

His remark presupposes that there are people who insult other people for their religion. But who would do such a silly and malicious thing? Do those people exist at all? Can Ignatieff provide us with names of those nasty characters? Did, for instance, Voltaire “insult” people for their religion? Or Friedrich Nietzsche? Are those the thinkers he has in mind? Probably not. When Voltaire signed his letters with Écrasez l’Infâme he was surely not motivated by an ambition to insult the Catholic Church.[139] He was convinced that the Catholic Church had certain ideas that were pernicious, and he thought the Church and its leaders should be held responsible for those ideas and be criticized. Nietzsche also had no ambition to “insult” people when he made his “mad man” proclaim the “Death of God,” although this was undoubtedly a passage in the Gay Science (1882) that worried many of his contemporaries.[140] Nor was it the ambition of Galileo Galilei to “insult” his fellow Catholics “for their religion.” The aim of Galileo was to publish a scientific thesis. This he considered to be so important that he took hurt feelings for granted.

And what about the new freethinkers? Did Salman Rushdie set out to insult people for having a religion? Or Taslima Nasreen? Or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti? That would be a grotesque contention.

Now, certainly, there must be some people whose sole ambition is to insult other people because of their religion, because otherwise that remark by Ignatieff would be pointless. Would Richard Dawkins qualify? Or Christopher Hitchens? Or perhaps Theo van Gogh, because if his murderer was prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison, his victim must have said something terribly wrong, must he not?

I do not think so. What Richard Dawkins wants, is to free people from a “delusion.” His book, The God Delusion,[141] is in the tradition of Sigmund Freud who also considered religion to be an illusion.[142] And when Christopher Hitchens claims to know that god is not great he is motivated by the same wish to free his fellow-men from some dangerous ideas.[143]

The most difficult case I have to make is perhaps that of Theo van Gogh (1957–2004). That has to do with the fact that van Gogh was indeed very proficient in insulting people, apparently for no other reason than that insulting them gave him pleasure.[144] Yet I do not think that even van Gogh would qualify for the role that someone like Ignatieff might have in mind for him. Not even van Gogh insulted people for no other reason than that those people had a religion. The only problem is that in the last phase of his brutally interrupted life he was focused on what he considered to be a very serious threat for the future of Europe: the growth of a fundamentalist variety of a particular world religion.[145] He was sincere in this and he saw some things that other people neglected or deliberately chose not to see (including the Dutch government, which underestimated the danger that proved to be fatal to van Gogh himself). As A.C. Grayling notes: the debate about religion has become an acerbic one “and worse: some contributors to it have their say with bombs.”[146]

So the culprit talked about everywhere, the man or woman (many of them may be women, by the way) who deliberately insults other people on account of their beliefs, is a terribly elusive figure. Nevertheless, he or she is high on the wanted list. There is a great urge in the Western world to hunt down the imp of mischief who has no other aim in life than to cause trouble by insulting others “for the sake of their religion.” Once this figure has been identified, we can get rid of a serious problem, of course: the problem of the religious terrorists in our midst. If we can identify those people who, purely for personal gratification, senselessly insult other people, and, by doing so, provoke violent behavior in true believers, then the solution to the problem is simple. We address those who cause offence by their cartoons, columns, films, and other means of expression and tell them that their behavior is irresponsible. We tell them that it endangers social cohesion. It is pointless. They should restrain themselves from pursuing their seemingly innocuous but in reality extremely dangerous hobby, and social peace will be secured.

If it were all that simple, we would not have to make difficult calculations weighing the significance of free speech in the balance with the spiritual harm done to believers. And because we are prone to deceive ourselves that it really is that simple, we are ready to invent the culprit even if he does not exist, as Voltaire was prepared to do with God.

I think this whole approach is mistaken. All the controversial cases presented in this chapter were not meant as insults. The writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, who had to go into hiding after her play was cancelled and was threatened with death by indignant Sikhs, said of the incident: “I certainly did not write Behzti to offend.”[147] The same applies to the controversial The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. What the writer aimed to do was to write a novel. And in this novel things are said that some people might consider offensive. Sixteen years after publication Rushdie himself tried to set the matter straight and wrote: “Must it really still be explained, sixteen and a half years after the publication of this novel, that the prophet in the books is not called Muhammad, the religion is not called Islam, the city in which the action occurs is not called Mecca, that the whole sequence takes place inside the dreams of a man who is losing his mind, and that this is what we call fiction?”[148] The problem seems to be that many people, and certainly not only Muslims, concluded that the motives of the writer must have been extravagant on account of the extravagant reactions that the novel provoked. So they tell him: “You should have foreseen these reactions.” People seem to think: “These reactions are so extreme; the writer himself must have extreme ideas.” Where there’s smoke, there must be fire. Rushdie’s fellow-writer Roald Dahl (1916–1990) was one of those commentators. Not long after the publication of The Satanic Verses he wrote about Rushdie:

Clearly he has profound knowledge of the Muslim religion and its people, and he must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words he knew exactly what he was doing and he cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on the top of the best-seller list … but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing this.[149]

This reaction seems to me to be the rock bottom that we can come to in the history of protest against religious terrorism. Dahl makes Rushdie himself responsible for the atrocious acts perpetrated against his person. In 1993, after having lived for four years under a death sentence, Rushdie gave us an insight into what was oppressing him most. Everywhere the Rushdie affair was seen as being about freedom of speech and terrorism. But in England it was seen as a case of a man who wanted to be saved from the trouble he had gotten himself into. “To know this is to carry a wound that does not heal. It takes away my strength. I do not know if anyone cares that it does, but it does.”[150] Of the contested passages in The Satanic Verses Malise Ruthven (1942– ) writes: “by a preposterous form of retribution, Rushdie has been given a life sentence for writing them.”[151]

This is the first thing to be said about Rushdie, Bhatti, and other writers who have been accused of being insulting or divisive. It was not their aim to insult or to offend. Insult or offence is, to a considerable extent, in the eye of the beholder.

What should we conclude from this? My point is that we should carefully distinguish between two dimensions of the concept of an “insult” or “insulting”: (1) an objectified dimension, (2) the motive.

The (first) objectified dimension refers to the feelings of the person offended. He (or she) has the feeling of being insulted. The second dimension refers to the attitude of the person who made the remark deemed to be insulting. He deliberately aimed to be insulting. What appears to be common practice nowadays, is that the second dimension (the intention of insulting) is simply deduced from the first (an experienced insult). Someone feels offended, so there was someone deliberately aiming to give offence.

Implicitly it is also often supposed that there must be a kind of proportionality. If the person who was offended claims to be very hurt then the offender must have been very deliberate and very malicious in voicing his senseless criticism.

Unwittingly, Ignatieff contributes to this common mistake.

Racism without Race

But there is something else. By his remark that “it is as wrong to insult a person for their religion, as it is to insult them for their race,”[152] Ignatieff feeds another misunderstanding. He identifies a critical remark about “religion” with a critical remark on “race.” This insinuation is even more dangerous than the first because, for obvious reasons, the incriminating effect on people who supposedly criticize others for their race is enormous. The logical conclusion of this view is that writers who criticize someone’s religion are no better than “racists.” And who wants to be a racist? No decent person can afford to be called a “racist,” so the effect of this fatal insinuation is to silence all criticism of religion by decent people.

For the apologists of religion this is a fortunate outcome, of course, because in their view criticism of religion is wrong and serves no social or moral purpose whatsoever. But for people who advocate the progressive amendment of opinions and ideas, including religious ideas, stimulated by critique (the freethinkers), this outcome is nothing less than disastrous. It would inhibit all religious and cultural development. Of “truth” John Milton (1608–1674) wrote in Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644): “let her and falsehood grapple.” Only in a “free and open encounter” can truth flourish. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism – many cultural movements start with criticism, including criticism of religion.[153] If, under the mantle of “decency,” “respect,” “dialogue,” “pragmatism,” and other elements from the lexicon of political correctness, it were possible to dispose of religious criticism, the social costs would be enormous. It is not without justification that the Dutch analytical philosopher René Marres quotes the political theorist Meindert Fennema (1946– ) calling this concept of racism without race “dangerous nonsense.”[154] The reason is clear: religious beliefs are based on a choice; race or ethnic background is not. For the moral, religious, and political choices people make they should be open to criticism.

Yet this point of view is controversial nowadays. On March, 26, 2009 the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted a non-binding resolution on what is called “the defamation of religion.”[155] The HRC can make resolutions on matters that, according to the HRC, can be seen as “human rights abuses.” It also makes recommendations to the General Assembly. The resolution on “defamation of religion” was proposed by Pakistan and backed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The resolution defines any intellectual or moral criticism of religion as a human rights violation. According to the resolution, since 9/11 the world has seen an “intensification of the overall campaign of defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general.” The resolution expresses concern that “extremist organizations and groups” seek to create and perpetuate “stereotypes about certain religions.” The resolution wants to make an end of all that. It wants governments to ensure that religious symbols “are fully respected and protected.”

The whole tenor of the resolution is deeply misguided and a violation of the human rights tradition as interpreted so far. The central misconception, on which this resolution is based, is that beliefs, opinions, and symbols should not be “defamed.” From a legal and also a moral point of view this is a highly dubious contention to make. Only human individuals can be “defamed,” but ideas, worldviews, religions, scientific theories can be (and should be) freely criticized. Whether those criticisms are “stereotypical,” “convincing,” “necessary,” and “justified” is for the participants in the debate to decide, but there should be no endorsement of censorship. And that is basically what this resolution entails.

Fortunately, international reaction was swift and condemnatory. The outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour (1947– ) of Canada, said: “It is very concerning in a Council which should be … the guardian of freedom of expression, to see constraints or taboos, or subjects that become taboo for discussion.”[156]

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

[131] Ignatieff, “Respect and the Rules of the Road,” p. 129.

[132] Quoted in: Phillips, Londonistan, p. 17.

[133] Catherwood, Christopher, Making War in the Name of God, Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York 2007, p. 149; Ignatieff, Michael, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, BBC Books, London 1993. See also: Ignatieff, Michael, Empire Lite: Nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, Vintage, London 2003; Ignatieff, Michael, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, Chatto & Windus, London 2000; Ignatieff, Michael, The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Chatto & Windus, London 1998.

[134] Sells, Michael A., The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA 1998.

[135] Catherwood, Making War in the Name of God, p. 149.

[136] Ignatieff, “Respect and the Rules of the Road,” p. 129.

[137] Hoffmann, Joseph R., ed., The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2006.

[138] A similar position we find in: Esposito, John L., and Mogahed, Dalia, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, Gallup Press, New York 2007.

[139] See on this: Herrick, Jim, “Voltaire: ‘Écrasez l’Infâme,’ ” in: Jim Herrick, Against the Faith. Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1985, pp. 56–71.

[140] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix in Songs, translated by Walter Kaufman, Vintage, New York 1974.

[141] Dawkins, The God Delusion.

[142] Freud, The Future of an Illusion.

[143] Hitchens, god is not Great.

[144] See: Gogh, Theo van, Allah weet het beter [Allah knows better], Xtra Producties, Amsterdam 2003.

[145] Van Gogh detected the same process as: Bawer, Bruce, While Europe Slept. How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within, Doubleday, New York 2006.

[146] Grayling, Against all Gods, p. 9.

[147] Bhatti, Gurpreet Kaur, “A Letter,” in: Lisa Appignanesi, ed., Free Expression is No Offence, Penguin Books, London 2005, pp. 27–32, p. 28.

[148] Rushdie, Salman, “Coming After Us,” in: Lisa Appignanesi, ed., Free Expression is No Offence, Penguin Books, London 2005, pp. 21–29, p. 25.

[149] The Times, 28 February 1989. See also: Pipes, The Rushdie Affair, p. 70.

[150] Rushdie, Salman, “A 4-year Death Sentence,” The New York Times, February 7, 1993.

[151] Ruthven, A Satanic Affair, p. 28.

[152] Ignatieff, “Respect and the Rules of the Road,” p. 129.

[153] See on the Hegelian Left who initiated a systematic criticism of religion: Löwith, Karl, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought, translated by David E. Green, Constable, London 1964.

[154] See on this: Marres, René, De verdediging van het vrije woord: de kwestie Wilders en de demonisering van het debat [The Defense of Free Speech: The Wilders Question and the Demonizing of Debate], Uitgeverij Aspect, Soesterberg 2008, p. 155; Fennema, Meindert, “Noot bij de uitspraak van het Gerechtshof te Amsterdam van 21 januari 2009 waarin het strafvervolging van Geert Wilders beveelt” [Note on the Pronouncement by the Court in Amsterdam of 21 January, 2009 Ordering the Prosecution of Geert Wilders], Strafblad, 7, no. 19 June 2009, pp. 198–208.

[155] See on this: Ibn Warraq and Michael Weiss, “Inhuman Rights,” City Journal, 19, no. 2 2009, pp. 1–6.

[156] Arbour quoted in Ibn Warraq and Weiss, Ibid.

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

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

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

A.C. Grayling – Closing the Modern Mind

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. It was an interesting read if a little dense. I normally don't find atheist insulting and tend to think that it's a propaganda technique to complain of harm (rather effective against touchy feel-ly types).

    That said, I normally disagree with the Atheist rhetoric tactics of choice. Normally it's along dismissal/ pathos/ connotation & denotation mixing lines. That tends to be "crowd pandering" and for people who feel social pressure that's not going to endear you to them or make them feel respected, especially if there is a language issue.

    In fact, if that kinda technique is used to attack an opponents Ethos/logos and they are not engaged as "equals" than it is an insult even if not a "childlike" insult. You can hurt someones reputation short of saying bad words, and it's kinda juvenile to say only bad names are insults.

    It's like a strong man is insulted when another man constantly speaks over him and doesn't allow him to speak. He's being called weak in body language. And why that's how punches fly because many don't consciously control /read body language.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here