Criticizing Religious Beliefs Is a Fundamental Human Right

This post by Gad Saad Ph.D. originally appeared at Psychology Today.

Social etiquette dictates that when in mixed company, one should avoid discussing politics and religion. As someone who is quite active on various social portals, I can attest to the visceral emotions that are triggered when these topics are broached! Clearly then, most people choose to play it safe and adhere to this social norm. More formally, various legal codes (e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978; see here) afford legal protection to individuals as a function of their political and religious affiliations among other variables that define one’s personhood (e.g., national identity, race, sexual orientation, and biological sex). Furthermore, several Western liberal democracies have instituted Hate Speech laws that make it illegal to forcefully criticize religious beliefs as this is construed as a form of fomenting hatred. Which of the latter social norms and legal edicts are congruent with or antithetical to the ethos of Western liberal democracies? Let me take each in turn.

As an academic, I value the free exchange of ideas. As such, while I understand the social pressures to avoid contentious discussions on politics and religion, I find this a form of intellectual cowardice. One’s political views and/or religious beliefs should not exist in an impenetrable and inviolable bubble wherein they are protected from criticism or scrutiny. Needless to say, I fully support the legal codes that are meant to protect individuals from discrimination. As someone whose family escaped execution in Lebanon (see here), I am only too aware of the evils of religious intolerance and hatred. That said I am unsure that in secular liberal democracies, one’s religion should fall in the same all-encompassing protective category as one’s sexual orientation, biological sex, or race. We don’t choose our race, sexual orientation, or biological sex but we do choose whether or not we wish to adhere to and believe in particular religious narratives. If the religious beliefs are antithetical to Western liberal values (e.g., religiously-sanctioned hatred of members of otherwise protected classes such as religious minorities, women, or homosexuals!) then to “discriminate” against such beliefs is perfectly natural. As a side note, I should mention that religious folks typically disagree with the premise that one’s sexual orientation is innate, and will often offer religious “remedies” to the “problem” at hand (see here)! I should also add that religiously founded institutions are afforded legal protection to discriminate against those of other faiths or those possessing no faith (see my earlier post on the topic here)! Such is the beauty of religion. It seeks maximal protection for its narrative whilst openly discriminating against others in endless ways.

What about Hate Speech laws? These are fine when they are meant to protect against calls for violence against groups of individuals (e.g., “Let’s kill Jews. They are the enemies of God.”). On the other hand, to mock, offend, or criticize religious beliefs should never be construed as illegal hate speech lest we give up our most fundamental human rights: freedom of conscience (which includes freedom from religion) and freedom of speech. Modern-day blasphemy laws (often disguised as Hate Speech laws) are antithetical to the definitional ethos of Western liberal democracies (see here and here for two of my earlier posts on the topic). People have every right to practice their religious convictions in private (not as an intrusion on others in the public sphere) and the rest of us have every right to reject, mock, and criticize these beliefs. There is no such thing as freedom from religious offense. If you live in the West, you should accept that your religious views are not sacrosanct to those who do not share your faith.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Gad Saad is a Lebanese-Canadian evolutionary behavioural scientist at the John Molson School of Business (Concordia University, Canada) who is known for applying evolutionary psychology to marketing and consumer behaviour. He holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences and Darwinian Consumption and has a blog at Psychology Today titled Homo Consumericus. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter (@GadSaad).

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