Criticizing religion

If you want evidence that Andrew Sullivan's beliefs are based on raw emotions rather than well thought out principles, he has provided us with a lovely example today. Background: Sullivan and Leon Weiseltier have been having a back-and-forth over what Weiseltier takes to be Sullivan's anti-Semitism. In the process, Wieseltier suggests dismissively that Christianity is an incomprehensible form of polytheism. In this go-round, Sullivan approvingly quotes a reader:
It's downright evil to excuse saying terrible things about other people's faiths, especially when the things you are saying misconstrue what those people themselves believe about their own religion [italics and outrage all the reader's].
Really? It's evil? Me, I'm going with disrespectful.

A double standard seems to be in play here. This from the guy who endlessly blogged about the right - nay, the obligation - to publish cartoons that offended Muslims?

He wrote a few days ago:

Leon is describing the central tenets of the Christian faith - the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God - as a step backward for religious thinking. He is dismissing as stupid and backward the Incarnation. He goes so far as to insult it by decrying it as a regress to polytheism. And not just polytheism but crude polytheism.

I am not one to take offense at such things. My own faith can withstand the cheap pot-shots of others. But can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar derogatory and condescending and cheap remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?

Yes, of course, you can.

Forgive me if I do think he takes offense. Not just the letter from the reader, but the owrds he uses: "derogatory" "condescending" "cheap" X2. And that it's not just Muslims and Jews whose faith has trouble withstanding cheap pot-shots.


  1. I was offended by Leon's statements about Catholicism, regardless of Sullivans inconsistency. LW claimed he had friends who laugh at elements of his own religion. But, for me, as to Judaism, I see no reason to attempt to prove or disprove any of it. If the adherents live law abiding lives, are not coerced into belief, and it preaches a philosophy non destructive, I see no reason to publicly question (much less belittle as nonsense) their faith. To do so is crass and unbecoming a civilized human being. If LW is "friends" to such people, he needs a new choice of friends. Don't get me wrong, I welcome questioning if it is done in a spirit of genuine inquiry, an unexamined faith is useless, but I see no evidence of this here. It is just assertion: LW studied it, deems Catholicism a cult, and doesn't care who he offends.

    I actually agree with Andrew that evil is a suitable word. Disrespectful is talking back to your mother, or flipping someone the bird. After thousands of years of religious wars, and being in the midst of one now, great care should be used in how we address each other, lest we stumble down that violent path again.

    As to the cartoons, you can forcefully stand up for the right of people to publish the cartoons while at the same time decrying the contents of the cartoons (by, for example, labeling the expression of such hatred evil). Freedom of speech means freedom to offend, but standing up for freedom of speech doesn't equate with any tacit agreement of whatever hate speech people engage in. And hate speech is not disrespectful, it is evil (again, with that word)


  2. Charo's last paragraph is quite good. I can only say that I find the idea of hate speech to be too fuzzy to put into legal statues. For example, if I hate child abuse, and forcefully advocate against NAMBLA, am I practicing hate speech? If so, is it evil?

  3. Yuck! Just posted a whole response, and it got lost.

    The right to free speech is one thing. If one considers something a right, one by definition disregards harms and benefits - rights trump utility. Sullivan wasn't saying one COULD print those cartoons. He was saying one SHOULD, and he gleefully posted them himself.

    What Wieseltier said was crass and, yes, disrespectful, and I don't want to defend it. I take disrespectfulness to be a somewhat larger category than flipping the bird. And it may well be that I just put "evil" in a smaller category than you do. This maybe a semantic issue - not sure.

    I've had people say bad things about Judaism to me before. I've had people tell me I'm going to hell for my erroneous beliefs, which seems roughly analogous to the Wieseltier comments. Indeed, I've had people go one step further and (very rarely) say actual anti-Semitic things to me, or anti-Italian (I have an Italian name by marriage, and am a brunette, so people often mistake me for Italian).

    I'd be hard-pressed to say an evil has ever been done to me. If it has, these instances don't even place.

    Let me be clear: some hate speech, I think, can be evil. Especially if it is done to a child, or has the effect of reasonably seriously intimidating or impeding someone, or could incite violence. This just isn't in that category.

    I make my living questioning every belief. And I don't take any belief athat I have or any person has to be so sacrosanct that it isn't worth questioning. One should resist sophomoric jeering, which Wieseltier of course didn't. But harming a belief is nowhere near the evil done by harming a person.

    As an aside, I'm just wondering out loud: if speech such as this truly is evil, shouldn't it really lose its status as a right? Its one thing for rights to trump utility. It's another to claim a right to commit evil.

  4. Ah, I was nodding along until I arrived at your last paragraph. Now I'm wondering what you use as a definition of evil. Clearly it can't be a utilitarian view; you said utility was harms and benefits. OTOH, your 6th paragraph appeared to make use of utility in defining some speech as evil.

    So, off on the tangent, can something that has positive utility be evil, and some act with negative utility good? If so, what defines an act as evil? I'd need to understand this before agreeing to label some speech as (non-utilitarian) evil.

  5. Well, I wasn't saying "evil" as necessarily a grievous harm. You can see evil in a non-utilitarian way. Evon on a deontological view, if hate speech really is an intrinsically bad act (regardless of utility), why do we have a right to do it?

    And I guess I would define evil as an action not merely morally wrong, but really really morally wrong. On a utilitarian view, it should cause grievous harm. On a Kantian or deontological view be an unmitigatedly bad action. On virtue ethics, it's a person acting truly viciously. Etc.

    For your second question - do you mean on a utilitarian view? In that case, no, by definition. But on a deontological view, there are lots of examples. The "survivial lottery" - we don't think it's permissible to kill a healthy person and give each of her organs to people on waiting lists, thereby saving many more lives. The fat man in the trolley problems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem#The_fat_man). In some cases, the doctrine of double effect, etc.

  6. And if you like you can change this sentence "But harming a belief is nowhere near the evil done by harming a person" to "But insulting a belief is nowhere near the evil done by injuring or impeding or using a person."

  7. Elizabeth, yes, it does come down to semantics. You are judging actions or words on their putative effects, I am judging them on their intrinsic value, and the necessary intent of the practitioner. In our relativistic age, the word evil has gone out of fashion (and in a Godless Universe the word loses all meaning) but labeling something evil doesn't label the person who commits the act as being irredeemable. Nor does it imply that all manners of evil are the same. We distinguish crime by manner and degree, we can do the same with evil.

    and gj, I laid down the conditions in which I would condemn such speech in my first posting: If the adherents live law abiding lives, are not coerced into belief, and it preaches a philosophy non destructive, I see no reason to publicly question (much less belittle as nonsense) their faith.

    Are you honestly saying Nambla preaches a non destructive philosophy? Now I suppose I could have done a better job linking the two, but honestly Nambla was the last thing on my mind.

    Besides, speaking out against Nambla is not hate speech. I am baffled about how you can assume it is.

    Now if you are talking about the intrinsic value of hatred itself, well then yes, even hate speech is evil since it is ruled by the darker emotions and not goodness or justice. Speaking out against evil is not hate speech, it is good speech. (t coin a phrase)


  8. It's not even on their effects. I just don't see how insulting a belief is the same as, say, using a person as mere means.

  9. Elizabeth, I am saying the evil lies within the intent of the user and can be labeled as such. I seriously doubt in many cases it is to insult a belief as it is to insult the believer. If one insults a belief without that intent, it would be like insulting a couch for being ugly. If I were to say to you: Elizabeth, your living room couch is terrible, how can anyone buy such an ugly thing? Am I insulting the couch or you? Now if I were to say "that is an interesting couch, why did you buy it?" leading to me making an observation that it doesn't suit my tastes. The end result can be the same, I can express my opinion, but my obvious intent is not the same.


  10. Elizabeth, deontological evil moves the question to "why should *these* rules define what is evil?" or perhaps better as "why are these rules the correct rules?" I suppose consequentialists can argue over which consequences are desirable as well.

    The trolley questions simply reveal an underlying evolutionary morality that isn't consistent, so it is very difficult to use as a rational moral system.

    What if, by insulting a belief (advocating behavior that protected people), that belief were weakened to the point where many people were injured? A consequentialist would say insulting the belief was more evil than harming a single person, right? A deontologist wouldn't necessarily agree, AIUI. What do you think?

    charo, I find it very difficult to be certain of the intent in others, so perhaps that's why I'm reluctant to use intent to distinguish between hate speech and misguided speech.

  11. Charo - I agree there's intent there, and such a comment would be an insult to me. It is morally wrong, I just don't think it's very very morally wrong.

    Gadfly, deonotological folks have come up with a lot of answers for that. The "mere means" formulation of the categorical imperative is most persuasive.

    I agree that we have developed such that we have a smattering of views about ethical theories. I don't think we should throw up our hands at trying to systematize it at all. Something unique about moral norms as opposed to other norms (and as opposed to mere preferences) is that we feel compelled, psychologically, to give reasons for our moral judgments. If you ask me why I prefer vanilla to chocolate, I can shrug and say "I just do." If you ask why we put our glasses to the right of our table settings, I can agree it's arbitrary. But if you ask me why it's wrong to molest a child, I can give you *reasons*.

    I'm sympathetic to virtue ethics, myself. I think morality is systematizable, universally applicable, based on who we are and what we are capable of, informed by intentions and the intrinsic nature of actions and consequences.