When Free Speech Isn't Free: The Question of Religion and Free Speech

Whenever an attack on those who claim to exercise their right of free speech occurs, no matter how tragic or horrific, as in the case of the recent shootings at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, questions about the limits of free speech emerge, or rather re-emerge. The problem of how far free speech should be allowed to go is a question fraught with complications, especially when that free speech is initiated to poke fun at or satirize religion.

What really are the limits on free speech? Should religion be exempt from any sort of ridicule, criticism or parody? Should we consider religion differently than any other identifier of human experience? Leaders like Pope Francis think so. His comments, taken out of context initially, were clarified by Vatican officials. But the message was clear: keep your satirical mitts off my faith, buster, or I can't be held responsible for my actions. Why does religion provoke such strong feelings in people, even the Pontiff? I suggest that religion is part of identity and that identity begins forming very early in life for most of us. And over time that identity becomes rock solid and immovable.

Religion, God and Our Parents

Most people are born into their religious persuasions. (I can only speak confidently about my own religious experience-Catholicism- so I will draw chiefly from that.) Many religions have rituals in place that performed mainly to indoctrinate and propagate the faith by including the younger congregants. For example in 2nd grade Catholic children make their "First Holy Communion." It is a special day, with special clothing, big parties and lots of gifts. It is thought that age 7 is the so-called "age of reason" so this sacrament is appropriate. The deeply complex theological concept behind this is millions of miles away from the possible comprehension of the 7 year old participants, and most likely their families, but the sacrament goes on.

We as children incorporate an experience like this as part of our personal history, our family history and our congregational history, our extended spiritual family, at the head of which is God. God becomes family. Our experience of God as children is deeply influenced by our experience of our parents, whether loving and nurturing, harsh and punitive, critical or demanding. We may look to God and by extension the method of worshipping God as either a reinforcement of our family values or a refuge from a traumatic and bruising family. Thus an insult to our religion's belief system, its iconography or its place in the world can feel like a direct insult on our extended spiritual family. Even Pope Francis invoked his mother in his remarks: "They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he says a curse word against my mother (italics added) There is a limit.”

Personal Identity and Group Affiliation

Even as the major religions of the world filter through the many cultures of the countries where the religion is practiced, there are imbedded cultural constructs that arise from the shared experience of being a member of the religion.: the stereotype of the "good Catholic girl" or the "nice Jewish boy" (I regret I don't know enough about American Muslims to have a corresponding phrase, but I imagine there must be one). These characteristics whether fully or partially adopted by us, help shape our identity. And how important that is to us depends upon how important our religious affiliations and cultural connections have become to us we grow up.

Tolerating the (Nearly) Intolerable

One of the inconvenient tenets of free speech involves allowing someone who utters the most outrageous, offensive and reprehensible ideas and opinions (to your way of thinking) to do so without censorship. Thus we protect our right to utter the same outrageous, offensive and reprehensible (in another's mind) ideas and opinions when it is our turn to express ourselves. As I stated, this is inconvenient and borders on intolerable for some. It includes a learned skill, that of being open to the concept that we are not all alike, yet we all deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity. This is not merely a social construct; it stems from early development. The capacity to tolerate that another is substantially different from us and not fall apart, become overwhelmed even to the point of retaliation, develops in early childhood.

When we are infants, we experience the outside world as an extension of our internal world-in other words "I'm me and that over there is me and the other thing in my view is me, too. It's all me." In a normative, good enough environment, the other objects (that term includes people) are experienced as other, but still under our influence ("That thing that comes to bring me nourishment when I'm hungry does it because I want it to"). Eventually, barring any severe traumas or disruptions in development the nascent human begins to understand that those other objects are people like her, meaning they are not merely extensions of her internal world. This is an essential step in emotional maturation, learning that the world is populated with many others with whom we need to interact. The optimal kind of interaction necessitates recognition and acceptance of the differences between us. And at times those differences feel so alien to us, that they hinge on being an intolerable affront to our sense of what is "right."

I don't pretend to have a practical solution for this problem, only to generate some thinking about it. If speech is "free" except for religion, what will be the next sensitive thing that cannot be touched? Where does the censorship end? Or are we willing to set boundaries on our satirists and social commentators in order to protect ourselves from feeling raw, emotional insults having them turn into violent retaliation? Respect, empathy and the capacity to make room in our experience for "otherness" seem to me to be key in unraveling this complicate question.