The Best Defence

It does seem that so much ground already covered will be retrodden if I continue to post anything here, but this is not truly constitutive of a lack of originality. Thankfully the weight and depth of human history has made that a given for me, as it has for everyone else. And so, I can continue in a previously mentioned mode, that of treating philosophy as a form of treatment for those intellectual maladies which resist or recur.

I had something in mind on the nature of offence. I don’t want to approach being topical in any sense (and I can feel an 18th century paraphrase lurking somewhere in this) so I will merely attach this to my perennial target of religion. One of the most vocal groups, or group of groups, about the sheer indefensibility of offence, tends to be the religious, even if that proscription tends to be mostly about their religious sensibilities and doesn’t generalise. This is taken so seriously it frequently creeps into politics and proposed legislation in a manner truly terrifying to a committed secularist like myself, where religious freedom is, without analysis, equated with immunity to expressed disagreement.

And why? I suspect there is not a great deal about the nature of offence to be divined. It simply is what does not sit well with us, what is held to be an attack on something we value or hold to be significant. More revealing, for me, are the arenas in which the presence of offence shifts from being a source of annoyance, to a justification for asserting criminality. It does appear in the unhappiest of the isms. Nationalism displays it, after all. But theism elevates it to something astonishing.

Crises of faith are common enough to have an extant term. Though to my mind no one accuses oneself of blasphemy or criminality when questioning one’s own faith, troubling and difficult though that can be. Yet questioning, or not even questioning, simply not taking seriously, the faith of another crosses that line. Perhaps we are not to be trusted with the tender ministrations we show to ourselves when dealing with others.  This seems especially strange when, anecdotally I admit, we consider how often one’s own crisis of faith can lead to the loss of that faith, while the disdain or indifference of another does not. Treating this as if rationality were a factor, it would seem it is not the level of threat which is salient, but the intrusion of another.

Admitting to speculation, as well as anecdotal supposition, what seems salient to me is the element of exposure, of shared examination. Since all theism is patently nonsense, adherents are understandably more fractious about having their bizarre commitments pulled into the light where they have to view them as well. No wonder, then, that bluster about the sanctity and freedom of belief so stridently rings out. But note that it only seems to be asserted regarding specifically this type of belief, religious belief. It does not seem to be allowed for the deeply held principles or beliefs of those from outside of this group of groups.

Something I rarely see written in the atheistic literature (surely my own experiential lacuna, as I have already expressed no commitment to originality) is how deeply, shockingly offensive, any and all religious thought and practice is to those like me. Being offended to my very bones does not plumb those depths, and sadly I have no soul to co-opt for that sort of hyperbole. But the unreason, the subservience, the cringing inversion of strengths and weaknesses, the hypocrisy, the bastardisation of reason and those intellectual techniques that serve well enough generally, not to mention the endless excuses and justifications for any and all denials of shared humanity and the consequences of that: if I wrote like this for the remainder of my days I could hardly express the extent of the offence I take, the assumed disregard and denigration of my own position.

And so to the paraphrase. Voltaire, and his expression of defending to the death a right of expression, while disagreeing with the specifics of what is expressed. I always resonated with that. But to go along with the implied asymmetry above, I can only swallow the commitment to respect a right of expression, if I also have my own right to disrespect with fluent and poisonous contempt every expressed instance of expression.