This past Wednesday I was at the launch event for Religionskritikk (Criticism of Religion) by Gunn Hild Lem, the second and newest book in Humanist Forlag’s Pro Et Contra series (the first being Bjørn Stærk’s Ytringsfrihet (Freedom of Speech), which I reviewed here). Inspired and full of ideas, I rushed home to get my reflections down before other things got in the way. Unfortunately, try as I might otherwise, I need to sleep. I didn’t have the energy to stay up and finish the post, and so, in the meantime, as is the way with these things, someone’s already beaten me to the punch and written up an account of the event already.
Still, I thought I might just post what I had written.
In an absolutely packed out room at Literaturehuset Lem was interviewed about some of her motivations for writing about the criticism of religion and asked to expand on some of her ideas about how and why it should be handled.
Now a staunch atheist and humanist, Lem grew up in a very religious (Baptist) home and community, which gives her a sense of empathy for the religious that others, who have not experienced religion, fail to sometimes appreciate. As a young adult, thoughts and worries about who went to hell and why occupied in her thoughts to such a degree that the anxiety led to her seeing a therapist.
An interesting idea, touched on briefly early on in the conversation, was that the idea of ‘religious freedom’ should also include exposure to other religions and ideas, not just the freedom to practice religion: it is no freedom if you’re exposed to only a single worldview and have no choice in the matter. That the choice is very often not given to children says a lot about how little confidence religious parents have that their children will make the ‘right’ choice. Self-reflection and seeing her religion from other angles paved the way for her see the flaws in her Christian worldview and her eventually having to break it to her devout family that she no longer believed - ‘a god who can demand that a woman must marry the man that raped her lacks empathy and is a psychopath’.
Lem describes herself as a ‘soft’ atheist: As someone who wants more dialogue between the faithful and the faithless she eschews the aggressive nature of New Atheism, which she quite rightly criticizes for often existing in an echo chamber of derision that closes off opportunities for genuine understanding. Dawkins and the rest of the Four Horseman (god, I miss Hitchens) brought atheism to the fore in public discussion but things have now moved on and become much more nuanced. Asking someone why they believe the things they do, which is not the same as attacking their beliefs, opens up a space for critical reflection on both sides, a necessary condition for progress.
Whilst she absolutely believes in absolute freedom of speech, she cautioned that ‘putting principles over people’ requires that we accept people losing lives because of religious uproar and reactions to blasphemy as ‘collateral damage’ (for example the deaths of more than a 100 people after the Danish Mohamed cartoon controversy). How much we are willing to risk for the sake of freedom of speech is an interesting question, both at the individual and societal level, and is question that will continue to remain at the fore.
Norwegian politicians are currently debating whether to introduce the right for doctors to refuse to provide abortion services on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Advocates (religious ones, obviously) have argued that so few doctors would take this up that it’s not even worth getting worked up about and that if refused by the GP,’ women can go directly to the hospital’. Lem suggested that it isn’t right to force someone one act against their conscience and that, where practicable, i.e. that there is someone else to perform the service, the doctor should act according to their beliefs. Here, I strongly disagree and see this is a prime example of the negative side of accommodationism. An individual doctor’s religious beliefs do not and cannot be allowed to trump the hard-won reproductive rights of women and their fair and equal access to health care. Public health care should remain absolutely secular; on some issues, comprise in this way is not an option. I'm of a mind that if a doctor, or anyone else for that matter, cannot do what they are employed to do because their religious beliefs, they should find a profession where they can.
As is often the case in discussion of religion and religious criticism, it’s when Islam came up that things got really interesting. Lem was at pains to point out that Religionskritikk sticks closely to Christianity, though she mentions that many of the ideas are just as applicable to Islam (and all other religions too, I guess). Directly addressing Islam is avoided not because of fears of a backlash but because of accusations of racism. Religion is of course often tied up with ethnicity and culture and accusations of racism are a useful smokescreen and easy and effective way for the religious to shut down legitimate debate and avoid criticism.
One of the questions during the Q&A was about who exactly is allowed to do the criticizing. In principle, it’s the argument and not the person making it that matters, but this is not how it works in practice. The argument is very often interpreted very differently depending on whether the person making it is seen as an ‘inside’ or ‘outsider’.
This got me thinking about the recent case of Liberal Democrat MP Maajid Nawaz, a practicing muslim, who tweeted a Jesus and Mo illustration to show that part of living in a free society means that if women can wears veils then atheist should be able to wear t-shirt’s depicting Mohammed. By the end of the week, Nawaz had received death threats and was on the receiving end of a 20,000-strong petition to asking for him to resign from his parlimentary candidacy.
Here he is eloquently defending his position:
Nawaz should be commended for his open and progressive attitude, but the reactions of some of his fellow muslims – a very small minority it must be stressed – is illustrative of the problems faced by those within Islam who wish to be self-critical.
That I found myself agreeing with Lem on many things and strongly disagreeing with her on others is a good sign. It’s only through hearing things that challenge what you think that you learn. I couldn’t help but dive straight into the book on the way home and was so engrossed that I got on the wrong tube had to take an obscenely long detour to get home. (It’s not the first time that’s happened; I think the last time was only a couple of weeks ago when I had my head stuck in White Tiger).
To say I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Religionskritikk is a massive understatement. It’s already replaced Juks as Week 5’s book.