Religion is belief, and belief is the mental acceptance that something is true. However, it does not necessarily mean that that something is definitely true, as verified by objective standards. The existence of the Christian God, for instance, has not been conclusively proven by science as of the time of writing — and neither has science definitively proven that God does not exist. In the absence of scientific proof, religion is and must be a question of personal choice. That is, only you can choose to believe and/or disbelieve in something, and nobody else can make that decision. Only you can choose whether to continue believing in that something, or to believe in something else, or disbelieve something — and nobody else can make that decision for you. All people can do is influence you towards a particular choice they believe you should take, be it joining a church, leaving a religion, or indeed anything at all.
The case of Pastor Rony Tan and his derogatory comments towards Taoists and Buddhists (and now homosexuals) throws the question of criticising faith into perspective. The Government’s stance is very clear: thou shalt not trivialise nor ridicule nor insult the religion of someone else, or thou shall face the full weight of the law. General opinion says that insulting someone’s religion goes against the principles of religious harmony. It is quite easy to end the debate here by concluding that it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion — if only because one may be invited for a discreet chat with certain nameless officials.
But I’m not content with that. It does not explain why it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion. It does not show a clear if any demarcation between insult and criticism of religion. It does not say why religious harmony is so important, and why criticising someone else’s religion is bad. Bringing up the spectre of religious riots in the 1960s, the default argument I was raised on, is no longer a good enough explanation: there were no riots after the discovery of and complaints against Tan’s remarks.
In the absence of other answers, I shall investigate this. Bear in mind this article covers insults only; it does not deal with the topic of hate crime, where actual physical harm is caused. Neither does this article cover criticism of religious practices, the stance of certain religions on issues like homosexuality and abortion, or indeed of the precepts of a religion. An ‘insult’ is a rude remark designed to be offensive; that is focus of this essay.
Going back to the first paragraph, religion is belief. People believe in their respective religions to varying degrees: some are lapsed, some only go through the pro forma rituals and little more, some volunteer at the church/mosque/temple, some are true believers. The greater the strength of belief, the more intertwined that religion is with a person’s identity. The Dalai Lama, for example, is seen and defined as the head religious teacher of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. A lapsed Catholic may see himself as something other than a Catholic. When one crosses a threshold of strength of belief, a person’s religion is seen by him as a fundamental aspect of what and who he or she is. At this point, the person’s faith is now a part of his identity, or how he chooses to define himself. If you insult that person’s religion, he sees it as an attack on himself.
But that is not just it. Religion may be a personal choice, but many people prescribe to that same belief and practice it in roughly the same ways. There are approximately 2 billion Christians, about 1.57 billion Muslims, and maybe 364 million Buddhists. By insulting a person’s faith, you are attacking him — and he sees it as an attack on the rest of his fellow believers. By heaping insults upon the teachings of the Koran, you will be seen as attempting to anger every fifth person in the world. Believers will see it as their duty to rise up and condemn the attacks, press for jail sentences and harsh punishment, and perhaps even lead counterattacks on non-believers and perceived threats. The world has seen this during the events proceeding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
One question: can you insult a belief until it dies?
The Christian Church tried this during the Early Middle Ages. This culminated in the witch-hunts of the 14th to 17th centuries. Witches and sorcerers were painted as fearful, dangerous criminals who sold their souls to the devil for profit and power, and routinely engaged in Satanic ritual parties that included orgies, cannibalism, naked dancing, and cavorting with the devil. Convicted witches were burned to death.
Today, neopagan movements, most notably Wicca, are emerging from obscurity. These religions are the spiritual, if not direct, descendants of the folk religions the Church painted as ‘heresy’, ‘Satanism’, and ‘withcraft’. These religions were constantly derided and insulted and trivialised by the Church, and their believers prosecuted to the full extent of the law, in the days when the Church had power to hold trials, torture suspects legally, and the rights of the accused were next to nil. Yet the pagan religions refused to die. Their practitioners merely went underground until the era it was safe to practice their faith in the open. Even today, fundamentalist Christians and other moralists still insult and deny Wicca and neopagan religions, calling them witchcraft and Satanism — even though they are now recognised religions. Unlike practitioners of mainstream faiths in the modern era, they had no rights and had no notion of people’s power. They did not fight for the right to practice their faith openly, either with arms or words. They did press for the right to be recognised, but only after the concept of freedom of religion was commonplace. They simply went with the flow and practiced in secret — and survived.
That is the first example of an organised attempt to wipe out a religion — not just by insulting it, but by rounding up and executing its followers. It failed. The Soviet Union attempted to enforce atheism and later secularism, decrying religion as the ‘opium of the masses, but the official policy on religion varied over the years, eventually watering down into official freedom of religion in the Constitution. China tried to do the same, most notably during the Cultural Revolution, before relenting and allowing freedom of religion — if and only if one subscribes to acceptable behaviour. Religions in those country may be restricted, but they exist.
So you cannot harm a religion by insulting it. You cannot destroy a religion even if you systematically prosecute its believers, even in a time and place where a particular religion was painted as the embodiment of evil on Earth. In the same way, you cannot kill an idea no matter how many insults you lay on it.
Insulting a religion attacks the body of believers and the individual believer. To the group, you are denying the essence of the group identity, the tenants of the group’s belief, and declare that the group’s strength of belief is unjustified and worthless. To the individual, you deny the person’s character, deny that he is an equal human being, and deny his emotional investment in his faith. This is the essential harm caused by insulting that religion.
Now, replace the word ‘religion’ with ‘political affiliation’, ‘sexual identity’, ‘culture’, ‘sex’, ‘age’, ‘income’, ‘social status’, and ‘hobby’.
What is the essential difference?
Sure, there are plenty of answers. Number of believers, social status of concept, government policy, international opinion, etc. But no matter the target, an insult is an attack on an identity. Your identity, and the group identity of fellow believers.
Really, the only essential difference between a personal insult and an insult aimed at a religion is the number of targets.
The objective of an insult, no matter the target (religion, sexual orientation, person, etc.), is to attack a person’s identity, to make the insulter feel better or superior to the target. That is all.
How do you handle someone insulting your religion, then? The same way you handle someone insulting your weight, height, choice of friends, family members, etc. You handle that person with assertiveness.
Let the person know that that kind of behaviour is neither encouraged nor tolerated. If the person is deliberately spreading misinformation, correct that misinformation and invite that person for a discussion on the topic at hand, be it religion or whatever. If that person continues to insult you, call out his behaviour to everybody else. Ignore him until he realises the error of his ways, or goes away. You do not let his comments affect you, you do not get upset, you do not insult him back. You do not forget that he, like you, is human.
This is also called ‘community moderation’.
As for legal involvement, I am hesitant to argue for judicial punishment. A person who insults someone’s religion has the same objective (not method) as someone who insults some else’s friends: to feel better. The harm done may be different — but by how much? Insulting Anglicanism would mean less to a lapsed Anglican than to an Anglican priest, and their individual reactions might be different. When you insult a religion, you are insulting a group of persons: how do you objectively judge the harm done to over a billion individuals? This is important because the amount of harm done directly influences the punishment; this is the principle of proportionality, which is a pillar of modern day justice. It is far easier to pass a sentence on a terrorist who has killed hundreds of innocents than a man who insulted the group identity of a third of the whole world. A modern-day judiciary will be hard-pressed to interview so many people to determine the impact of a billion bruised egos. And even if harm were done, this harm done tends to be little more than sore egos, and unlike an arm or heart, egos can grow back, with the right support, environment, and time.
Because of a lack of standards to determine harm done, and a relative lack of physical harm done by insult, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle people who insult others. Let the police handle the rapists, the robbers, the murderers — the people can handle someone with a misused tongue.
Let’s look beyond the narrative of religious harmony and protection of faith. An insult is designed to attack his identity and provoke an emotional reaction to make the insulter feel better. Its target, be it religion or sexuality, differs only in the number and type of people caught up in the insult. Insults aimed at religion do not harm the religion. The best way to handle an insult is assertiveness and community moderation, without forgetting that the insulter, too, is human. The courts do not have the ability to accurately assess the harm done by insult, making it difficult for judicial punishment to be fairly meted out. What we need, in the end, is a human response to a human failing whose harm is felt only when interpreted by humans.