A response to Pope Francis' "respect religion, or else"

Pope Francis is the latest public figure to make remarks about the deadly terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo in France. Speaking to reporters on a flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines the pontiff shared his thoughts on faith and freedom of expression:

Pope Francis suggested there are limits to freedom of expression, saying in response to the Charlie Hebdo terror attack that “one cannot make fun of faith” and that anyone who throws insults can expect a “punch.”

The pontiff said that both freedom of faith and freedom of speech were fundamental human rights and that “every religion has its dignity.”

“One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said. “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

I agree with the Pope on one point. There are limitations on free speech. Here in the United States, for instance, there are several types of speech that are not protected under the First Amendment:

Restrictions that are based on people’s reactions to words include both instances of a complete exception, and cases of diminished protection. Speech that involves incitement, false statements of fact, obscenity, child pornography, threats, and speech owned by others are all completely exempt from First Amendment protections. Commercial advertising receives diminished, but not eliminated, protection.

Along with communicative restrictions, less protection is afforded for uninhibited speech when the government acts as subsidizer or speaker, is an employer, controls education, or regulates the following: the mail, airwaves, legal bar, military, prisons, and immigration.

Taken at face value, Pope Francis’ “there are limits on free speech” comment is accurate.  As you can see above, there literally are limits on free speech. Noticeably absent from the list of exceptions to the First Amendment? Speech that mocks, criticizes, or insults religion or religious beliefs…and I don’t think Pope Francis likes that. After all, he says:

The right to liberty of expression comes with the “obligation” to speak for “the common good,” Pope Francis said, cautioning against provocation.

To illustrate his point, he joked about Vatican aide Alberto Gasparri who was standing nearby on the plane.

“It’s true that we can’t react violently, but, for example if Dr. Gasbarri here, a great friend of mine, says a curse word against my mother, then a punch awaits him,” the pontiff said.

Most readers who understand how words work can see that the Pope is making an analogy to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In his analogy, Dr. Gasbarri is a stand-in for Charlie Hebdo, while his mother is in the role of Islam. Despite his comment about not reacting violently, the Pope says that if you insult his mother, you should expect a violent reaction. Likewise, if you insult Islam (and by extension, all religions), you should expect a violent reaction. But here’s the thing:  you shouldn’t expect a violent reaction.  Violence is not a reasonable response to words of criticism, scorn, insult, or yes, mockery. Questions of quality aside, the creators of Charlie Hebdo produced words (and images).  Words that expressed mockery, scorn, and insult, to be sure, but words nonetheless.  To Pope Francis though, those words crossed a line, into the realm of things you shouldn’t say, and you shouldn’t say them because…hold on, his papal majesty must have offered a reason, so I’ll just go back and re-read what he wrote.




Pope Francis doesn’t offer any reasoning for why we should not mock or insult religion or religious beliefs. He just says don’t do it. Welp, I’m convinced. Oh, wait, no I’m not because fuck authoritarian thinking like that. If, instead of condemning any form of speech that ridicules, mocks, or insults religion, he said “we must be cautious about the manner in which we criticize, ridicule, or insult, lest we punch down the power gradient” or something along those lines, I’d have agreed.  But that isn’t what he said. He said don’t do it because reasons…reasons he forgot to include. That’s not being completely fair. He did offer up a reason, albeit not a terribly strong one: the so-called dignity of religion.

Here’s the thing though:  I don’t think it is essential to treat religion or religious beliefs with dignity. As I understand the word, dignity means the quality or state of being worthy of respect or esteem. As a species, we humans have decided that when any of us are denied our basic rights…when we are treated as beings unworthy of existence…when we are denied basic dignity:  we suffer and we die. That’s why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted. When religion or religious beliefs are not treated with reverence…when they are mocked, or criticized, nothing happens. Religion doesn’t get hurt. Religious beliefs don’t die. It should be obvious why (hint: neither religion nor religious beliefs are living beings that can suffer and die).

I fully understand that for many people, religion and religious beliefs are of great importance. Such importance, in fact, that they are granted tremendous respect. Now, on a personal level, if an individual decides they want to grant religion dignity, that’s their choice. No one should attempt to force them to do otherwise, as that would be a violation of their right to freedom of conscience. The opposite holds true as well. If an individual does not wish to grant dignity to religion, that is their choice and they should not be coerced into treating religion with reverence.

I am one such individual. I do not respect religion or religious beliefs. Down through the ages, people have used their religion and their religious beliefs to justify, support, or defend-in whole or in part-the most vile, barbaric, and inhumane ideas, actions, and institutions. Pogroms. Witch hunts. Crusades. Condoning slavery. Sexism and misogyny. Anti-LGBT bigotry. The selling and trafficking of newborns. The rape and molestation of children by priests. Spreading lies about contraception. Treating women as brood mares. Refusing life-saving blood transfusions for children. Condoning rape. Opposition to abortion. The list could go on and on. I refuse to respect institutions or beliefs that justify, support, or provide defense of such horrific violations of human rights. On another, more simple level, there is one more reason I don’t respect religious beliefs or religion.

Simply put: I’m a non-believer…an atheist.  I do not adhere to, nor am I bound by the beliefs of any religion-whether in the here and now or in the distant past. I do not believe in the so-called divine. I do not believe in gods of any sort (pick a god among the thousands created by humanity, and I assure you, I won’t believe in its existence). Pope Francis’ words boil down to “respect religion and religious beliefs or else harm will befall you”. For me, as a non-believer, I do not respect either one. The Pope’s words are an attempt at coercion. Rather than use rhetoric to persuade people to be respectful, Pope Francis supports the use of force by way of coercion.

To the Pope, I say:

“As a human being, I have the freedom of conscience. I have the right to choose what I want to believe or not believe. Moreover, it is unconscionable for you or anyone to attempt to coerce me (or anyone else) into respecting any religion or religious beliefs. Such an attempt is a violation of the rights of anyone who chooses to believe differently than you. The threat of force, whether by your hand or others, will not stay me from criticizing, mocking, or yes, insulting religion or its tenets.”

Or, shorter me (by way of  Tim Minchin):  Fuck the Pope.

A response to Pope Francis' "respect religion, or else"