Charlie Hebdo, Religion & Not Causing Offence

How restrained should we be in our treatment of religious beliefs that we do not share?

By Professor Peter Jones (Newcastle University)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Mohamed al-Sayaghi/REUTERS

Picture Description: “A man takes part in a demonstration against satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, which featured a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad as the cover of its first edition since an attack by Islamist gunmen, in front of the French embassy in Sanaa January 17, 2015. The headband reads “anything but Muhammad” by Mohamed al-Sayaghi for Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

The savage killings of journalists working for Charlie Hebdo, along with the associated murders of several other people who had no connection with the magazine, raised many issues. Here I consider only one: do we have reason to curb what we say or publish about a religious faith, especially when the faith is not ours? I should say immediately that, if there is any such reason, it should not lie in fear of bombs and bullets, even though that has become a major reason, and perhaps the major reason, why the mainstream press and electronic media now carefully self-censor their output on Islam. That is not to reproach those who engage in such self-censorship. Their fear is well-founded and editors are rightly mindful of the dangers to their staff as well as to themselves. Fear of violent death and injury is a bad reason only in that it is a reason that ought not to exist.

My concern is with whether we have ‘good’ reason in dealing with religious subjects to curb what we say, write and portray. In particular, I want to consider whether, if there is any such reason, that good reason consists in not causing offence to those whose religion is at issue. Many who deplored the Charlie Hebdo murders still had severe reservations about the magazine’s output, particularly its ‘offensive’ treatment of religious subjects. The magazine was reasonably even-handed in its satirical treatment of different religions, but the vicious and unrestrained nature of its satire made many people feel deeply uneasy, even when their own faith was not the target.

“Fear of violent death and injury is a bad reason only in that it is a reason that ought not to exist”

The Charlie Hebdo killings were preceded by a string of other episodes raising the question of whether freedom of expression should be limited in deference to people’s religious sensibilities. One of the most prominent was the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllans-Posten, in 2005. By comparison with the output of Charlie Hebdo, those cartoons were remarkably mild, yet they sparked a storm of protest throughout the Muslim world and provided another occasion for death and injury. In 2004 the Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a Muslim who objected to van Gogh’s film, Submission, which criticised the treatment of women by Islam. Casting its long shadow over all such episodes was the ‘Rushdie Affair’, set off by the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988, and accelerated by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa sentencing Rushdie to death and calling upon ‘all zealous Muslims’ to ensure that the sentence was carried out. As with the Charlie Hebdo killings, the violence associated with these episodes was widely condemned, but many who joined in those condemnations also condemned Rushdie, van Gogh and the Danish cartoonists for their provocative and offensive treatment of subjects sacred to Islam. Even Pope Benedict XVI found himself the subject of censure when, in a lecture he gave at the University of Regensburg in 2006, he quoted a fourteenth century Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos, saying, “Show me just what Muhammad had brought that was new and then you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.

Asia Society, Bill Swersey/Flickr.
Asia Society, Bill Swersey/Flickr.“Author Salman Rushdie discusses the Mumbai attacks during a panel discussion at the Asia Society, December 17, 2008”

While in recent years the most high-profile clashes between religion and free expression have been associated with Islam, the issue has not been unique to Islam. In 2003, Jerry Springer: The Opera was staged in London where it ran until 2005. It went on tour in the UK in 2006 and opened in New York in 2008. The musical attracted protests from Christians, led by the organisation Christian Voice which deemed it blasphemous and offensive, for, amongst other things, presenting the adult Jesus wearing a nappy and describing himself as ‘a little bit gay’. Christian protests turned to the BBC when it screened the opera in 2005. In same year that Rushdie’s Satanic Verses appeared, Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ, went on release. Its portrayal of Christ struggling with sexual and other temptations, and its radical departures from the Christ of the New Testament, also evoked strong protests from Christians, including attacks on theatres in France when the film was shown there.

The issue raised by these cases might be conceived as one concerning the proper content of law: should law be used to limit people’s freedom of expression on religious matters and, if so, in what ways and to what extent? However, I want to consider the issue as one that is not just about the proper content of law. Even if we are legally at liberty to express ourselves freely on religious matters, there may be reasons why we should limit our use of that liberty. The law may not censor us, but perhaps we should censor ourselves. The term ‘self-censorship’ is often used pejoratively and self-censorship can indeed be a matter for regret, when, for example, people have perfectly reasonable views that they should be able to express but fight shy of doing so because they fear the condemnation of others. On the other hand, as a matter of civility we self-censor in quite perfunctory ways in our everyday interactions with one another. We do not give voice to every thought that enters our heads and it is appropriate that we should not. In a similar fashion, a degree of self-censorship on religious matters may be applauded as showing due consideration for others rather than regrettable fear or reprehensible cowardice. In contemporary liberal societies, the question of how we should conduct ourselves within the law will often be just as significant as that of what the law should be.


Religious belief and offence

Why, in public controversies concerning religion , do people turn so readily to the language of ‘offence’? The obvious answer is that those who believe that their faith and its sacred figures have been traduced are typically ‘offended’. They react with various forms of emotion, ranging from distress and disapproval to indignation and outrage. Even those who do not subscribe to the affected religion often empathise with its adherents and recognise as ‘offensive’ the way the religion has been treated by its traducers.

But there is another reason why people reach so readily for the language of offence. If I am a Muslim, I will object to Charlie Hebdo’s treatment of Mohammed because I believe that Mohammed was God’s Prophet and that he should be treated with the respect and reverence appropriate to his divine status. Similarly, if I am a Christian, I shall object to the lampooning of Jesus Christ and other figures sacred to my faith because of their divine status. But, if I am not a Muslim or a Christian, those reasons for desisting from ridicule and caricature cannot be reasons for me. They can function as reasons only for those who embrace the relevant faith. For the Christian, Mohammed was a false prophet and has no divine status. The Muslim is not similarly dismissive of Jesus since, within Islam, Jesus is regarded as a prophet though not the son of God. But, if we turn to the Hindu deities, the Muslim will be as dismissive of these as the Christian is of Mohammed.

The Muslim can, however, recognise the negative impact upon non-Muslims of attacks on their faiths, just as the non-Muslim can recognise the hurt caused to Muslims by assaults on Islam and Mohammed. In other words, we can recognise the reality and the unpleasantness of offence caused by attacks on another’s faith, and we can regret its occurrence, even though we do not share the faith upon which the offence depends. Avoiding offence can therefore function as kind of common denominator, a shared concern, amongst a population who possess different and conflicting religious beliefs, including no religious belief.

Just how good a reason is ‘avoiding offence’ for curbing the way in which we treat the religious beliefs of others? In answering that question, we need first to consider what ‘offence’ and ‘offensive’ describe.


What offence is

To be offended is to undergo a negative experience. The experience is ‘negative’ in that it is disagreeable, unpleasant or dislikeable in some other way. That is why people generally dislike, and commonly object to, being offended. It is a negative ‘experience’ because to be offended is to undergo a mental state. Typically, it is a person’s feelings or sensibilities that are said to be offended. Offence is therefore an essentially subjective phenomenon. It describes how a person reacts to something in the world. That is why what offends one person may not offend another. People do sometimes describe an act or image as offensive in a way that suggests that ‘offensiveness’ is a property of the act or image itself, rather than something that depends upon a person’s reaction to it. That is understandable since we are often offended by the same things, but an essential reference to a mental state remains in ascriptions of offensiveness, even though the reference point for that mental state may be ‘most people’ or the ‘typical’ person.


Should we take offence seriously?

I want to question the force of the claim to be offended as a reason for curbing the freedom of others, but there are two common ways of dismissing the claims of offence on which my own argument will not rely.

One objection is that being offended is too slight, too trivial, an experience to count for much. If we follow John Stuart Mill, we shall hold that we are justified in limiting people’s freedom only to prevent harm to others (although Mill held that an action’s being harmful rendered it only eligible for restriction rather than necessarily justifiably restricted all things considered). But describing the offensive as ‘harmful’, with its connotation of enduring injury, smacks of hyperbole. No doubt people dislike being offended but they dislike all sorts of things. Mere dislike is not enough to justify curtailing the freedom of others. If it were, we might easily be left with very little freedom. While that is so, I do not want simply to dismiss people’s adverse reactions as of no account, especially in the context of religion, since the language of harm may be insufficiently accommodating to include all that we have reason to take seriously.

The other common objection to claims of offence is that, even if we do not dismiss them out of hand, they pale into insignificance when they compete with the claims of free expression. That is a very imposing objection and I shall invoke the claims of free expression myself in due course but, for the time being, I want to question the force of the appeal to offence independently of whether that force might be outweighed by conflicting considerations.


Two types of offence

The language of offence is used to describe people’s adverse reaction to a great many different things: pornography, body odour, foul language, sexual harassment, racist remarks, public defecation, personal insults, and so on. I cannot consider all of them and, for my purposes here, I shall make do with a distinction between ‘sensory offence’ and ‘belief-based offence’. By sensory offence, I mean offence occasioned by direct assaults upon our senses. Some odours are foul, some sights are nauseating, and some sounds set our teeth on edge. By belief-based offence, I mean offence that is mediated by belief, so that the experiencing of an act or image as offensive depends upon a prior belief that the act or image is in some way wrongful. The offence experienced by the religious in response to the Danish cartoons, Jerry Springer: the Opera, and Charlie Hebdo is clearly belief-based in this sense.

Jordi Boixareu/Flickr
Jordi Boixareu/Flickr

The distinction between these two types of offence is not entirely straightforward since belief can sometimes play a role in sensory offence. Joel Feinberg has remarked that ‘the smell of freshly baked macaroni and cheese smells very little different from that of much human vomit’.[1] If we do not witness the source of the smell, our belief about what it is that we smell, macaroni cheese or human vomit, can determine whether we react with delight or disgust. However, we might say in that case that our offence is ‘belief-informed’ rather than ‘belief-based’. The belief is a belief about what we are experiencing rather than a belief that identifies an act or state of affairs as wrong and as offensive because it is wrong.

In the case of sensory offence, there will often be little we can say to register our objection to it beyond declaring the sheer unpleasantness of the experience it causes us to undergo. For someone who has to live constantly with a foul smell emanating from a nearby pig farm or chemical plant, it is the sheer foulness of the smell that is objectionable. There may, of course, be reasons why, all things considered, the unfortunate victim has either to put up with the smell or to move elsewhere, but that does nothing to diminish the foulness of the smell or the negative impact it has on the victim’s quality of life.


Belief-based offence

In the case of belief-based offence, matters are much less straightforward and the normative force of my reporting that something offends me is much less evident.

First, the range of reactions that the language of offence is used to encompass in religious cases is much more diverse and inclusive than in the case of the sensory offence. The offended reactions may include feelings of hurt and distress and we may be able to assimilate those to painful or unpleasant sensations. But, in cases such as Charlie Hebdo, feelings of anger, outrage and indignation are very much to the fore and those too are swept up by the language of offence. Yet it would be odd to hold that anger, outrage and indignation are in themselves painful or nauseous or even unpleasant. Those emotions are quite different from the negative experiences encompassed by sensory offence and their mere experience as emotions is much less clearly a ground for justified complaint.

Secondly, people ‘take’ offence as well as give it and we have therefore to ask whether their offence is taken reasonably or justifiably. If it is not, we have reason to discount it no matter how real it may be. It would be odd to give moral weight to a person’s anger without subjecting it to a test of reasonableness or justification, but that test shifts the focus from the person’s mere experience of anger to what it is that he or she is angry about.

“We have to ask whether their offence is taken reasonably or justifiably. If it is not, we have reason to discount it no matter how real it may be”.

Thirdly, as that implies, in focusing on a person’s emotional reaction we seem to be looking in the wrong place. Suppose that you misrepresent my character to others as dishonest, self-serving and uncaring, and I complain that your misrepresentation makes me really angry. In complaining in those terms, I am not protesting that I am being made to experience anger; I am protesting about the wrongfulness of your misrepresentation. Your misrepresentation does indeed make me feel angry, but its wrongfulness does not consist in its causing me to experience anger and my complaint does not mean to suggest that it does. Its wrongfulness, and my justification for complaining about it, lies in the fact that it is a misrepresentation, which is quite independent of any emotions it may stir in me.

In the same way, if I say that I find your lampooning a sacred figure offensive, I am most unlikely to mean that your treatment of the sacred figure is wrong because it causes me to experience offence (whatever ‘offence’ might mean here). Rather I almost certainly mean to protest that your treatment of the sacred figure is wrong and my saying that I find that treatment offensive is a way of saying that I believe it to be wrong, just as if I were to say it ‘makes me angry’ or it ‘makes me sick’. But then it is up to me, as complainer, to indicate why your conduct is wrong and to provide reason why you should desist from it and perhaps be compelled to desist from it. In contexts like Charlie Hebdo, my saying that I find your conduct offensive amounts to little more than reporting ‘I do not like it’ or ‘I find it objectionable’ and those statements are plainly inadequate as reasons for removing another’s freedom. If I do have reason to demand that another’s freedom be curbed, it has to reside in why I do not like the person’s conduct or why I find it objectionable.

As the language of offence has become increasingly fashionable, so its users have become ever more confident of its efficacy, not just in religious matters but across the whole domain of social and political controversy. People suppose that, in declaring ‘it is offensive’ or ‘it offends me’, they play a trump card that should end the game. Whatever ‘it’ is, their being offended by it should conclude the matter. In fact, declaring one’s offence simply reports one’s state of mind and, in matters of substantive disagreement, should hardly count as a reason at all. Rather than bringing the argument to an end, it is the point at which argument should begin.

“If I do have reason to demand that another’s freedom be curbed, it has to reside in why I find it objectionable”

My claim here is not that Muslims have no reason to complain about Charlie Hebdo’s treatment of Mohammed. I shall indicate in a moment that they do. My claim is only that that reason does not consist in their being caused to undergo a negative mental state, ostensibly described by the word ‘offence’.


Offence and even-handedness

Before turning to an alternative possible reason, I want to indicate another way in which relying on the phenomenon of offence is unsatisfactory. In western societies, Christians have had, over at least three centuries, to get used to attacks of various sorts on their faith. In societies in which Islam has been the dominant faith, Muslims have not undergone a similar experience. Consequently, in the contemporary world, Muslims tend to react with much greater anger and indignation to attacks on their faith than do Christians, especially when those attacks take the form of satire and ridicule. If the rationale for protecting religious believers from attacks on their faith is saving them from offence, the consequence will be – and has been – that Muslims will be treated with much greater sensitivity than Christians. Yet that seems unfair. If the faithful are to be protected and if two faiths are attacked in similar fashions, they surely should receive similar protection. Take, for example, the BBC’s screening of Jerry Springer: the Opera, in spite of Christian objections. If Jesus, as he appeared in the opera, had been replaced by Mohammed but the character had otherwise remained the same, it is inconceivable that the BBC would have screened the opera. Why? Theologically, it is hard to see why the Son of God should count for less than God’s Prophet. But, if offence is our concern, especially as measured by the noisiness of people’s protests and their readiness to respond violently, different treatments will be justified for different religions.


Respect for beliefs

If we set aside claims of offence, what other reason might we have for not subjecting people’s religious beliefs to ridicule and vilification, even though we do not share those beliefs? The alternative I want to propose, albeit briefly, is one that I have previously labelled ‘respect for beliefs’.[2] The idea basic to that respect is that we have reason to respect people’s beliefs not because we reckon them to be true or well-founded but because they matter to the people whose beliefs they are. ‘Respect for beliefs’ does not enjoin us to respect beliefs merely as such; rather it enjoins us to respect beliefs insofar as that respect follows from the respect we should have for the people who hold them. In the first instance, therefore, the respect at issue here is respect for people who hold beliefs and only secondarily and dependently for the beliefs they hold. Beliefs should matter to us because the people who hold them should matter to us. The notion of respect for beliefs is therefore grounded in the Kantian idea of respect for persons.

“We have reason to respect people’s beliefs not because we reckon them to be true or well-founded but because they matter to the people whose beliefs they are”

That Kantian idea provides the foundation for the right to religious freedom and the duties which that right imposes. Respecting persons entails respecting their right to shape their own lives, including their right to commit themselves to whatever religious faith they find compelling or to no religious faith at all. Those who embrace a religious faith are entitled to live their lives in accordance with their faith, subject to the proviso that, in doing so, they do not violate the rights of others, particularly the right of others to live according to other faiths or none.

The idea of respect for beliefs is an extension of that widely accepted conception of people’s right to embrace and pursue a religious faith. If we should take seriously a person’s commitment to a religious faith and their right to live according to that faith, we should also take seriously the way in which that faith matters to that person. If certain aspects of people’s faith are of fundamental importance to them, we have reason to take account of that in the way that we conduct ourselves in relation to them. Those claims of course take us into controversial territory. People may be entitled to live according to their preferred faith, but does that oblige us to do any more than leave them free to do so? Are we really required to temper our conduct out of deference to a faith we do not share? Below I suggest that we have reason to severely limit the demands placed upon us by respect for beliefs but, for the moment, I want to press the case for that respect.

Consider sites that are sacred for a religion, as is the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall) for religiously observant Jews, or the Kaaba at Mecca for Muslims, or Uluru (Ayers Rock) for the Anangu (the Australian Aborigines who live in the vicinity of Uluru). If we do not share the faith for which a site is sacred, are we at liberty to treat its sacredness for others as a matter of no account? If the Australian government wished to bulldoze a way through Uluru to create a new highway, or if secular Israelis found the Wailing Wall an inconvenient obstacle which they wished to dismantle, should they be at liberty to do so? Most of us would think not; but it is hard to explain why we should think that if we do not give significance to the site’s sacredness for others.

Now consider figures that are sacred to a faith, such as Christ is for Christianity or Mohammed is for Islam or God for both. Treating those figures in a mocking or obscene or scatological fashion will be acts of desecration for those for whom they are sacred. The parallel with sacred sites is not exact since Christ, Mohammed and God are not directly available to us for desecration in the way that a sacred site can be. But mocking words or lavatorial images designed to treat these figures with contempt come a close second and are equally at odds with the reverence with which the faithful believe they should be treated. To conceive of these figures as sacred must be to conceive their desecration as a terrible wrong and respect for beliefs enjoins us to take account of that. My aim here is not present respect for beliefs as always providing over-riding reason to defer to others’ sacral beliefs but to suggest that it is a reason that should figure in our thinking about the way in which we might justifiably treat the beliefs of others.


Differences between respecting beliefs and not causing offence

When people invoke offence in religious contexts, I suspect they sometimes mean to appeal to what I have describes here as respect for beliefs. However, respecting beliefs differs significantly from not causing offence.

First, it does not appeal to a mental state. It does not suggest that, when we satirise someone’s religious belief, the relevant concern is causing the believer to undergo a negative experience; it does not depend on the suggestion that the believer is made to experience disagreeable sensations or to feel ‘funny inside’. Instead it focuses on taking seriously people as the bearers of religious beliefs to which they are deeply committed.

Secondly, it removes the problem of the inaccessibility of people’s allegedly offended feelings. Respecting someone’s beliefs appropriately does not require difficult assessments of whether believers are really as offended as they claim to be, nor does it create an inducement to rely on the noisiness of people’s protests and the violence of their reactions to indicate how offended they are and therefore of how greatly they have been wronged.

Thirdly, respect for beliefs gives us reason to treat believers in an even-handed fashion whatever their faiths and not to treat those who respond with stoicism and tolerance less generously than those who respond with anger and vituperation.

Finally, respect for beliefs is closer to what matters, or ought to matter, to those whose sacred figures are subjected to ridicule or satire. It would be an odd Christian who held that what really mattered about the sullying of Christ was the offence it caused the Christian rather than the mistreatment of Christ. And it would be an odd Muslim who held that what was really wrong about disrespecting Mohammed was the way it made the Muslim feel rather than Mohammed’s being treated disrespectfully. Respecting beliefs, in taking account of what matters to Christians qua Christians and to Muslims qua Muslims, connects with what really concerns them and does not, like the preoccupation with offence, shift our concern to emotional responses that are at best epiphenomena of what they actually object to.

“It would be an odd Muslim who held that what was really wrong about disrespecting Muhammad was the way it made the Muslim feel rather than Muhammad’s being treated disrespectfully”

At the same time, if we do find something of merit in the idea of respect for belief, we also have reason to worry about quite what it commits us to. Can someone, merely by believing in something, place it off-limits to others? And are we really obliged to respect what people believe just because they believe it, without regard to how implausible or reprehensible we find their belief? Clearly not. While respect for belief differs from the injunction not to offend, it is an idea that has a similar potential to inhibit critical scrutiny and to veto challenges to religious belief. Thus, even if we do have reason to respect people as believers, we also have reasons closely to circumscribe the demands of that respect. Below are some of those reasons.


Limiting the scope of respect for beliefs

First, there can be no question of respect for the beliefs of others justifying the vetoing of criticism and challenges to people’s religious beliefs. Different religions are necessarily conflicting religions. Christianity challenges the truth of Islam, and Islam the truth of Christianity. Atheism challenges the truth of both, just as they challenge the truth of atheism. So the idea that in a multi-faith society or a multi-faith world, no-one should ever challenge or cast another’s belief in a negative light is simply incoherent.

Secondly, and independently of the logic forced upon us by the plurality of religious faiths, it is quite implausible to hold that any kind of critical scrutiny of a religion is disrespectful to that religion’s adherents merely because it is critical. Religions make truth-claims and it is nonsense to hold that the plausibility of their claims should be immune from scrutiny. Those who make truth-claims cannot reasonably demand that others must accept them on trust. Arguably, we give greater respect to truth-claims by subjecting them to critical scrutiny than by merely ignoring them.

“Those who make truth-claims cannot reasonably demand that others must accept them on trust”

Thirdly, we have the many imposing arguments for freedom of expression. I cannot do justice to those here and I shall mention only two. One is John Stuart Mill’s argument that freedom of thought and discussion is essential for the advancement of knowledge and understanding. If beliefs cannot be challenged, we have no way of exposing false beliefs as false or of replacing them with true, or more justified, beliefs. Mill, writing in the nineteenth century, was especially mindful of the role that religions had played in suppressing or inhibiting freedom of inquiry. As a utilitarian, his defence of free speech was consequentialist; freedom of thought and discussion was important because it made for progress in knowledge and understanding to the benefit of mankind at large. But freedom of expression might also be valued non-consequentially. As human beings, we are capable of thought and reflection and should be free to make known our thoughts, beliefs and opinions. If we are silenced, we are deprived of a freedom to which all human individuals should be entitled as human individuals. We may also be treated unequally; if the adherents of some beliefs are free to propagate them and to attack their rivals, while the adherents of other beliefs possess no such freedom, that state of affairs is unjust.

Nowadays, religion is often treated as a private matter and we might therefore suppose that it behoves us to treat each religion as properly the concern of none but its followers. ‘Outsiders’ should mind their own business. The strategy of ‘privatising’ religions, so that the state refrains from making public judgements on matters of religious doctrine, has indeed proved an effective way of organising a society so that the adherents of different religions or none can live harmoniously together in the same society. But that does not make religious doctrine itself an intrinsically private matter. On the contrary, as we have already noticed, religions make truth-claims and those claims cannot therefore be of relevance only to those who make them. Evangelical religions, like Christianity and Islam, go further and hold that everyone should really be an adherent of their faith. Adherents of those religions cannot therefore plausibly insist that their doctrines are private matters which are properly of concern to none but themselves. Moreover, it is manifestly the case that the major world religions have a major impact on the way the world is, and not only for those who subscribe to them. For that reason too, it is quite unacceptable that they should be placed off-limits to their critics.

Finally, it may well be that some beliefs are so bizarre or so reprehensible that neither they, nor their holders as believers, deserve our respect. A belief may be so silly or so pernicious that no claim of respect can veto fully exposing its silliness or iniquity. Consider, for example, one of the Danish cartoons that provoked most controversy. It showed a mullah standing at the entrance to heaven appealing to a queue of suicide bombers, ‘Stop, stop. We ran out of virgins!’ It is hard to find reason why we should refrain from satirising the belief that God will reward suicide bombers not merely by welcoming them into heaven as martyrs but also by placing seventy-two virgins at their disposal.

The introduction of this argument certainly muddies the waters. Rather than merely competing with the claims of respect for belief, it may subvert them altogether. What should be our overall stance if, for example, we reckon an entire religious faith, or all religious faith, to be stupid and pernicious? No doubt much of Charlie Hebdo’s output is premised on precisely that view. However, for most of us there may still be scope for a distinction between (a) religious beliefs that we ourselves find neither credible nor plausible but whose significance for their holders should give us some reason for restraint and (b) religious beliefs whose absurdity or iniquity cancels any such reason for restraint. But, even if we take that view, the waters are likely to remain muddied because we differ over where the division between (a) and (b) should fall.


Matter and manner

If we think there is something in the idea of respect for beliefs, but also acknowledge the contrary force of the points I have just made, where does that leave us? Perhaps we have simply to trade off these competing considerations on a case by case basis, which is likely to mean that we shall often disagree on what the trade-off should be. But we may be able to do better than that. Muslims and non-Muslims who objected to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons or the output of Charlie Hebdo often asserted their commitment to freedom of expression and their acceptance of people’s right to engage in critical discussions of religious faiths. They objected only to insulting, disrespectful and indecent treatments of their religion’s sanctities. They did not seek to veto criticisms of faith merely as criticisms; they demanded only that criticism should be conducted in a respectful manner.

The English common law of blasphemy, as it developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, embodied a distinction of that sort. Originally, that law forbade denials of the truth of Christianity, but it was gradually reinterpreted so that such denials became lawful, provided they observed the ‘decencies of controversy’. Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, in his Digest of the Criminal Law, formulated the law of blasphemy as follows:

“Every publication is said to be blasphemous which contains any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England as by law established. It is not blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language. The test to be applied is as to the manner in which doctrines are advocated and not as to the substance of the doctrines themselves”.[3]

That law was abolished in 2008, following the introduction of a law prohibiting incitement to religious hatred, and it is most unlikely to be revived. But the distinction between matter and manner that it embodied might still be of relevance and merit. As we have noticed, in recent controversies it has often been the manner in which people’s faith has been treated that has provoked objection. Exception has been taken to sacred figures being subjected to ridicule, contempt and vilification. Moreover, the distinction between matter and manner holds out the possibility that we can reconcile the apparently conflicting claims of respect for belief and freedom of expression. If we follow the matter/manner distinction, we need not exclude any matter from critical scrutiny; no subject will be placed off-limits and no substantive view need remain unstated. All that we shall proscribe are attacks on religions that are articulated in an unnecessarily abusive manner. That restriction will still, of course, place a limit on freedom of expression but one that we might find quite acceptable. Provided people are free to question, challenge and criticise any matter of religious belief, why should we object to the proscription of their doing so in an unnecessary abusive manner?

The main problem with the matter/manner distinction is that it does not yield the clear discriminating test that it promises. Consider the following passage for which Charles Bradlaugh was found guilty of blasphemy in 1883:

“The God whom Christians love and adore is depicted in the Bible with a character more bloodthirsty than a Bengal tiger or a Bashi-Bazouk. He is credited with all the vices and scarcely any of the virtues of a painted savage. Wanton cruelty and heartless barbarity are his essential characteristics. If any despot at the present time tried to emulate, at the expense of his subjects, the misdeeds of Jehovah, the great majority of Christian men would denounce his conduct in terms of indignation”.[4]

Bradlaugh’s words were held by the court to contravene the ‘decencies of controversy’. His language was indeed colourful but it was surely what Bradlaugh said about the nature of God, rather than only the way in which he said it, that earned him his criminal conviction. Similarly, it was what Salman Rushdie was understood to have said in his Satanic Verses about the character of Mohammed and the Koran that evoked protest and not merely the manner in which he said it. Perhaps that shows only that objectors are reluctant to observe the matter/manner distinction and not that the distinction itself is problematic. But it will often be difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle manner from matter as if these were entirely separable elements of a communication.

We should also question why, if manner can be of such great moment for the bearers of belief, it should be of such little consequence for those who oppose or wish to comment on the belief. Recent controversies have been prompted not by academic studies but by treatments of religious subjects in art, literature, theatre, films and cartoons. It is particularly difficult to deploy the matter/manner distinction in those media, yet that cannot be adequate reason for requiring artists, novelists and others working in those media to steer clear of religious subjects. Whatever we think of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, the manner in which they deliver the magazine’s message is clearly a matter of consequence for Charlie Hebdo itself. Nor can we ignore the relevance of medium and manner to the effectiveness with which a message is conveyed. A well-judged satirical cartoon (such as the Danish cartoon I described earlier) can make the same point as a paragraph of academic prose, but far more tellingly.



We need not dismiss the matter/manner distinction altogether. Introducing a few obscenities into an otherwise unobjectionable statement can make it objectionable in manner while leaving its matter largely unaltered. But the controversial cases will rarely be that straightforward, so that we shall be unable to rely on the matter/manner distinction to settle them for us. Instead we shall be forced back to trading-off competing considerations. There is good reason to refrain from gratuitous assaults on people’s religious beliefs; but, when an attack or an irreverent treatment would not be merely gratuitous, we have to weigh the considerations for and against and, if we reckon that all things considered we should go ahead, we have to judge quite what form our attack or irreverent treatment should take. There is no simple formula that can predetermine how that weighing process should pan out. My principal argument has been that, when we make the trade-off, we should not think that the reason for restraint consists in not causing offence, where offence is understood as believers’ undergoing some sort of unpleasant psychological experience or mental distress. Rather we should focus on the respect we owe others as bearers of beliefs; we should consider, that is, how far what matters to others should matter to us simply because it matters to them.

I have not addressed the question of where and by whom the weighing process should be conducted. The answer might be: in legislatures by politicians and in courts by judges. However, in view of the particularity of cases and the subtleties of the calculations they require, as well as the danger of things being silenced that ought not to be silenced, I would opt to keep these issues away from legislatures and courts. It is better that the relevant considerations should be weighed by ordinary citizens, for whom they will be matters of moral rather than legal responsibility. But ‘moral responsibility’ should not be decoded as ‘no responsibility’, and ‘not illegal’ should not be mistaken for ‘always acceptable’.

Footnotes & References

[1] Joel Feinberg, Offense to Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 15.

[2] Peter Jones, ‘Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie’, British Journal of Political Science, 20/4 (1990), 415-437; ‘Religious Belief and Freedom of Expression: Is Offensiveness Really the Issue?’, Res Publica, 17/1 (2011), 75-90.

[3] Stephen’s Digest of the Criminal law, 9th edition (1950), article 214; my emphases.

[4] R. v Bradlaugh (1883), 15 Cox C. C. 217, at 219.

Peter .Jones
Peter .Jones
Peter Jones is Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Newcastle University, UK. Much of his work has focused on issues associated with the differences of belief, culture and value, including issues of toleration, recognition, freedom of expression, religious accommodation, and discrimination law. He has also written on democracy, international justice, and the nature of liberalism, and on different aspects of rights, including human rights, group rights, and welfare rights.
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