why are religious people so easily offended?

13 01 2015

I don’t like being described as religious. But when religious-inspired catastrophe happens, I find myself guilty-by-association. Us God-botherers with our irrational beliefs and Kalashnikovs. Justify yourself and your medieval sensibilities!, I hear the secularist voices shout.

It’s crap. I can’t explain why some people kill others. But perhaps I can give a glimpse into why “we” – religious types – get offended, and can react all out of proportion. This is not to justify it, but to give an insight into it.  

To outsiders, non-believers, religious belief seems like a moral or ethical decision. A choice, that can be questioned and debated without any real challenge to our core being. When I studied theology at university with mostly non-religious people, to them questions about God and belief were an interesting exploration of human character; to me, sometimes an assault on my very being. An assault I willingly put myself through, because I wanted to test my beliefs to the limit. Not everyone wants that. Not everyone invites that. 

My relationship with God is core. It’s not very rational, but don’t be fooled into thinking we all make rational choices except about religion. Why you choose your car, your coffee chain or your partner are rarely based on rational fact-based objective data. I talk about loving God; I also talk about loving my wife. If you tell me I do not love my wife, but am simply a slave to rational chemical reactions and twitches in my synapses rather than the irrational beauty of love then you’re beginning to dispute my core feeling of love.

If you take it further and not only dispute my feeling of love, but insult & ridicule my wife, whom you have never met, yet deem it ok to call her foul names or publish offensive cartoons of her… Now you’ve crossed a line. You’ve offended me. Religious people will often hold our beliefs as dearly as we hold beliefs about family, and sometimes more strongly. And as anyone who watches Eastenders knows, insult me as much as you like, but if you insult our family and we are likely to become irrational.

It’s hard to find something to compare the strength of religious belief and the way it can form our core identity. Ironically for religious debate, sexuality may be one. Or national pride. This is why religious people may not always look wholly in favour of ‘free speech’. But then, neither is our society. We pick & choose. We can support deeply offending Muslims in public cartoons, but not the right of black footballers to send tweets with jokes about race; suddenly our politicians ‘suis Charlie’, but few will highlight the massacres of Christians that have occurred in the last 3 years in Iraq and Syria.

Because we don’t actually mean ‘free speech’, we mean the freedom to be critical, to challenge, to question. Those are hallmarks of an open, free and democratic society, but they are not easy to manage, and neither should they be.  

Je suis Ahmed

As a follower of Jesus, he said when we are publicly offended with a humiliating backhanded slap in the face, we should turn the other cheek. We should not respond with violence, whether verbal or physical. We do not respond to offence by offending back. Jesus said love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. We do not all resort to violence. 

So, us ‘religious types’ may become more offended that seems rational, because our beliefs about God are tied up with our core identity far more than many realise. And maybe we are frightened of being unravelled, just as atheists who have a religious experience are. But it’s your job as a non-believer to pick the threads of our beliefs, and our responsibility to let you. The tapestry of faith looks better with frayed edges.  




7 responses

13 01 2015

Reblogged this on webstercamino and commented:
I find Kevin’s thoughts always worth reading but this one is particularly helpful.

14 01 2015

Really interesting thoughts. In today’s rational environment it is dificult to argue the case for love and spirituality, which are ‘irrational’, and maybe thats why people don’t try and then feel threatened. We need, as you have done, to make the case for another style of thought, as Jonathan Sacks does in his book ‘The Great Partnership’. He argues that science and religion are complementary, Science takes things apart, religion puts them together. Not easy concepts to get across to the man or woman in the street, and not always seen in religion in practice.

I wonder too, if we put too much credibility in the claim that the atrocities in Paris were a response to insulting the prophet. I have a feeling the cartoons were a convenient peg on which to hang anger and insecurity, and these feeling would have found another peg if the cartoons had not appeared.

14 01 2015

I agree, and I think this society tries to make everything binary choices between this or that, science v faith, rational v irrational, when life is actually more nuanced and complicated. Especially when it comes to dearly held beliefs.

14 01 2015

Maybe not even anger or insecurity, maybe a totally cynical attempt to rouse anti-Muslim feelings and thus make young Muslims MORE susceptible to radicalisation – http://www.juancole.com/2015/01/sharpening-contradictions-satirists.html

15 01 2015

Thanks, Kevin – what excellent insights!
This part really struck me: “We don’t actually mean ‘free speech’, we mean the freedom to be critical, to challenge, to question. Those are hallmarks of an open, free and democratic society, but they are not easy to manage, and neither should they be.”
I wonder if we have a brand new difficulty in “freedom of speech” – now almost anyone, anywhere can “comment” on an event/ person/ religion/ etc, but without any real accountability/ responsibility for what they are saying. If you call someone out on being rude/ mean/ slanderous etc, just wait for the vollies of “Pft, I’m entitled to my opinion” or “I was only joking” or “I can say what I like, it’s not hurting anyone. And if it is, they need to grow a thicker skin.” It’s pseudo-tolerace as well as unwillingness to *own* the impact we may have on others.
And you’re right – it IS harder to sit with hard questions that challenge us on our core beliefs. Likewise, it takes time and energy to really understand (empathise with) differing opinions/ beliefs, and also to admit when you’ve messed up and offended someone. Harder, but necessary for growth. Previously these things were explored with the checks and balances of community, whereby maturity was tested before people could claim adulthood. Now, not so much…

15 01 2015

Thank you, and you make a really good point about the checks and balances of community, the main one historixally being that you needed a forum in which to say things, but now anyone can lob anything in( like me!).

16 01 2015

Am I Charlie? No. I’m a whole other bunch of guys.
I believe in free speech, but there are limits, no doubt.
I believe in tolerance, but if you poke me and poke me, I might overreact.
I believe in speaking truth to power, but reserve the right to talk nonsense on stilts sometimes if I feel like it.
I believe in speaking my mind, but if you mind, then maybe I shouldn’t.
I believe in puncturing pomposity, but don’t trust me to judge the difference between the preposterous and the sincere.
I believe in satire, but if you are a troll, I might want to destroy you.
Am I Charlie? No. You’ve confused me with someone else.

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