Politics & Policy

Affronts to Religion in Our Age of Reason

Over at The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has penned a pointed response to Garry Trudeau (of Doonesbury fame) and the various writers who, in the light of the PEN American Center’s plans to give their annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, took their stand against not the murderous Kouachi brothers, but their victims, those infamous, bullet-baiting Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Goldberg’s treatment of several of the “dangerous myths” surrounding Charlie Hebdo is worth reading.

In his treatment of Myth No. 1, though, Goldberg unintentionally highlights the problem at the core of our current “free speech” kerfuffle: the tension, not between free speech and “provocation” or “hate speech” (whatever that is), but between ancient faith and Enlightenment reason. The problem is that he does so unintentionally.

Here is Goldberg: “The first myth is that Charlie Hebdo is anti-Muslim. It is not. It is critical of Islam, as it is critical of all religions. Islam is a set of ideas, just as Christianity and Judaism are sets of ideas. In the putatively enlightened age in which we live, all ideas should be subject to testing, criticism, even excoriation.”

Goldberg’s view that a religion is a collection of propositions to which (ideally after thorough rational consideration) we assent is a modern one. The program of Descartes, who famously doubted everything but himself and reasoned his way to God and the world (so he says), is implicit here.

The person of faith, meanwhile, thinks something quite different. Consider the Christian: “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is not a proposition subject to testing. It is the word of God, an expression of divine and incontrovertible truth. And for most people, assenting to it requires believing it before experiencing it. Credo ut intelligam, Saint Anselm wrote: “I believe so that I may understand.” That that is not “rational” is precisely the point; religious conviction is, by nature, ultimately supra-rational.

Furthermore, religious claims are (generally) universal: Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” for everyone — not just those who believe in him. And, for Muslims, Allah is God in Mecca — and also in Milwaukee.

For the person of faith, then, “free speech” raises a problem, because, for that person, Jesus of Nazareth is categorically different from John Stuart Mill.

For the person of faith, then, “free speech” raises a problem, because, for that person, Jesus of Nazareth is categorically different from John Stuart Mill. Disciples of the latter might think you are wrong, but wrongly interpreting Considerations on Representative Government does not threaten your soul. Rejecting Jesus does. And Christians are charged — not by an idea with which they can disagree, but by the very Word of God — to save his sheep and to nourish and grow his Body on earth, the Church. To those spiritual efforts even words can do damage. And if there is conflict — well, the duty to divinely revealed truth is, in the final reckoning, higher than the duty to the principles of liberal democracy.

There is no solution to this problem. It is a tension inherent in a liberal, pluralistic society. Christianity has spent centuries trying to figure out how to manage it, and the security of conscience achieved in the United States is the best arrangement — for persons of all faiths and no faith — that has ever existed.

But understanding religious belief means accepting that persons of faith may well abide by a political, legal institution (a right to free speech) with which they sometimes disagree for religious reasons, because it serves the interests of peace and true — that is, spiritual — freedom better than any alternative.

Islam has not yet figured out how to manage this tension, and it may never figure it out. Christianity is much more adaptable to varying political arrangements than is Islam. But the faithful Christian and the faithful Muslim share a common conviction: that the kingdom on earth is intended to serve the kingdom in Heaven. Failing to understand that hierarchy of loyalties — as our current free-speech debate does, dividing along lines of political Right and Left, between “absolutism” and “restrictionism” — will ultimately threaten our broad political consensus and the very conscience rights we are so eager to protect.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.


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