On Peter Singer’s "The Freedom to Ridicule Religion"

Originally published on WritingUp on 07-01-2006. One point of clarification – there is a distinction in this article about human rights/rights of citizens that invokes Jefferson for the latter. Now Jefferson does say that rights come from Nature’s God, but he also says that because of them governments are instituted among men. My point is simple: Jefferson’s rights are not transpolitical in the sense of abandoning the political wholly – the universal must take expression in a particular. Human rights, on the other hand, can be reconciled with anarchist thought, if they are not directly the product of such sentiments, as I suspect they are in the majority of cases.

I have serious problems with Peter Singer, first and foremost that he is not paid to be a Hegel scholar, but rather paid to be an “ethicist.” He wrote a large article once on how he gives most of his money to charity, and I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with him making money in the University to be little more than an activist.

His latest essay at the Council for Secular Humanism lacks intellectual rigor – it could be far more balanced and contemplative of possibility – but provides some very rich food for thought, because it’s straightforward about what it wishes to achieve. I’ll just go through it line-by-line until I get bored. His words are in italics.

1. Freedom of speech is important, and it must include the freedom to say what everyone else believes to be false, and even what many people take to be offensive.

No need to comment here, except for this: Most people take this statement to be an argument in and of itself. It is not an argument; it is a statement of belief. Dr. Singer knows this, and thus gives reasons why it might be true. Would that more people engage in that process, called “reasoning,” before they spoke.

2. Religion remains a major obstacle to basic reforms that reduce unnecessary suffering. Think of issues like contraception, abortion, the status of women in society, the use of embryos for medical research, physician-assisted suicide, attitudes towards homosexuality, and the treatment of animals. In each case, somewhere in the world, religious beliefs have been a barrier to changes that would make the world more sustainable, freer, and more humane.

This is the very next sentence of his article. He doesn’t say “freedom of speech is important because we live in a democratic society,” or some other blather. He right away opens with the idea that the only reason why freedom of speech is important is because it must destroy religion, which is an obstacle to progress.

If there’s one reason to like Peter Singer, it’s that he’s honest. You might be wondering if “freedom of speech” and the “establishment clause” in the First Amendment subscribe to the same logic. I hold it doesn’t. The Founders engaged in a break from England to preserve their way of life. The notion of progress is alien to most in the American founding. Jefferson is a notable exception to this, but even he insists on rights first – not human rights, but just rights of citizens – and then, stemming from that, a body politic, and then and only then progress. Singer probably does not have all that in mind: he might be able to say “religion provides an order that has aided us in coming to this moment” otherwise, or maybe show some understanding of the fact that we can’t know everything, and that religion, at its core, is deep respect for the power of the unknown. Order and the incompleteness of knowledge at any given moment both are attributes of religion and the political, and both are ignored by Singer here. If you have progress, after all, the world is better. Period.

3. So, we must preserve our freedom to deny the existence of God and to criticize the teachings of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, and Buddha, as reported in texts that billions of people regard as sacred. Since it is sometimes necessary to use a little humor to prick the membrane of sanctimonious piety that frequently surrounds religious teachings, freedom of expression must include the freedom to ridicule as well.

This is not merely a defense of the “right” to be disrespectful to others. It is encouragement of the idea that religions are primitive and should be mocked.

More broadly speaking, it makes perfect sense that “freedom of speech” culminates in a line of thinking like Singer’s. “Freedom of speech” does not insist on any criteria for proper speech. Because of this, it is inherently an attack on any and all standards. Nothing can get in the way of my expressing myself, which is why Singer will defend Holocaust deniers later in the article. Self-expression is far more important than “facts” or “trying to prevent future systematic exterminations of people.”

4. Yet, the outcome of the publication of the Danish cartoons ridiculing Muhammad was a tragedy. More than a hundred people died in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and other Islamic countries during the ensuing protests and riots. In hindsight, it would have been wiser not to publish the cartoons. The benefits were not worth the costs. But that judgment is, as I say, made with the benefit of hindsight, and it is not intended as a criticism of the actual decisions taken by the editors who published them and could not reasonably be expected to foresee the consequences.

The editor that published the cartoons did so as a “test,” in his own words. He wanted to see how alive and well freedom of speech was. Naturally, the conducting of that “test” resulted in some people dying, but hey, he’s not responsible for that, he only spoke. Just like constant verbal abuse isn’t really abuse. They’re just words, and hey, if somebody kills himself or goes to the mall with an Uzi, you know, I wasn’t responsible for that. We all know freedom of speech is freedom of expression, and everyone has to shut up and listen to us, no matter what we say.

Singer’s argument is disingenuous. He says the only reason why we know the publication of the cartoons was bad was because of what happened later, and that no one involved knew the consequences of their actions. I’m saying Singer is outright lying, and that his “test” for whether speech is good or not is pretty phony too. We speak in order to change things, not just “express ourselves.” To deny this is to deny speech has any worth, which would contradict the premise he started this essay with, that speech is indispensible to progress.

5. This is getting too long, so I’ll summarize the rest: Singer makes the argument that laws against Holocaust denial need to be repealed since we cannot say to the Islamists then that we are consistent in our liberal values. Otherwise, it looks like we “hate” Islam.

His argument against jailing Holocaust deniers is two-pronged: 1. We need not worry about Fascist rebellion collapsing the more liberal regimes, and 2. The more liberal regimes can attack Holocaust denial through educating their citizens properly.

I don’t know where I got this crazy idea, but for some strange reason, it looks to me like laws inherently have an educative function. That sounds insane, that laws have anything to teach, and in fact, such a view is probably more consistent with Singer’s notion of “progress” – when we have advanced, should it not show in all aspects of our society – than in something like the Constitution, which does have a teaching on self-government, but not one that is readily accessible or obvious.

His argument regarding showing consistency to Islam can be rebuffed this way: Do we really need slippery notions of progress and consistency in order to tell the Islamists that their views of universal Islamic law telling all of us what to do without any attempt at persuasion are not acceptable? He might argue that we need the consistency to show the more moderate regimes in the Islamic world that we are with them. But we do show those regimes – like Jordan – that we stand with them, and we help them crack down on the hard line elements that would engage in terrorist attacks if given the chance. Singer, unlike me, a crazy right-winger, can’t differentiate between the Islamists who kill and the true practitioners of Islam.

Ultimately, what I find funny about Singer’s arguments is how they are reflective of Leftist ideology to a “T,” and yet are intolerant and work from unjustified biases every single step of the way.

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