The Pope On Charlie Hebdo

Pope Francis engages in some yes-buttery with regard to the Charlie Hebdo murders:

Pope Francis said Thursday there are limits to freedom of expression, especially when it insults or ridicules someone's faith.

Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one's mind for the sake of the common good.

But he said there were limits.

By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. “It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

The law, at least in the States, recognizes the “fighting words doctrine,” which holds that some speech is so inflammatory that it is not covered by the first amendment. Insulting someone's mother to their face might qualify as fighting words.

But there's no reasonable way to extend that doctrine to a publication no one is forced to read. The Pope apparently thinks that anything insulting to the faith of others, regardless of the venue, counts as a provocation. Mind you, you cannot even make fun of someone's faith.

The article continues:

Many people around the world have defended the right of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in the wake of the massacre by Islamic extremists at its Paris offices and subsequent attack on a kosher supermarket in which three gunmen killed 17 people.

But recently the Vatican and four prominent French imams issued a joint declaration that denounced the attacks but also urged the media to treat religions with respect.

Francis, who has urged Muslim leaders in particular to speak out against Islamic extremism, went a step further when asked by a French journalist about whether there were limits when freedom of expression meets freedom of religion.

Francis insisted that it was an “aberration” to kill in the name of God and said religion can never be used to justify violence.

But he said there was a limit to free speech when it concerned offending someone's religious beliefs.

“There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others,” he said. “They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.”

What is the Pope trying to say here? Why would you hedge in your condemnation of religious violence? Why do you respond to a vile terrorist attack by warning everyone to be respectful of religion? To me it sure seems like he's saying the terrorists were justified in their rage, they just overreacted a little.

That's the real face of religion. One minute they're telling you they are God's emissaries on earth, uniquely qualified to hold forth on morality and the nature of reality, the next they are so touchy that the slightest insult is considered a provocation worthy of violence. The Pope says it's a duty to speak one's mind for the sake of the common good. But what if a major threat to the common good is coming from self-proclaimed religious authorities?

Charlie Hebdo is acting to promote the common good. I don't know what the Pope is doing.

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The whole incident is surreal. I know a lot of Christians pay lip service at best to the "turn the other cheek" doctrine, but I tend to blame that on doctrinal ignorance or forgetfulness; when fundie goes on Fox and claims they have to avenge some insult because "its a slap in the face," I giggle about how they seem to be clueless of what Jesus said. But the Pope isn't clueless, ignorant, or forgetful on church doctrine. When he explicitly rejects 'turn the other cheek,' it sounds downright wierd to me.

I get the impression that the Pope is saying that being religious is respectable and preaching it is good; being non-religious isn't respectable and preaching it is vile.

In other words: atheists must respect all religions and keep their non-belief to themselves.

It makes one wonder if the Pope believes he is unable to defend his own religion - why else would he not want criticism?

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 15 Jan 2015 #permalink

He's simply taking advantage of a horrible situation, implying that people of any faith will, when pushed too far, strike back.
The current pope has not been, in his short time in the position, much on action but he has always been a master of public relations. This seems to be a huge screw up for him.

If Catholic popes were genuinely benevolent, kind, empathic, compassionate, and truly accepting of all other religions, then they would have no need to be surrounded by bodyguards and a bulletproof vehicle.

Perhaps popes worry that they, or their predecessors, have made defamatory remarks that have incited violence against them.

I saw a summary of the instances and contexts in which Mohammed was used in a CH cartoon somewhere recently. They were of the form "what are those idiots doing in my name now?". That is they seemed to be aimed at making fun of the actions of some Muslims, not of the religion itself. This is not a distinction which I would expect all Muslims to appreciate, but one I would have thought a Pope capable of - if fairness and expertise in morality were indeed required qualifications for the position.


He’s simply taking advantage of a horrible situation

I wouldn't go that far. There were many folk who leapt immediately (same day) to use the event to attack free speech. They were taking advantage of it. The pope getting asked about it 8 days later in an interview, and giving a direct response (albeit one we don't like) is not what I'd consider taking advantage of it. At least, not very much.

After writing my first post it occurs to me that the Pope's response is why we have our adage about the two things you never talk about at work (politics and religion). Nobody is afraid of an academic debate on theology or economics breaking out when they say that; they say it because there's a high chance of screaming anger and irreparable insult breaking out. Because those two subjects, more than any others, are the ones most likely to cause people to stop thinking with the rational parts of their brain and start reacting emotionally with the irrational part of their brains.

I think that's what's happening here. As Pope, 90% of the time he's probably cognizant of Jesus' pacifism in the face of attack and would make comments at least superficially consistent with it. But blasphemy, somebody attacking in words his core beliefs, bypasses the rational thought processes and gets him thinking with his hindbrain.

At least, that's my theory...


“…90% of the time he’s probably cognizant of Jesus’ pacifism..”

Not quite, but that is definitely a common perception.

What I find really interesting is than none of the commentators has objected to their assigned Gravatar. Using the tenets of Islam, these are gross depictions of us and/or our beliefs. I find them all amusing, and mine is a sobering reminder that the easiest person to fool on the planet is myself -- a core principle of critical thinking skills.

How could someone not like bat wings and 8 legs?

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 16 Jan 2015 #permalink

If a magazine published cartoons and prose ridiculing the sound of the Chinese language and the appearance of Chinese people, you wouldn't hesitate to condemn it as racist. You wouldn't say that the writers/editors should be shot, but you would agree that it was wrong of them to publish such content. (Whether anyone is forced to read those materials is irrelevant. The Ku Klux Klan published periodicals which no one had to read.)

For many people their religion is as important to them as their cultural and ethnic background. So what's wrong with Pope Francis telling people to not insult the religious beliefs of others?

Freedom and tolerance go both ways. If you expect others to respect (read: at least not insult) your beliefs (or non-belief), then you should also respect (read: at least not insult) the beliefs of others, especially if you don't have a complete understanding of those beliefs.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of French Muslims (NOT the ones who shot the CH writers, but the ones who pay their taxes and obey the law), many of whom are probably aware that there exists a magazine (or magazines, quite possibly) that makes profit by selling entertainment which ridicules something they deeply value and respect. What would you think of a society where this is seen as perfectly acceptable? Sure, the laws (on the surface, at least) say that you can't be denied a job or housing because of your faith or the color of your skin. But it's okay for people to have a laugh, or several, after work at your expense when you personally have done nothing wrong other than belong to a certain faith? The word hypocritical certainly comes to mind.

Bob, I don't care what people believe, but I certainly do care if they act on their beliefs. Being told that I'm an infidel and/or that I shall burn in hell is seriously offensive — there is zero credible evidence to support these insults.

If we must respect all belief systems then we must also respect science denialism, alt med, superstitions, and anything and everything that people care to believe now and in the future. E.g. promoting homeopathy (a belief system) as a cure for cancer and other serious diseases must never be respected: it is a totally unacceptable dangerous belief system. The fact that not all believers in homeopathy would recommend it for cancer does not make this belief system worthy of respect.

The people who get offended when their belief system is ridiculed are those who have become their beliefs rather than having become a respectable person who holds some beliefs. If someone ridicules science (something that I believe in) should they expect me to become violent? According to the Pope, it seems that they should expect to receive a punch. Unlike the Pope, the only weapon I'd consider using is evidence, but he doesn't have this option for his beliefs.

I had no choice over the ethnicity I was born into, nor the faith in which I was raised. I've heard criticisms of both over the years. When they were addressed at the actions of members of my ethnicity or faith, all I could do was say that I was not that type. When my faith was first challenged by angry atheists, I reacted as I did to those who made assumptions based on the migration of my distant ancestors - I dismissed them as ignorant, and did so for years.

Eventually my interest in evolution led me to visit sites like this one at the intersection of science and religion. I soon recognized that they are, to paraphrase Ingersoll, tearing down the false to make more room for the true, and that the angry atheists have good reasons to be angry (anyone who has read our host's book should wonder that he doesn't fall into that category).

Ideas must be challenged, and when challenged, they must be analyzed and revised. Under examination, over time my view of God shifted from the anthropomorphic god of the Bible to a metaphor for something beyond our understanding to an energy pervading the universe to an idea developed by primitive humans to explain the world and enforce morality. I've similarly examined my ethnicity, and though I'm not as proud of my ancestors as I once was, I can't change it.

By Walt Jones (not verified) on 17 Jan 2015 #permalink

Nor defend it rationally.

By Walt Jones (not verified) on 17 Jan 2015 #permalink

To preface this: I know you probably won’t agree with this, just take the time to read it if you will. And when I say religions, I mean the major religions that have stood the test of time, like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. and not the newfound systems that you mentioned.

Many religious people are superstitious, but that’s not what religion is really about. Religious teachings are really about how people should conduct themselves in order to become decent, respectable human beings.

I personally have never told anyone they will burn in hell/receive terrible punishment if they don’t hold religious beliefs. But, in my opinion, neither science nor the law can truly regulate human behavior and fix the world’s problems (among them global warming, war/terrorism, poverty, and so on). The law is the absolute lowest standard for human behavior, and science, because it only accepts certain types of evidence, can only present solutions in certain types of situations, and even then those solutions are often partial and have side effects.

Neither the law nor science tells people how they SHOULD conduct themselves, or how they SHOULD treat their fellow human beings or their environment. If, for instance, an assailant finds himself in a situation where he can murder a person and get away with it (destroy all forensic and other evidence linking him to the crime), what then? The law, in this case, wouldn’t punish him. And science doesn’t tell him whether he should or shouldn’t kill his victim. But (I hope) our gut feeling would be that he shouldn’t kill. In a less extreme but actually quite realistic case, what if a parent pours all of his/her life’s effort into raising a child and making sure the child’s needs were met, and that the child was educated and prepared to be successful in life, and that child now decides that he no longer needs his parent (who is now aged and ailing without means of support) and goes, gets married, and never again sees or even talks to the parent who sacrificed so much for him? The child would be ungrateful, his actions would be wrong, but neither science nor the law can regulate his behavior (in fact, economics might even say that he’s better off not supporting his parent).

I’m NOT comparing scientists/science believers to murderers/parent abandoners. But religion, as a system of moral and ethical education (almost entirely lacking in our modern society), has the power to fix problems at their roots by teaching people the difference between right and wrong, and how to suppress thoughts and actions which stem from our greed, hatred, lust, envy (which all of us, science believers or not, are subject to, because we are human). I, for one, think that the world would be a better place if we were all less selfish and more considerate of each other, not because we “have to”, but because we know we should and we want to. Religion, if it serves this purpose, deserves to be re-evaluated.

Thanks for reading the long post.

Why not just teach ethics? Why tie it to religion? Let's teach people how to think and how to know what is and what ought to be.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 17 Jan 2015 #permalink

Michael, indeed we should teach people what's right and what's wrong, but the simple fact is that our modern, secular society doesn't have a good track record of doing that. Frankly, not a lot of people are capable/qualified to be teachers of morals/ethics because moral and ethical education have been lost for quite some time (at least a century in most places, even longer in others).

To me, the debate of whether God/higher diety(ies) exist is secondary if churches/mosques/temples (not the physical buildings but what they stand for) can help us rebuild our moral and ethical foundation by lending us their organizational infrastructure and age-old wisdom (there's a lot to be found for anyone willing to be open-minded). And I think they can, if we're willing to give them a chance.

With that said, I do recognize that a lot of religious officials and people who are supposed to represent their faiths do a bad job of it by presenting a superstitious/prejudiced face for their respective religions. That should be fixed, and the focus re-centered on what's important: teaching people how to be honest, benevolent, and empathetic human beings.

Thanks for your comments, Bob. I used to be religious therefore I understand what you are saying. Many times each year I have wonderful conversations about religion, and life in general, with members of my local community who have various faiths. One question I'm often asked is: Being an atheist, what guides my moral compass and what motivates me to follow it? Having learnt critical thinking skills, I have to answer that I don't know; each of us is so full of self-serving cognitive biases that I think it impossible to give an unbiased truthful answer to such a question. The only way I can gain insight into myself is to subject my actions and behaviour to peer review: the best peers for this purpose are perhaps those who have very different views from mine; and the worst peers for this purpose are those who already agree with me :-)

Online discussions often result in polarization of views whereas face-to-face discussions in a comfortable friendly environment encourage mutual learning that is rewarding, enjoyable, and forms long-lasting bonds between people.

Loneliness and isolation [segregation?] causes such a deep level of discomfort that humans (and some other animals) do everything they can to avoid it. Being part of an in-group (be it religion, politics, or even just a shared hobby) seems to be infinitely preferable to being part of an out-group (an outcast).

For each religion that is currently active, at least 70% of the world's population holds a belief system that has totally incompatible tenets and guidelines. Therefore, it is illogical to claim that religion provides a good moral compass and that the problems in secular society are caused by an absence of a religious moral compass. Always remember that correlation does not imply causation. You may like to consider that some members of secular society, such as myself, find many aspects of religious moral compasses to be abhorrent and destructive.

By far the most agonising step in my transition from being religious to being an atheist was giving up the promise of having an afterlife that rewarded me for always trying my utmost to be a good person. The strange thing that I still can't figure out is why I now try even harder to correct my faults and slowly become a better person. Perhaps it's best that I don't know the reason and that I just keep doing it without any reason whatsoever other than my innate empathy and compassion for others.

Note: These are not just my personal opinions, cognitive science addresses these and many other important issues.

Religion has been the cornerstone in many societies, but none comes to mind as a particularly nice place to live. Would you like to live in present day Iran? Sixteenth century Spain? The Israel described in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? (I hope that you know that there is a lot more in those books than is presented in Sunday school.)

The age old wisdom you describe existed long before the Bible was written, in cultures around the world. The Jews wouldn't have made as far as Mt Sinai if thye had believed that murder, theft, and perjury were moral.

By Walt Jones (not verified) on 18 Jan 2015 #permalink

Bob, the past was never better than the present. It wasn't more moral. This is the myth of all conservatives and especially as they age. Please don't fall in that trap. The baggage that religious texts carry make it harder to change - we have so many in the US wanting to deny rights to women and minority groups based on an out-dated morality. Morality is not set in stone (no matter what Moses might think), but something that evolves.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 18 Jan 2015 #permalink


Michael, indeed we should teach people what’s right and what’s wrong, but the simple fact is that our modern, secular society doesn’t have a good track record of doing that...

There's far less violent crime in the more atheistic northern European countries than there is in the highly religious US. And as Michael points out, modern western society has a great track record of reducing violent behavior. Read Stephen Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature; he looks at numerous trends. Violence is down my literally orders of magnitude compared to pre-enlightenment (and again, highly religious) societies.


Correlation and coincidence are not causation.