Bad Idea: Blasphemy

This story interests me. It’s a very well-intentioned and gentle argument by Michael Gerson of the Washington Post in favor of letting bad ideas slide.

I think Gerson touches on a critical point though: the best remedy for Muslim violence must come from within the Muslim community. Unfortunately, very few are working to reform the faith, particularly because doing so is antithetical to the tenets of the religion. The words of the prophet are almost universally seen as sacrosanct, and any sort of criticism of the faith is considered apostasy (and therefore worthy of execution). This is why it’s a particularly dangerous brand of monotheism. I agree that mockery and inflammatory attacks won’t help the matter, but honest criticism of bad ideas shouldn’t be frowned upon. That’s how reformation is brought about – through friction with good ideas.

By Gerson’s reasoning, though, I shouldn’t criticize the notion of divine canon that includes much justification for the barbarism he deplores. We’re talking about a faith that encourages violence if somebody draws a picture of Muhammad or writes something disparaging about Islam. We’re talking about a book filled with ideas that warrant brutality, sexism, and intolerance. By the very nature of these beliefs, it’s demeaning to point that out. That’s the problem; anyone who raises this issue is now – by Gerson’s rationale – rude, cruel, malicious, and dehumanizing. I would suggest the opposite. Anyone ready to put respect of terrible ideas above the common good is rude, cruel, and malicious.

This is where the liberal ethos seems to lose its way. Ideas do not deserve protection from criticism. Rather, we should espouse a civilization where the best ideas are challenged by reason and rise to the top by merit. To try to view blasphemy – the desecration of imaginary and therefore absurd notions – from a stance of respect only undermines our secular civilization. We are far from perfect in the secular world, but we have outstripped the Muslim world on the moral arc by light years in terms of women’s rights, economic prosperity, political stability, sexual freedom, scientific advancements, moral philosophy, and multiculturalism. Gerson seems to think that a “first-rate” intelligence will acknowledge this while maintaining respect for the forces that have brutalized women, homosexuals, ancient relics, people of different faiths, and critics of Islam. I disagree. A first-rate intelligence will shrug off the misleading idea that mutual respect is born of acceptance of any and every world view.