Je Suis Charlie: Religion, Expression & Our Idols

By Dr. Andrew Fagan. Andrew is a lecturer in human rights at the University of Essex.

Followers of various world-religions have recently been subjected to representations of their religion and most sacred of idols that many have found to be deeply offensive. Freedom of expression appears to have inflamed existing tensions between secularism and religion. The right to freely express oneself has appeared, to some, as a mere cover for the articulation of hate and contempt. This is an area that has attracted endless commentary and is a long-established area of academic interest. There is no shortage of analysis, none of which would appear to have any significant effect upon the phenomenon itself. While we analyse the limits of our rights effigies are burnt, theatrical productions are cancelled, death threats are issued, and now, on the streets of Paris, have been so terribly carried out. People murdered for, or so it is claimed, offending others’ idols.

Religion does not appeal to all. Beyond those whose lives are lived in accordance with sacred authorities there exist numerous constituencies of people. Many proclaim a kind of loose affiliation to some belief in some kind of transcendent, supreme being without ever considering their actions and commitments in the light of such a force. Others prefer to entirely ignore the issue and place their trust in fate or some vague expectation that things will work out for them and their loved ones in the end. Others have considered some of the arguments and remain unconvinced by religious claims  and pursue not so much a wager as a vain hope that they may be able to have their cake and eat it, after all. Then again, there exists a collection of people who are both unconvinced by religious claims and feel compelled to positively opt instead for an alternative position that, at least intellectually, burns one’s bridges with any notion of an assured salvation. This is not always as easy and untroubled a position to adopt as its opponents would suggest. Being an agonistic or an atheist should not blind one to the significance of the capacity for awe and wonder. Discussions of the limits of offence typically overlook the importance of this issue for understanding what is at stake. Many defenders of religion in these instances will explicitly or implicitly appeal to the very sacredness of their idols as that which prohibits their being treated in certain ways or exposed to certain forms of representation. On this view the clash seems to be between those who are still capable of holding some things to be fundamentally and awesomely valuable and those for whom all determination of value is entirely secular. The basis of the conflict between religion and its counterparts appears to reside in the realm of awe: some things are not ‘things’ at all, some things defy being dragged through the mire of apparent godless self-indulgence. Some things are not ours to do with as we wish and are not amenable to conceptual and representational manipulation. Some idols are necessarily above and beyond all of that and the offence lies in refusing to acknowledge and accept that such things can possess this value and status. I suspect that this characterisation would appeal to many who have felt so offended in recent years. However, they should hesitate before staking their ground on the notion of awe and the reverence it compels. There appears to be a very basic contradiction at play between the ‘nature’ of the idols themselves and the offence some followers attest to.

If an entity is genuinely worthy of and can elicit such an awesome degree of awe, if one can phrase it so, could it really be affected in any possible or conceivable way by the staging of a play or the publication of a graphic image? What kind of a supreme being is it that could feel slighted by such utterly and completely insignificant acts and gestures? Can a god be slighted? Can a god be ridiculed? Would a god be so banal? Grievances framed in these terms call into question, more thoroughly than any atheistic argument, the possible existence of any such being. Confusing oneself with one’s god destroys the very awesomeness of the revered object. Any being worthy of such reverence, that can legitimately lay claim to the necessary degree of awe required for the depth and extent of peoples’ commitments cannot possibly be affected by what occurs “down here”, cannot possibly be vulnerable to what we do. To hold otherwise is, of course, utter nonsense. To hold otherwise is to fail to understand the basis of awe and the obligations it entails. Idols would be impervious to offence, would necessarily be above any and all such trivia. Taking offence is what we do. It may prove to be one of those very complicated emotional states that really and truly distinguishes us from all other mammals. Holding some things to be valuable is, unquestionably, a precondition for the very possibility of being offended. All of this is as it should be. What one cannot do, however, is to raise oneself to the level of one’s idols by claiming that a slight or insult to your beliefs is necessarily a slight or insult to the very ‘person’ of one’s idols. Once our idols become as ‘personal’ as this, become as petty and as vulnerable as us they lose the necessary awesomeness that could only ever justify a belief in them.  An idol would not take offence.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.


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