Some people, often well-paid, who bill themselves (and their corporate clients) as “motivational speakers”, tell audiences what they want to hear by suggesting fluff like “The only limit to the possibilities in your life are the buts you use today” (Les Brown). It would no doubt have been too banal and less effective to simply say that we should not impose limits on our potential (as I myself did as a kid, convinced by Brother Maurus that I was a moron in Math : see my story about Brother Elias, my personal Pygmalion, in my book “From Illusions to Illumination”, pp.19-20). The trouble, of course, with not imposing limits on potential is that it immediately suggests an unintended, dark downside : serial killers, dictators, torturers, terrorists and criminals of all sorts, with their untapped potential for evil, come to mind. It is safer, but less sexy, to say that “no one ever discovers the limits of his talent” (Balthasar Gracian) which makes pessimists and losers feel good (which is what the motivational speaker is, after all, paid for). The Great Communicator, Ronnie Reagan, was among the best, when he said (borrowing from Rousseau, Teilhard de Chardin and Arthur C. Clarke) : “There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits to human intelligence, imagination and wonder.” Then there are the bright sparks, the most quoted of whom, naturally, is Einstein : “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits”.
The recent tragic saga, televised all over the world, of three consecutive days of Islamic terrorism in France in reaction to, and as vengeance for, “blasphemous” caricatures of the Prophet published by “Charlie Hebdo”, raises the delicate question : are there limits that should be placed on ridiculing religion ?
We set limits to the speed permitted in driving on highways, in town and in the vicinity of schools. We have decreed legal limits to the amount of alcohol tolerated in a driver’s blood. We lay down limits in areas ranging from how long French fries can be kept before being sold, to the age of Cardinals allowed to participate in Papal elections. We have evolved in recent decades in giving movies an R or an X rating, but we still have at least recommended minimum ages for viewers of violent and sexually explicit scenes, and even exposure to “adult” language. But can limits be fixed on the liberty of expression in texts and cartoons which make fun of the beliefs, rules and rituals of religions, and especially of their founders ?
Some of the people who attack and ridicule religion seem to practise self-censorship, and impose their own limits on what they say and publish. They would never, for example, speak – as I do – of chunks of Christ’s flesh, supposedly appearing on Eucharistic hosts at Lanciano, as “Jeezburgers”. They would never speak – as I do – of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven as “Lift-Off”. Militant atheists like me know that most believers find such expressions excessive and terribly offensive (and not specially amusing, as they are intended to be), but we also know that there is little danger of our being assassinated for our “blasphemy”. But if satirists (like me) dared to ridicule the Prophet , the way “Charlie Hebdo” does, we know we would be putting our lives in danger. Should we therefore cease and desist, or courageously, as did Cabu and co, throw caution to the wind and risk dire retribution from fanatics ? Should the law limit freedom of expression ? Or should believers be obliged to accept and tolerate whatever authors and artists choose to write and draw concerning their religion, no matter how offensive ? The law prohibits personal defamation and the explicit fomenting of racism and terrorism, and has outlawed literature and even symbols promoting, for example, Nazism. In some countries at least, thanks to their dissidents, freedom of expression is a treasured national value.
I believe people should be allowed to believe, or refuse to believe, whatever they like, and to practise or attack a religion or ideology, so long as such practice or opposition does not involve the violation of others’ rights to their life, freedom, property, as well as physical and economic well-being. Hurting other people’s feelings, on the other hand, is not a crime (otherwise we’d all be in prison). Personally, I don’t much like the over-the-top style of “Charlie Hebdo”. Many people do not much like – in fact some abhor – what I post in this Blog. Sticks and stones and kalashnikovs and IEDs will break my bones, but can we say that names and insults will never hurt me ? Of course they will, but like Voltaire I would defend other people’s right to hurt my feelings, to disagree with me, to ridicule me, to despise me. My only limit is that they leave their guns at home.
I ridicule religion. I do not shoot believers.