World Religions Conference, Olds, 2012

These are my notes, accompanied by hyperlink references and illustrated by some of  my presentation slides, for a talk I gave representing an atheist perspective at a World Religions Conference organized by the Ahmadiyya community  and held at Olds College this month.


I’m very happy to participate in this panel tonight and very grateful to the Ahmadiyya community for organizing tonight’s event.

Before I start, I would like to make a caveat. During my talk, I’ll unavoidably make mention of religious speech, mostly by recognized religious leaders that some of you may find problematic. I don’t believe, and certain don’t intend, that these examples are representative of religious believers as a whole.

And I’m going to make some assumptions.

First, we are all equal, but this doesn’t mean equal treatment. In some cases, fairness may require treating differing groups of Canadians differently.

Second, as a functioning democracy, we ought to respect majority will, but not at the expense of minority rights.

Third, each citizen should enjoy maximum freedom consistent with the same freedom for others.

This last assumption implies that people should be able to join and practice the religion of their choice, so long as that practice does not unduly intrude on the rights of others.

It also implies that people should be able to express themselves, vocally or in print. And religious believers have obvious reasons for believing in freedom of speech, since they have an obvious interest in teaching, explaining, and defending their religion form outside interference.

But religious believers should also defend the freedom of speech of internal critics, such as Malala Yousufzai, who, by her outspoken advocacy of female education rights, incurred the wrath of the Taliban in Pakistan.  Religious belief is, after all, not an end point, but a step on the road to self-improvement. And our harshest critics can do the most to improve us.

For the same reason, religious believers ought to also defend the free speech rights of external critics such as Richard Dawkins, who has been an extremely vocal opponent of religious belief. But he might, by his virulent criticism, actually improve some forms of religion.

So if theists, who typically believe strongly in the sacred nature of religious doctrine, also have good reasons to defend freedom of speech, where exactly lies the conflict? It lies precisely in this conundrum: that many people have are deeply aggrieved when other people use religious speech in ways they do not approve precisely because it seems to conflict with their religious beliefs.  Take for example the recent controversy over the film “The Innocence of Muslims” which deeply angered many Muslims.

It may be hyperbole to equate free speech with terrorism, but it surely bespeaks the degree of indignation that some people feel when confronted with some forms of speech.

But the mere fact that I don’t like someone else doing something is, all by itself, no reason whatsoever to ban that person from acting as he or she does. I may not like the fact that that my neighbor drives a pink truck or watches hockey on TV or spends his vacation in Saskatchewan. But my dislike, no matter how intense, is not a sufficient reason to limit his freedom.

President Ahmenijad of Iran seems to think that the best response to religious speech you don’t like is not violence or prohibition, but more free speech. But this is decidedly a minority view. If we reject the libertarian contention that there should be no restrictions on speech, we must then find a principled way to limit religious speech. And there are several principles we might employ here; I’ll only have time to discuss a few.

It doesn’t respect other beliefs.
It’s blasphemy.
It’s offensive.
It’s untrue.
It’s immoral.
It’s hate speech.

First, there’s the claim that, because truly multicultural communities require that we not merely tolerate others but respect them, we must not only respect the right of others to hold beliefs, but respect the beliefs themselves.

But this demand, while compelling in the abstract, is notoriously difficult to uphold in the particular. How can I reasonably respect the belief that atheists are in effect amoral sociopaths when I know it to be false no matter how sincere Billy Graham’s religious convictions are?

One might also restrict religious speech on the grounds that it’s blasphemous. This was the crime for which Socrates was sentenced to death 2300 years ago and it still remains on the books in many European countries today. But (1) it is deeply problematic to require nominally secular governments to uphold any religious doctrine, even if practitioners are united on what counts as blasphemy, (2) which they typically aren’t. (3) The issue becomes immeasurably more complex when one tries to blasphemy laws of all religions rather than playing favorites.  This is exactly the pickle that the modern state of Ireland now finds itself. In this case, we might ourselves all convict of blasphemy against one faith or another.

What if the speech is offensive? In 1992 singer Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of J2P2 to protest the rampant child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. And many viewers were deeply offended.

But whose offence should we actually care about? In recent years, many US Christian activists have decried the War on Christmas, and specifically condemned as offensive cards that don’t contain the words “Merry Christmas.” Should we care? I suggest we just ignore them. Given that some people are just too willing to take offense at any slight, no matter how small, we should abandon the criterion of offence.

What, then, if the speech is factually untrue? This complaint lies at the heart of laws prohibiting libel and slander, and might therefore be useful. So an evangelical politician who alleges that the 99.9% of biologists are uttering satanic lies would doubtless be convicted.

Actually, “God is with us” is not an atheist slogan.

And the Pope’s claim that atheism is to blame for Nazism surely flies in the face of Germany’s strongly Catholic population, Hitler’s own assertions, and Nazi claims themselves.

The notorious Westboro Baptist Church

But how do we rule on claims that earthly beings have no non-controversial way to determine? How exactly do we find out whom God hates, if anyone? The problem here, as with many forms of religious speech, is that we have no settled way of determining the truth.

What then if the speech encourages actions, such as genocide, which are widely and reasonably regarded as immoral?

This noted rabbi has proposed, for example, annihilating the Palestinian people.

He’s joined by noted philosopher William Lane Craig, who has mounted very serious defenses of Old Testament instances of genocide. This in turn has earned him a rebuke from Richard Dawkins who has refused to debate Craig unless Craig unequivocally renounces genocide.

Finally, the esteemed Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne has suggested that Hitler was merely providing Jews with a learning opportunity, which prompted one his fellow panelists to respond in kind.

So banning immoral religious speech might be effective, but some people might be surprised at who is caught by this net.

The most hopeful avenue for prohibiting certain forms of religious speech is that, as hate speech, these utterances incite hatred against members of a specific group. And this is deeply incompatible with democratic ideals protecting individuals from hatred and violence.

It’s therefore striking that senior and highly influential religious leaders can describe other humans as sub-human or akin to pestilence. If these sentiments were voiced about Muslims or women or blacks, rather than atheists, these individuals would have lost their jobs before the end of the day.

But, still, one might object, no one takes these religious leaders seriously, so atheists shouldn’t be so quick to fear the worst. Describing people as worthless doesn’t always lead to their persecution, after all.

But one form of hate speech stands out and that is incitement to murder. This, it seems, is unproblematically immoral and illegal. But why exactly is the religious nature of this from of hate speech a concern?

Consider the case of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, who along with the Washington Post and the New York Times, published US military secrets. Subsequently, many opinion leaders in the US called for his death.

OK, perhaps Sarah Palin is not a credible source.

… and then he backed off.

But one Political Science professor at the University of Calgary has voiced similar sentiments, and he hasn’t been charged with any crime so far as I know. Nor have the other commentators who agree with him.

So why should religious zealots who call for others’ deaths be condemned? Should we judge religious hate speech by a higher standard than the one we employ for garden-variety secular hate speech? Or should we make exceptions for religious institutions as we do in many other situations?

My one hope for the near future is that, as many of you may know, Canada’s official national religion is shut down for at least the next year due to a labour dispute.

So that may reduce the number of religiously fuelled outrages.

Thank to the audience, the other panelists, our moderator and  the Ahmaddiyas for graciously hosting this event.


  1. Wow, how do you get from the statement of Billy Graham that “a true atheist has no real reason to believe in right and wrong” to the accusation that Billy Graham believes “that atheists are in effect amoral sociopaths”? It seems to me that he’s simply pointing out that the foundations of an atheistic world view cannot support objective ethical criteria. Now you may disagree with that and that’s fine, but I think you are engaging in a smear tactic to make the jump that Graham believes that atheists are amoral sociopaths.

    I sure hope I have misunderstood you because to make such a sophomoric slur is not becoming of a prof.

    1. Hey John,

      Thanks for you comments. I think my comment on Graham was a fair paraphrase of his views on atheism.

      I’m not sure whether the Dawkins passage was hate speech. Trying to overcome an ideology is not as the same as fomenting hatred, after all. But I was trying to make the point that characterizing the utterances of world religion leaders as hate speech (even when they say things far worse than Dawkins) would unduly limit religious practice. But maybe secular speakers should be held to a higher standard, just as secular instsitutionsq are.

      1. Professor, thanks for responding. I guess I must disagree with your view that your summary of Graham is a fair paraphrase, at least from the quote from him that you provided.

        And I don’t believe Dawkins should get a pass bc he’s not fomenting hatred in the name of opposing an ideology. He claims that faith is a type of mental illness and that believers abuse their children.

        It seems a bit specious to judge Graham and exonerate Dawkins. But again, thanks for your thoughts. Very illuminating.

  2. Also, it’s curious that you leave out examples of atheist evangelists like Richard Dawkins who has famously said his end game is to “destroy Christianity.” It seems like that would have fit in nicely with your presentation. Do you consider this hate speech? Or is it different?

    1. John,

      I think you’ve missed the point of my presentation: there is no effective or fair way to police religious speech. For this reason, I give Dawkins a “free pass” – and everyone else too.

      And, no, I don’t consider his goal of destroying Christianity hate speech. If you do a little bit of research, you’ll discover that people frequently want to destroy competing ideologies that they consider harmful – capitalism, communism, socialism, atheism, Darwinism, etc. Do you want them all imprisoned?

      Finally, I don’t understand why you object to Dawkins’ comments but don’t voice any offence at religious or political leaders who support and endorse genocide or assassination. Is that a double standard?

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