April 22, 2011

Wrestling With Free Speech

Freedom of speechI think that most of us can agree that free speech is important. And yet, I suspect that most of us would also agree that this freedom should not be absolute. That is, most of us recognize that an individual should not have the right to say or write absolutely anything. If you are not sure about such limits, read this and ask yourself whether a blogger should have complete freedom to incite violence against politicians. We typically recognize that the right to free speech can not be absolute and than it is a freedom that carries some important responsibilities. But once we have opened the door to placing limits on free speech, we must wrestle with their nature and extent.

We atheists tend to focus more on the costs and benefits of certain types of speech than we do on the limits of free speech and the responsibilities which such freedom demands. The never-ending "don't be a dick" debate comes to mind as an example of how our discourse focuses on the impact of certain forms of speech on others. But we also struggle with where best to set the limits. Should Fred Phelps and his clan of Christian extremists be permitted to protest funerals? What about a group of atheists picketing a church?

We tend to advocate unlimited freedom to criticize religious belief, but we are often divided on the appropriateness of such criticism extending to religious persons. After all, we do not want to engage in the same sort of bigotry with which we are often confronted. Thus, most of us are more comfortable with religious believers criticizing atheism than we are with religious believers criticizing atheists.

I think it is important for us to remain vigilant about spotting hypocrisy in ourselves and our fellow atheists, and there is nothing quite like issues of free speech to highlight it. How many times have we characterized Christians as "crazy," "stupid," or "deluded" simply because they are Christians? And how many times have we condemned the bigotry of Christians when they call us "immoral," "arrogant," or "close-minded" simply because we are atheists?

For me, this isn't about civility. In fact, I worry that focusing too much on civility is going to accomplish little more than stifling needed debate. Rather, I see this as being about rationality and consistency. If I am going to do the same thing of which I am accusing the religious, then I am engaging in hypocrisy.

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