I began a very strange journey with my series on civil culture, vs the culture of thuggery that continues taking over the world. (And no, by that I don’t mean Islam.)

In my last post, I originally included this paragraph:

I also don’t buy that people who criticize Islam are islamophobes any more than people who criticize Christianity are Christianophobes, or people who criticize Marxists are Marxophobes. That’s just plain old bullying. People’s thinking influences their behavior, and inasmuch as Islam inspires and encourages anti-social behavior, it ought to be criticized, as should any other religion or ideology. Islam is — in part — ideas, and no ideas ought to be beyond the pale when it comes to criticism. “Abusing” a religion may be offensive to some, but it’s abusing people that should draw opprobrium.

I ended up deleting it, because I wanted more time more to think it through. I do believe strongly that criticizing is overall a beneficial activity, and part of the necessary – even crucial – feedback loop that keeps human behavior within certain agreed-upon norms. In addition, we in the west, children of classical Greece which pioneered wide-ranging, intrepid exploration of abstractions, generally do not think any ideas ought to be shielded from challenges and outspokenness, and that the only kind of speech that should carry legal penalties is personal slander and direct physical endangerment (yelling “fire” in a crowded place, or telling an abused spouse “next time, I will kill you.”).

That line gets fuzzy when it comes to speech that vilifies people traditionally put-upon, and might contribute to their physical endangerment in the long run. We Americans have mostly held the line where angry verbal insults are not – apart from the most egregious exceptions — the province of the law. Europeans tend to side more with the “hate speech” paradigm due to some highly unpleasant historical events in the 20th century that relied heavily on hate-mongering propaganda.

I have sympathies for both sides. When push comes to shove, I defend free speech. But I am not insensible toward people who want to maintain a certain level of cultivated discourse, of civility in relationships. It’s been my own experience that when two married people begin to use brutal invective against each other, the good will within the relationship takes a big hit. So, similarly, within a society. To bring that back to the discussion of “insulting religion” – I feel that while to jeer at or to attempt to discredit people’s cherished religious artifacts should never be a legal issue, I see it nonetheless as an undertaking that sows division, and often leads the critics themselves to dishonesty, unnecessary vehemence, sectarianism, and just plain angry disrespect. Would you walk into a house where your neighbors have an altar to the elephant deity Ganesha, and because you disagree and feel offended, pie the statue? Clearly a dick move.


Why spend energy on denouncing other people’s holy writ, be it the Christian Bible, the Islamic Koran, or the Jewish Tanach? They are precious to other people, and even though you disagree with their estimation, why would you go out of your way to malign what others hold in such tender regard? This behavior becomes especially unproductive in view of the fact that denouncing other people’s holy writs makes absolutely no dent in their belief, and likely reinforces their stance under duress.

We live in a world plagued by ideologies that do mischief, no doubt about that. Cults, religions, and secular ideologies are all linked to grievous damage to human communities throughout history. But these same movements have borne good fruits too, depending on who was doing what to whom. It seems to me that it would advance the cause of “civilized civilization” if we got a grip on how to deal with ideologies in a way that defuses their malignant aspects while leaving the positives in place.

There is no question that our way of thinking influences our behavior. But true intentions are notoriously difficult to ascertain, especially when they are not your own but someone else’s. So why not focus on behavior instead? If a woman is murdered, does it makes sense to analyze whether the perp was inspired by a biblical passage, a sura, secular misogyny, or psychopathic entitlement? The behavior is what matters, and the harm lies squarely in the behavior. Anything less serves those who wish to obfuscate this basic and clear fact.

And so this is my prescription for those who wish to battle toxic ideologies: focus on the very human and fallible embodiment of the underlying script. Interpretations, and the behaviors they inspire, are never beyond the pale when it comes to critical questioning. However divinely-inspired the scriptures are held to be, their applications in the here-and-now are entirely and only human. No matter what Exodus 22:18 says, whether a heretic is tortured or killed depends on what the believer does with those and many other ideas. And once we abandon the war of words about the Koran, we can focus on what Muslims actually do with the writings and traditions they have inherited. It is this foundation I will use to explore, in future posts, some of our current cultural dilemmas.

old book