Religion Is Fair Game -- But We Have to Rewrite the Rules

Huffington Post

Some people say we shouldn't satirize religion. I disagree. Satire, an ancient genre that uses humor to reveal the perceived weaknesses of a person, idea, or belief, should be a welcome addition to any public debate -- particularly if it is humorous more than bitter or mean-spirited. Of course, it is opinion, not truth, and belongs to the op-ed page.

Yet, do we need to be "more sensitive" about religion? Must we be careful to treat certain religious subjects more delicately or avoid them entirely? Religions can certainly impose restrictions on their followers as to what they say -- but should we narrow public debate because of religious sensibilities? People are afraid that satire, precisely because it causes us to laugh, causes humiliation, which in turn may provoke anger or even violence. (Not only in recent times: think back to the "wars of religion" when Protestants fought Catholics, and each other, in the early modern West.)

We need to understand why we worry so much about satirizing religion. Anything that narrows our debate and thus our understanding is dangerous, even if it comes from a desire to be polite or caring.

There are two common ideas about this topic that I would reject. One is that religion has to do with feelings, while political views are more intellectual -- so a satire against religion causes more emotion and more pain. That's simply not true. People can become very irate over a political cartoon and, in some times and places, those have generated violent reactions too.

The other is that satire and caricature can too easily go 'over the top.' This point has been made recently, in relation to Charlie Hebdo. Like humor in general, satire often exaggerates to make a point. Its visual cousin, caricature, is recognizable precisely by exaggeration of visual characteristics. These can surely strain the boundaries of acceptable discourse and there is plenty of humor that is "in bad taste." But that's not unique to critiques of religion, and restraining free expression on the ground of poor taste can too easily be used as an excuse to discard the ideas being put forward. (I am excluding hateful satire and caricature -- which is not intended to be humorous but, like hate speech, to incite degradation and violence.) The best response to poor taste is not to support the purveyors of it -- which had happened in the history of Charlie.

But neither of these arguments gets to the fundamental point: Why do people feel vulnerable, hurt or angry when they encounter satire of their religion?

The primary reason is that we suffer an inherent, existential doubt about religious authority. Even if you are confident about belief in God, you still may be anxious on this score because of a basic fact: God doesn't speak to us directly. We have to rely on human authorities, and there's the rub: we know humans are imperfect. Even if we possess a supposedly authoritative written text, we have to use human skill to interpret it. Worse yet, almost everyone knows of human religious authorities who have been shown to be not just mildly imperfect, but corrupt.

Add to that the fact that we all live today in a world of multiple, competing religious authorities. That has been true for millennia, but it is impossible to ignore now. What's a believer to do?

There are two alternatives. The first is, you protect and defend and "believe all the harder" in your chosen religious authority. You shut out other claimants to authority. You may acknowledge them, but only for tolerance's sake. And that tolerance will have a limit, because of the hidden anxiety against which you must protect yourself. Your connection to everything that is of ultimate value in life depends on keeping that authority protected, pure and true.

And you will hate satire and caricature of your religion or its leaders. Instead of seeing, as satire intends, the foibles of humanity, and feeling perhaps a little sharp bite that includes oneself, you will feel fear, pain and anger.

The other alternative is to restructure your view of authority. In other words, it's not by eliminating satire, but by changing our own orientation, that we will solve this problem. My opinion is that we all need to do this, not only for the sake of mutual acceptance and tolerance, but for our own sanity.

In place of unquestioned religious authority, we must substitute authenticity.

Authenticity is more complex. I use the word to signify a committed relationship that is three-way: between you and your religious tradition, with its authorities and authoritative texts; between you and God (shorthand for however you define the transcendent); and between you and yourself. The first dimension includes the intellectual dimension of learning (belief, history, practice) and relations you form in the present with a community of fellow believers. The second is the mysterious realm of prayer, contemplation, meditation, insight. The third is your own self-investigation, coming to know your weaknesses and strengths, the influences from your past, and your deepest longings.

We each generate or "author" this complex relationship with the help of others (including God); but it is continually being "authenticated" by the experiences of life -- and it may change.

Moving from authority to authenticity has several advantages:

We no longer have to defend authorities who have been shown to be corrupt. We can say no to authorities who do not deserve our trust. At the same time, we can still relate to the tradition they try, imperfectly, to represent.

We do not have to presume to defend those who are no longer present to say what they think. (Do we really think that Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha, examples of the most accomplished human beings of all times, need our puny defenses?)

We can accept that religious knowledge is variable throughout history and that, if we bring each generation's wisdom to the table, we can probably find more satisfying answers than rote recitations of texts. Questions such as, 'what would Jesus do?' suggests that we don't actually know, and we do have to consult one another.

We can discover how to learn from people in different traditions. Too often, we hear glib statements that "at bottom, all religions teach the same thing." Then why learn about other religions? I'm not really interested in the bottom, the lowest common denominator. I'm interested in enhancing and enriching our religious knowledge from multiple sources.

Believers can interact more comfortably with nonbelievers, recognizing they too are trying to relate authentically to their own personal history, experiences of transcendence (or lack thereof), and the traditions of inquiry and practice that they have learned about.

We can be more humble. We can accept error, ours and others. We don't have to 'prove' anything. We can support each other, respecting the ongoing search of each person, as well as the authentic honoring of the sanctity of great historic traditions.

And, we don't have to be afraid of satire. If we allow others to mirror us back to ourselves, we can develop a healthy sense of humor about ourselves as religious beings, just as we do in other areas of our lives. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine (before the state of Israel was formed), said that atheism came to purify our concept of God. Similarly, satire can help us form a healthier and more mature understanding of authority.

Then religion will be not only fair game, but one of the most interesting games in town.

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