In the wake of a terrorist attack in Paris that resulted in the murder of 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a lot of people on this side of the Atlantic are wondering what limits, if any, should be placed on our freedom to mock religion. While even most Americans who don’t like the idea of making fun of religion seem to indicate that free speech rightly allows for such critiques, a surprisingly large percentage believes faith should be off limits from satire.
In a survey of 1,000 adults conducted Jan. 7-9 by the Huffington Post/YouGov, 63 percent of respondents said protecting free speech is more important than safe guarding the “dignity of sincerely held religious beliefs.” The numbers were nearly even in this category between Democrats (63 percent) and Republicans (64 percent).
But for 19 percent of those surveyed, religion is so sacred that it should not be subjected to mockery. Another 18 percent said they were unsure on this matter. (Although he’s not an American, Pope Francis appears to be this camp. He recently told reporters, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.” Sorry, pope, but you’re wrong.)
It also seems Americans are pretty mixed on the idea that mocking religious icons is acceptable. While 65 percent said it’s perfectly fine to make fun of religious figures, only 22 percent said doing so is always acceptable. Another 43 percent said pocking fun at religion is OK, but it’s in bad taste.
Unfortunately, the poll found that Americans care which faith is the target of criticism. More respondents (44 percent) said it’s not acceptable to mock Christianity than said it’s fine to do so (42 percent). But when it comes to Islam, 46 percent said it’s all right to make fun of it and only 36 percent said it’s not.
When broken down by political party, Republicans were nearly split on whether or not it's permissible to mock Christianity, but 53 percent said they support satirizing Islam (just 30 percent were against it). For Democrats, 38 percent said Islam should not be the object of satire.
The survey also asked how Western media should respond to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Fifteen percent of respondents said there should be an increase in religious satire, while 23 percent said the amount of religious mockery should be reduced in the West. Nearly half (43 percent) want to see no change at all.
Given the horrific nature of the attack in Paris, it’s natural that people would reevaluate whether or not it’s acceptable to mock religion in publications. But no matter how fearful we may be, we cannot stifle free speech purely because we are afraid of violent reprisals. Doing so would let the extremists win, after all.
Free speech doesn’t work if it isn’t applied. This means that all religious (and philosophical) groups must be prepared to accept the fact that some of their critics will mock, satirize, lampoon, poke fun at and otherwise scorn their beliefs. Don’t like it? Respond – with words, not bullets.
The main takeaway from this poll, however, is that far too many Americans would place limits on our liberty. Whether or not you like the idea of satire, we are permitted to mock anything we want in this country. Does that mean there are no consequences to exercising speech? Of course not. But simply criticizing something like religion is not – and should not – be grounds for going to jail or worse.
So if you have a problem with what someone says about your religion or life philosophy to the extent that you want to force them to shut up, you’ve got a problem with the U.S. Constitution. It also means you’ve got a problem with the Founding Fathers.