The brouhaha over South Park’s depiction of Mohammed in a recent episode has given rise to some pretty illuminating commentary about the relationship between religion and open society. I’ve waded through several and recommend two in particular:
– Glenn Greenwald’s important column in Salon, in which he correctly points out the “delusional” assumption that it is only Muslims who issue death threats against religious satire that they find offensive.
– Austin Dacey’s amazing piece in Religion Dispatches, in which he shows how puerile anti-religious satire actually predates South Park by several centuries:
Forget the South Park dust up; forget Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. If you want to see truly shocking anti-religious cartoons, you have to go back to the sixteenth century. Near the end of Luther’s life, his propaganda campaign against Rome grew increasingly vitriolic and his language grotesquely pungent. He took to calling his ecclesiastical enemies ‘asses,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘pigs,’ ‘blockheads,’ ‘basilisks,’ and ‘pupils of Satan,’ and the Pope himself ‘Her Sodomitical Hellishness’ and ‘fart-ass’ (no, it doesn’t sound much more dignified in German—fartz-Esel). Eric Cartman would be in awe.
The debate over cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad is often framed as a clash between free speech and religious attitudes. But it is just as much a clash between conflicting religious attitudes, and the freedom at stake is not only freedom of expression but freedom of religion…
The orthodoxy of today is the blasphemy of yesterday. From the beginning, the spiritual search for religious truth has not been against blasphemy, but by way of blasphemy. Depending on where we sit metaphysically, we may want that search called off, or we may want it furthered. Either way, we must welcome religious offense as the unavoidable consequence of a free religious conscience.
And don’t forget Eboo Patel’s great take on the matter:
“It’s always interesting to see which items get labeled sacred cows and therefore invite attack.
Is a sick grandmother a sacred cow? If you staple pictures of that image on bulletin boards and write, ‘Isn’t cancer hilarious?’ are you defending free speech, or are you just being a jerk?
Is the ‘N’ word a sacred cow? If you walk into the middle of Harlem and scream that slur at the top of your lungs, are you a First Amendment hero, or just a bigot?
…The key issue here isn’t free speech — it’s actions that intentionally and effectively marginalize a community.”