Randy Alcorn

Responding to the murders in France committed by Islamic fanatics offended by a pasquinade of Islam’s founder, Pope Francis said that making fun of religion was wrong and those who do it should expect repercussions, even violent repercussions.

About repercussions, the pope acknowledges the obvious. Every schoolboy and girl quickly learns that name-calling can result in a punch to the nose. But he is wrong to condemn the use of satire against religion — although it is no surprise that he does. His entire world view, his exalted position and his life’s work depend on millions of people believing in religious doctrine.

And, as Mark Twain once noted, “Nothing can withstand the assault of laughter.” So, sympathizing with outraged Muslims, the pope may consider the overt derision of any religion as a threat to the faith that sustains all religions.

Whether the pope also objects to polite but no less incisive criticisms of religion, why should irony, ridicule and sarcasm be off limits?

Astute observers of human behavior have amply employed satire to expose human folly and the foibles of unexamined beliefs. Great minds like Cicero, Twain, Will Rogers, H.L. Mencken and Winston Churchill used their caustic wit to skewer ideas and people they found grossly lacking in logic, virtue and veracity.

Today, we might add Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno and others to that list of facile minds with sharp tongues.

People love to laugh, and satire is most effective at revealing the absurdities, hypocrisies and contradictions in so much of life, including religion. Because it simplifies messy issues and slashes through knots of nonsense with entertaining derision, satire has the ability to quickly and clearly make a point and facilitate understanding in ways that long sermons and verbose academic discourse do not.

Those individuals who are most tenaciously invested in their beliefs can become blinded by rage, frustration and humiliation when the shortcomings of those beliefs are starkly exposed by satire. Since religions are based on faith rather than facts and are replete with ideas irreconcilable with reality, logical refutations of criticisms are difficult to muster. Witty retorts are rare and rejoinders typically limited to howls of “blasphemy.”

Followers of any theology who engage in persecutions, violence and homicidal terror to punish blasphemers, silence skeptics and end any further criticism of the validity or virtue of their beliefs worship only darkness.

The freedom to express, with impunity, one’s mind, to share opinions and ideas, is essential to the pursuit of truth and reason. People whose position, power or whose identity requires unquestioning dedication to any static belief system will always present an obstacle — sometimes a dangerous obstacle — to human progress and enlightenment. But, if mankind is to find truth and meet the various existential challenges that it will always face, it cannot cower from or appease those who demand limits to the pursuit of truth and the exercise of expression, even if that exercise is done with offensive cartoons.

If the expression of ideas is restricted by boundaries of etiquette or political correctness, then freedom of expression is limited by those who determine those boundaries. That is problematic because self-interest and prejudices interfere with objectivity. Consequently, debate is confined to acceptable facts and opinions while everything else is inadmissible as “hate speech.”

Speaking the truth, no matter how rudely, should not be illegal.The only acceptable limit on freedom of expression is the prohibition on lying — i.e. an unproven allegation that impugns someone, or a known falsehood that endangers others. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not an abuse of free speech if the theater is on fire. A cartoon depicting Muhammad with a lit bomb in his turban makes a valid statement about the murderous savagery committed in the name of the religion Muhammad founded.  

If an idea is true, no amount of criticism — no matter how crude or caustic — will make it untrue. But, if an idea is false, then it will be exposed, and the sooner it is the sooner the truth is found. Those objecting to satirization of their beliefs are not interested in the truth, they are interested in maintaining their beliefs whether those are valid or not. Because their beliefs give them comfort, identity or power, they feel threatened when those beliefs are assailed.

In the 1963 movie, Cleopatra, Marc Antony warns the Roman statesman, Cicero: “You have a sharp tongue. Be careful that it does not cut off your head.” Antony’s warning was intimidation, and so were the pope’s remarks about lampooning religion.

Anyone who seeks to silence those who speak truth — especially to established powers — threatens human liberty, progress and enlightenment. Religion is no more off limits to satire than politics are.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at randyalcorn@cox.net, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.