the theology of respect

bergens tidende, 22 september 2006

'Muslim leaders demand apology for Pope's "medieval" remarks'. So ran a typical newspaper headline this week. Now, I might, as an atheist, be somewhat jaundiced in my view. But isn't accusing the Pope of having medieval views a bit like criticising him for being a Catholic? And isn't the spectacle of Muslim leaders demanding an apology for the Pontiff's unenlightened views akin to seeing Donald Trump castigate Bill Gates for having too much money in the bank? The whole point of a religion - any religion - is that it embodies a pre-modern, pre-scientific view of the world. Indeed, many of the beliefs and practices of both Christianity and Islam can sometimes make even the Middle Ages seem positively modern.

In reality, though, the controversy over the Pope's address at Regensberg University has little to do with medieval theology and everything to do with the very 21st century theology of 'respect'. This is a theology built around Three Commandments. Thou shalt not give offence to other cultures. Thou shalt respect all beliefs however irrational they may be. Thou shalt censor one's own views in the name of tolerance. It is a secular theology that I believe is almost as pernicious as any religious dogma.

At the heart of the theology of respect is the claim that we need a new form of censorship (and self-censorship) to cope with the demands of a plural society. 'If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict', the British sociologist Tariq Modood suggests, 'they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism'. In other words, the Pope must only say nice things about Muslims. One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

I believe the opposite is true. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the greatest freedom to express our opinion - even if others find it offensive. In a homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important, because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to 'subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism' is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. 'If liberty means anything', as George Orwell once put it, 'it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear'.

What the new theology demands is, in fact, not respect but obedience. 'You will only say or do what we think is acceptable' has become the credo of the multiculturalist censor. It is an attitude that turns the notion of respect on its head.

In its traditional Kantian sense, respect requires us to treat every human being equally as a moral, autonomous being. Every individual possesses the capacity to express political and moral views and to act upon them. And every individual is responsible for his or her views and actions and is capable of being judged by them. The importance of free speech is that it is an expression of individual moral autonomy, the capacity of people to engage in a robust debate about their beliefs and their actions - and to bear the consequences.

The new theology demands respect not just for the person but for also his or her beliefs. And in so doing it undermines individual autonomy, both by constraining the right of people to criticise others' beliefs and by insisting that individuals who hold those beliefs are too weak or vulnerable to stand up to criticism or abuse. The result is an auction of victimhood as every group attempts to outbid all others as the one feeling most offended. The furore over the Pope's remarks showed the way in which many people are now looking to be offended, almost as a badge of identity.

The irony is that, in the name of protecting pluralism, the theology of respect undermines much of what is valuable about cultural diversity. When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement. The theologians of respect, however, seem frightened of the mess, and want everything nicely parcelled up, free of discord, all neat and ordered.

It is time we stood up for a little less respectful order and a little more messy engagement. For only through such engagement can real respect grow.