Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Religious Truth and Secular Scandal: Kierkegaard's Pathology of Offense

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Religious Truth and Secular Scandal: Kierkegaard's Pathology of Offense

Article excerpt

In the editorial accompanying the 2005 publication of satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose, offered a preemptive defense of the satire along political lines: "Modern, secular [sekulære] society is rejected by some Muslims. They lay claim to a special position, when they insist on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with secular [verdsligt] democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule."1 In the controversy that followed the cartoons' publication, scholarly and media observers alike followed Rose's cue in identifying the two sides of the conflict: on the one hand, a secular and democratic culture that prizes the freedom of speech, and on the other a religious and autocratic culture that shields certain religious representations from criticism. This impression deepened as many Muslims across the world took to protest the publication, using language and making gestures that seemed from the standpoint of many Europeans and Americans to be surprisingly or inappropriately violent.2 In Western reporting, the controversy was often transposed in a liberal language of conflicting rights: the right to express oneself freely versus the right not to be offended.3 But what sort of argument would prioritize the right to avoid criticism over the freedom to criticize? Formulated in this way, the conflict can appear trivial and one-sided: those who protest religious satire simply fail to understand the nature of democratic political culture. And as opposition to the cartoons became the pretext for extreme acts of violence across the globe, the one-sidedness of this "right" appeared even more dramatic.4

Facing the prospect of an increasingly entrenched debate, a number of scholars have suggested an oblique approach, questioning the neutrality of secular freedoms, highlighting the tensions that develop between political ideals such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion when they are applied to a highly diverse society.5 Freedom, they rightly remind us, is always accessed in culturally encoded ways. And depending on how it is formulated and on the kinds of exceptions afforded in its provision, a right as apparently neutral as the freedom of expression can actually intensify social and political inequality, placing greater affective demands on some communities than on others.6 Such inequalities become particularly salient when we consider the culturally specific meanings attached to different forms of representation. Visual representations do not have the same status in Islam as they do in Christianity. Likewise, a secular liberal is likely to interpret the concept of blasphemy within an entirely different epistemological and affective framework than a passionate religious believer.7

I would like to consider another aspect of this conflict. My concern here is not about the coherence of the freedom of speech in a situation of religious pluralism or the legitimacy of apparently universal political ideals. Rather, I would like us to think about the cultural underpinnings of Rose's claim that a secular society requires a certain tolerance to insult and ridicule. In attempting to understand the European side of the conflict over the cartoons, many have pointed to the culture of criticism that emerged over the long course of European Enlightenment and Reformation.8 A taste for unmasking religious power is surely one of the more enduring legacies of the esprit critique advanced by philosophes such as Bayle and Voltaire. At the same time, to appreciate the Enlightenment roots of contemporary attitudes toward criticism and offense ought not to dissuade us from pursuing more local avenues of inquiry. In what follows, I will examine an important Danish account of the relation between religious piety and offense, found in Søren Kierkegaard's ascetic masterpiece, Training in Christianity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.