, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 75-90
Date: 03 Feb 2011

Religious Belief and Freedom of Expression: Is Offensiveness Really the Issue?

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Abstract

An objection frequently brought against critical or satirical expressions, especially when these target religions, is that they are ‘offensive’. In this article, I indicate why the existence of diverse and conflicting beliefs gives people an incentive to formulate their complaints in the language of offence. But I also cast doubt on whether people, in saying they are offended really mean to present that as the foundation of their complaint and, if they do, whether their complaint should weigh with us. These doubts do not apply to everything we might find offensive; in particular, they do not apply to simple cases of ‘sensory offence’; but they do apply to ‘belief-based offence’. Relying on offence also implies, inequitably, that different faiths should be differently protected depending on their susceptibility to offence; and the faithful themselves should worry about the flimsiness of claims based on ‘bare knowledge’ offence. I propose a principle of respect for beliefs as a differently grounded and more plausible reason for curbing our treatment of others’ beliefs. However, that principle has a limited compass and is hemmed in by the claims of free expression. It is also less suited to dictating the content of law than to influencing our conduct within the law.