The murder of journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a terrible act of terrorism but the events that followed have surely changed for the better the world’s view of the right to offend. Millions of people marched in support of the right of free speech – in support of the right to mock, ridicule and laugh at all and any ideas including religious beliefs.
I am grateful to all those who did so for the simple reason that I personally want the right to offend. I believe that all the world’s religions promote horrible, cruel and false ideas and we are better to laugh at them than to fight against the people who hold them.
In the summer of 2014 I was invited to lecture on memes to a group of summer students in Oxford. Along with my presentation of cultural evolution, Internet memes, and fashions, I described religions as viral memes that infect billions of people and affect their actions. And I showed one of the original Danish cartoons. I have described the rather scary effects this had on some of the students in a blog post 100 walked out of my lecture on Richard Dawkins Foundation website, and at Psychology Today in ‘I am offended, I won’t listen‘.
Although many people were supportive of my right to offend these young Muslims, others told me that I should never offend or upset people by challenging their religious beliefs. I disagree. Of course the important distinction here – as is so often pointed out – lies between ridiculing or poking fun at a person and ridiculing or mocking ideas. I did the latter and a free society depends on that right. This, I believe, is what millions of those marchers stood up for.
I hope that this world-changing event will mean that we never again see a British University trying to throw atheist students out of their Fresher’s Fair for wearing T-shirtsdepicting Mohammed and Jesus, as happened here in London in 2013, or to censor posters of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as happened in 2014, or to condone gender segregation in university lectures.
We may never free the world of the harmful effects of religious faith but at least those of us who wish to now feel freer to say why and to laugh instead of cry.
p.s. I agree with this piece – that we have “a duty to mock“. We owe our freedom to others who have dared to do so in the past.