You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Pope Francis Is Wrong About 'Charlie Hebdo.' We Have a Right to Make Fun of Religion.

Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris was a watershed moment in the war on terrorism in two ways. First, it’s almost impossible to pin the murders on anything but blind adherence to religious faith. The murderers, like many Muslims, believed that making fun of or even depicting their prophet Muhammad is a capital offense. Why else would the terrorists target Charlie Hebdo instead of, say, French government offices? The religious motivation directly contradicts the many apologists who blame Islamic terrorism on the West as a reaction by the oppressed to colonialism. What has changed with this tragedy is people’s willingness to recognize that religion really does make people do terrible things.  

We are experiencing a historic clash between two tenets of liberalism: multiculturalism and Enlightenment. Absorbing immigrants can enrich a society in many ways, but not if those immigrants demand a public deference to their religion that conflicts with democratic values. 

I’m referring in particular to free speech: the right to criticize or make fun of anything so long as you’re not directly inciting violence. For exercising that right, 10 members of the Charlie Hebdo staff were exterminated. Not all Muslims, of course, riot or kill when Muhammad is defamed or depicted, but the view is sufficiently common that the West has finally woken up to what it means for democracy. 

One would think that Catholicism, a largely Western institution, would share the solidarity among enlightened people prompted by what happened in Paris. Wrong. Pope Francis, the voice of the Vatican, has pronounced that free speech should be limited: that while satire and mockery can’t justify murder, they shouldn’t go too far—by which the Pope means that criticizing religion should be off limits. 

On a trip to the Philippines this week, Francis, after decrying “murder in the name of God,” carefully delimited how far magazines like Charlie Hebdo should go: "One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people's faith, one cannot make fun of faith." 

Then, punching the air, he made an implicit comparison between the “offensive” behavior of those who satirize religion and those who would insult his mother.

"If Dr. Gasbarri, a great friend, says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him," Francis said. "It's normal, it's normal."

Leaving aside whether the Pope is ignoring Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek, the comparison between satirizing religion and insulting one’s mom is ludicrous. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, and other mockery of religion (the magazine has made fun of all faiths, including Catholicism), are meant not to insult religious people or designed only to give offense, but to bring attention to the harmful effects of faith. The magazine, for instance, often called out the Vatican for mishandling the epidemic of child rape by priests. 

Charlie Hebdo wasn’t calling Muslims names; it was calling Islam names, and it’s time that everyone, including Pope Francis, grasped the difference. Insulting people is different from criticizing their beliefs, even if the latter leads to the former. Just as political views can cause harm, so can religious views, and to argue that religion is off limits while politics is not is to confer on faith an unwarranted privilege. 

People are starting to realize this, as seen in the many marches and shows of solidarity all over the West, and in the declarations by some Muslims that the right of satire should also apply to Islam. A new poll by YouGuv found that 63 percent of Americans believe that it’s more important to protect free speech than to “protect the dignity of sincerely held religious beliefs,” while only 19 percent held the reverse view.

But in a world friendly to religion, this realization still comes hard. Many media outlets, showing deference to faith, still refused to reprint the touching cover published by Charlie Hebdo after the massacre; the cowardly venues included the BBC, the Telegraph, NBC News, the CBC, and Sky News. Others, like Bill Donohue, president of America’s Catholic League, argued that “Muslims are right to be angry” about the cartoons, coming perilously close to excusing the Charlie Hebdo murders and, like Pope Francis, showing a distressing convergence between Muslims and Catholics in their claimed right to not be mocked. Even the student newspaper at my own university argued that, “While it is important for students to challenge each other’s opinions, this should not come at the expense of students’ mental well-being or safety.” 

Safety, yes; mental well-being, no. The price of coddling tender minds  offended by disagreement is the dissolution of democracy. For free speech, which includes the right to mock or excoriate views we find offensive, is the arsenal of democracy, and satire one of its most effective weapons. That weapon can sometimes backfire, as we discovered last week. But capitulation to “hurt feelings” will in the end erode the very rights that make the West such a magnet for immigrants. And there is one “right” we shouldn’t have. As Salman Rushdie, who has suffered for decades from the deadly censorship of radical Islam, once said, “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” 

A shorter version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.