Is Religion Offensive to Non-believers?

March 25, 2004 | 10 comments
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This from Richard John Neuhaus at First Things (scroll way down):

[A] recent national survey asked administrators and students about the First Amendment. Only 21 percent of administrators and 30 percent of students knew that the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom. Only six percent of administrators and two percent of students knew that religious freedom is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment. Only 41 percent of administrators and 32 percent of students believe that religious people should be permitted to advocate their views by whatever legal means available. On the other hand, 74 percent of students and 87 percent of administrators think it ?essential? that people be able to express their beliefs unless?and then come a host of qualifications, all amounting to the condition that their beliefs not ?offend others.?


Perhaps the most surprising thing about this survey is that it is not at all surprising. Religious bigotry is widespread, and circumspection is usually the safest strategy when it comes to religious conversations. Can you imagine the reaction if I stood before my class tomorrow and proclaimed, “Premarital sex is a sin; adultery is a sin; and homosexuality is a sin. If anyone here has engaged in these activities, you should repent and forsake your sins immediately.” [Shudder.] All of these statements accurately reflect my beliefs, and they all are official positions of the Church. Other than the fact that I teach Business Organizations and these statements would be wildly out of place, why should I be reluctant to make such a proclamation in front of my students? Or perhaps more to the point, why would so many people feel that the risk of someone being offended by my beliefs should override my freedom to express my beliefs?

One possibility is that the problem with those statements is not their substance, but rather the manner in which that substance is presented. It is too simple and too egocentric to suggest that conflicts over religion are all the fault of one side being intolerant or wicked (or both). In my experience, most instances in which a person takes offense are best explained by the manner in which an opposing view was presented. In words a lawyer might better understand, the problem is often procedural, not substantive.

Tomorrow, I am hosting a breakfast discussion with students at my law school. The topic is “Politics in the Classroom,” and as you can read here, my view is that the root cause of the conflicts that prompted this session is fairly simple to discern, and that is lack of respect.

Thanks to Professor Bainbridge for the pointer.

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10 Responses to Is Religion Offensive to Non-believers?

  1. Russell Arben Fox on March 25, 2004 at 9:02 am

    “Religious bigotry is widespread, and circumspection is usually the safest strategy when it comes to religious conversations. Can you imagine the reaction if I stood before my class tomorrow and proclaimed, ‘Premarital sex is a sin; adultery is a sin; and homosexuality is a sin. If anyone here has engaged in these activities, you should repent and forsake your sins immediately.’ [Shudder.]”

    As always, Gordon, factors of class and region complicate matters. I take Neuhaus’s point, but still: he, and the poll he cites, and you yourself, are framing these concerns in relation to America’s educated elite, the sort of people who might read (and be scandalized by) First Things, the sort of people who can get into law school and afford to live in Madison, Wisconsin. If I stood up tomorrow before my students here in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and said exactly what you propose saying, half the class would take it without batting an eye: after all, they’ve been taught exactly that (not to say they always live it…) in their Baptist Sunday Schools since they were little kids. As for my collegues…well, no doubt many would roll their eyes (though perhaps not the Methodist Deacon who teaches our Civil Liberties course), and there might even be some intra-department discussion, but I strongly doubt it’d amount to anything.

    This isn’t to say that I’m dismissive of concerns about the secularism so often judicially or socially imposed upon our public square; I am. It’s just that years in the South have taught me that there’s a multitude of squares out there, and measuring respect for religion alone isn’t sufficient for establishing just what is going on in any particular one of them.

  2. Brent on March 25, 2004 at 9:28 am

    Gordon, I would generally agree that offense is often generated because of the manner in which a viewpoint is presented, but my experience has been that this is becoming less prevalent. Indeed, substance is replacing procedure in defining what is and is not offensive. Try to argue against same-sex marriage without offending. It is almost impossible. The same often goes for other hot button political issues. It also seems to me, that discussing religion and behavior also, in and of itself, offends a goodly number of people regardless of the manner in which such views are presented. I think the problem is, in part, the same problem recognized by Nephi in dealing with his brothers–the guilty take the truth to be hard.

  3. greenfrog on March 25, 2004 at 11:27 am

    Interesting post and responses.

    The distinction between procedure and substance is useful in many instances, but, of course, if you’ve been wrongly sentenced to death and exhausted your procedural avenues for relief, the distinction between procedure and substance isn’t quite so clear.

    Can a case not be made for a civil religion whose substantive tenets include time-place-and-manner restraints that would be violated by delivery of Prof. Smith’s self-suppressed sermon?

    While I’m too time-constrained to see if I could build such an argument today, I wonder whether such an approach might not lead us to the fundamental dilemma of belief/disbelief: it is ultimately subjective to the individual — whether the individual is a religiously minded person or of Newdow’s views or psychotic.

  4. Chris R on March 25, 2004 at 11:32 am

    I think the difficulty with discussion religion in the classroom or in the public arena is that we are indoctrinated in the belief that we are free to develop our own conscience. Just as we don’t want to be told our beliefs are wrong, we are generally adverse to imposing our own beliefs on others.

    That being said, morality and politics do intermix. Honest and fruitful debate occurs when both parties are accepting of the other’s viewpoint, even when they don’t agree. However, when one side is ignorant, or stubborn, then offense is more quickly taken.

  5. Charles on March 25, 2004 at 11:36 am

    People are generally not offended by another persons religion. There is a considerable difference between the principle of a religion and the doctrine. An atheist or muslim does not generally take offense to someone proclaiming to be a christian. The personal believe in Jesus as our savior is a non issue to them.
    The offense comes from the preaching or adamant teaching of one’s doctrine to a person who does not share the same fundamental belief. This offense is hightened when the preaching (not discussion) is done in a location where religion is not expected, ie school, business or politics.

    I have long believed that when two beliefs are in contradiction with each other, we should err on the side of caution. My example is saying a personal prayer (prayer not lead by an authority) in school. It does no harm to a ‘non-believer’ to listen to a ‘believer’ pray. However, to prohibit the believer from praying causes damage as it is thier belief to pray. This is just a rough example.

    However, when we are in a secularist location and a person of authority begins to admonish people based on thier personal beliefs, especially when those beliefs are not held by the institution the authority figure represents, this begins to offend people greatly. I would say this has less to do with expressing one’s views because they have the right to do so guaranteed by the First Amendment, and more so with common courtesy. If you are representing an organization which wishes to remain neutral, or has strong opinions, you should refrain from expressing your views except when invited to do so by that organization.

    There are many venues that discussions can occur. I for one belive that honest discussions will accomplish more than debates, and discussions or debates will accomplish far more than ‘bullying my belifes on you’.

  6. greenfrog on March 25, 2004 at 11:51 am

    An afterthought: Does Prof. Smith’s proposed sermon raise the same issue as a teacher in Sunday school preaching the wrongfulness of a (recent) General Conference sermon?

  7. Ivan Wolfe on March 25, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    My two haypennies:

    Much of the offense depends on how the belief is presented – I agree. But how do we factor in the recent proposal in France to ban Muslim and Jewish headwear and “large crosses” for Christians – or any other outward signs of religous expression?

    That policy, I think, goes far beyond just making sure the Atheists, Agnostics and Hindus, etc. are not offended – it goes to the extreme of offending the Muslims, Jews and Christians by saying that they cannot live their religions.

  8. Kevin on March 26, 2004 at 7:17 pm

    I wouldn’t touch the gay marriage issue with a ten foot pole, but I’ll toss out a question on the relationship between religion and government.

    As other posters have mentioned, there is a tendency to conflate morality with legality. This has occurred most notably with abortion and gay marriage. There are other issues, however, that make it clear that some forms of immorality should be legal. For example, the Book of Mormon states that infant baptism is an abomination, but few Mormons would oppose the legality of baptizing infants. In fact, most would feel that the government should stay out of such religious matters.

    That raises the question of whether voting and lobbying decisions should be based on religious belief. If I try to nudge the government into a direction dictated by my religion, am I not injecting religious views into a government which I claim should be religion-free? In other words, am I justified in taking a certain political stance even if I can find no secular reason for doing so?

  9. Kevin on March 26, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    My apologies. The above post was supposed to go in another thread.

  10. Tami on May 14, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    Why can people talk of church and religion at work any I can not joke around because I may offend them with language or sexual intent? I may be offended by religious beliefs…