Freedom of expression and offence – religious or otherwise

In New Zealand we seem to have few overt problems with offence to religious sensitivities. There have been issues like the “Virgin in a condom” and the South Park Episode. Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church occasionally bursts into activity on issues like their demand that New Zealand be recognised as a Christian Nation. I can still remember the protests against screening of that classic film “The Life of Brian.” However, there have not been the big, and sometimes violent, demonstrations observed overseas (as for example around the Danish cartoons, or Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).

New Zealand’s National Statement on Religious Diversity is non-dogmatic on the issues of freedom of expression and religious sensitivity. The relevant clauses are:

4. THE RIGHT OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. The right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media are vital for democracy but should be exercised with responsibility.


7. RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES. Debate and disagreement about religious beliefs will occur but must be exercised within the rule of law and without resort to violence.

I am thankful that our society ispretty tolerant. However, I am sure that the conflict between religious sensitivity and freedom of expression is often manifested here in less public ways. I am sure people often do feel offended by statements in our media and theatres from time to time. I’m also sure some individuals would like to somehow legally limit our freedoms to prevent their feelings offense. Perhaps some people would like to interpret the above clauses so that “should be exercised with responsibility” andwithin the rule of law” could prevent true freedom of expression. And many people (religious and no-religious) do not accept the above national statement anyway.

Are you offended

Do you find some things in the public media offend you?

If so, would you like to limit freedom of expression to prevent such offensive presentations?

I know there are things that offend me. I am personally offended by unwarranted representations of men ( as in “all men are rapists,” etc.). I am offended by misrepresentations of my beliefs (as when unwarranted characterisations of atheists are presented). But this doesn’t lead me to suggest any limitations on freedom of expression.

The occasional personal offense is the price we pay for living in a free and pluralistic society. I believe that this is as true for offense against religious (and non-religious) sensitivities as it is for offense against any other belief. Religious “blasphemy” should have no more importance than any other offence.

The UK is currently going through the process of removing its laws against blasphemy. The conflict between freedom of expression and religious offence has led to some major conflicts in that country. In 2005 Channel 4 screened Dispatches: Holy Offensive which describes conflicts around Behzti (Dishonour), a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (protested by Sikhs) and Jerry Springer: The Opera (protested by Christians) . The documentary is very well balanced – giving both sides of the conflict so the viewers can come to their own conclusions.

It’s well worth watching and I link to it below. The issues are relevant to us in New Zealand.

Holy Offensive Part 1 (10 min)

Holy Offensive Part 2 (10 min)

Holy Offensive Part 3 (10 min)

Holy Offensive Part 4 (10 min)

Holy Offensive Part 5 (10 min)

Related Articles:
Beyond Tolerance – Toward Understanding and Respect
Secular alternatives to religious communities
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality
Human rights for the non-religious

4 responses to “Freedom of expression and offence – religious or otherwise

  1. I’m naturally inclined to dismiss people when they get upset about blasphemy but I’ve been thinking a bit about it this morning after watching these videos.

    What am I personally happy to parody? Any form of religion or idea including any scientific observation that I hold to be the truth. But what about a parody of someone’s suffering? I wouldn’t be happy for the Boxing Day tsunami to be parodied in a theatre production. Many people feel genuine sorrow for the supposed suffering of Jesus (which I personally conclude really did happen) – is it ok to parody that? Is it tasteful to make jokes about the holes in his hands? Even if we don’t believe he was some super-being this is making fun of a person who was tortured to death which is pretty tasteless.

    I think that the Jerry Springer production would have been just a good without these additions (although I haven’t seen it).

    I think that it’s important to challenge ideas that people have but after thinking about it a bit more this morning I would now say that if someone is genuinely sorrowful about something (whether it’s a fictional event or not) we should think twice before making a parody of it.

    The “virgin” Mary however…


  2. Or is there a point at which so much water has gone under the bridge that someone’s suffering is no longer a taboo subject? Can we make jokes about the victims of Mount Vesuvius?

    If the Scientologists were to incorporate Mount Vesuvius into the story of their religion would creating a parody of the people of Mount Vesuvius as an indirect challenge to the ideas of Scientology be acceptable?


  3. It’s certainly a complex issue and I personally favour being respectful. However, freedom of expression is vital and I think we must stand up for that. I can see nothing wrong with Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and I am sure hardly any of the objectors to this book bothered reading it.

    I get the impression that NZ theatre, etc., can be quite open minded and surely offends some (maybe many). On the other hand NZers generally seem to appreciate this.

    Even US TV programmes like House and Boston Legal are now presenting material which many US Christians would deem offensive. I think this demonstrates that Americans have become a bit tired of the way religion has behaved and do now like to see a bit of offence.

    Something I noticed in the past is that the two groups who could laugh about themselves (producing jokes which might be deemed offensive) were the Catholics and the Communists. On the other hand the new religions and the small left-wing or Marxist sects, were easily offended.

    This suggests to me that offense, or otherwise, has got a lot to do with maturity.


  4. Oh don’t get me wrong; I’m all up for taking the mickey out of anyone’s ideas or beliefs. I was just questioning the appropriateness of laughing at genuine human suffering and trying to explore the boundaries of where it might be acceptable if someone’s historical suffering is being re-purposed to bolster a belief that’s deserving of ridicule.

    (And you mentioned Catholics being able to laugh at themselves?? I would think Anglicans would fit this description better. And I would say that this is more a trait of a religion that has to live in a country where no one really takes it seriously anymore rather than an ‘oldness’ thing. Although you’re dead right about young religions and causes taking themselves far too seriously – this is almost perfectly analogous to humans from teens through to old age.)


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