You would need to be living in a cave to not be aware of the turmoil happening in the world with groups like ISIS murdering cartoonists over their depiction of their prophet and sides being taken to either attack religion or to defend the right to practise it.
The battle lines appear to be drawn between those who believe in freedom and those who would see it curtailed to be replaced with their own version of what is and isn’t acceptable. Most people want freedom and free speech but when choosing it are perhaps unconsciously judging it to only apply to things that they themselves believe in.
We need to be crystal clear what freedom and free speech we’re really talking about. Freedom itself is usually easier to define as there are some fundamental principles: you should be allowed to do what you want as long as you are not harming others. These principles are typically enshrined in laws and as a society we pay people to enforce them and the majority of people try to uphold them. They are easier to judge because it’s typically actions that we are looking at.
Speech is a harder thing to pin down. There are the extremes of “hate speech” which are classed as an action that is harmful enough to others to be criminalized but outside of that does having the right to free-speech mean that we should be able to say anything we want anywhere we want to?
People often confuse free-speech with censorship and think they are opposite and absolute ends of a single continuum and that there must be a line drawn between the two. Some believe that censorship means you have given up some free speech or to put it another way - to have free speech means you cannot have censorship.
But this is wrong and misses an important factor: context.
Should we, for instance, be able to swear? I think all but the most prudish among us would admit to uttering some expletives at one time or another. Sometimes they are appropriate, sometimes they are funny, sometimes they are neither. Should we be able to swear at the TV in our own home? I think so. What about when we’re in our vehicle and some jack-ass cuts us off nearly causing a collision? Again, I think letting off steam with a word or two in our own space is better than taking action that would be classes as road-rage.
As you get further away from the sphere of “our own space” though things become far less clear. What if we’re with friends or family at their BBQ? It would depend on our friends and family as to what they tended to find acceptable (which we may only discover by not being invited next time). What about if we’re among strangers at a sports event? Some things may be ‘accepted’ whereas other things would not depending on the crowd and the sport. But what if it’s not a professional sports arena but a kids soccer match? What if we’re in a primary school class? Does free-speech mean we have the right to say whatever we want to whoever we want whenever we want?
Of course it doesn’t. There has to be limits in a civilized society and the limits often depend on who’s space it is - the context.
Accusations of censorship and violating free speech are common complaints heard by anyone who moderates a discussion forum or prunes comments on their blog. It’s the lame cry of the idiot who understands neither and thinks they have a right to violate the rules of the room and impose their language or views on others. The owners of the site get to decide what is and isn’t acceptable on their site. In doing so they are neither censoring nor limiting anyone’s free speech but simply moderating the language and expressions based on their own rules in their own space. Having the right to express an opinion doesn’t mean that others have the responsibility to publish it for you.
So how does this apply to religion? Nearly every religion is a mix of beliefs coupled with practices based on those beliefs - speech and actions.
It would be nearly impossible to legislate what ideas or beliefs are and aren’t legal which is why debate about such things tends to focus on the absolute extremes of ideas that are abhorrent to the majority of society. But if any idea is legal to speak then surely it should also be absolutely legal to criticize it and hold an opposing view from it.
When this is not the case then we would find ourselves living in a theocracy or other extremist state where the party line is the only accepted opinion. There are examples of regimes from history where this was the case and from ideologies that desire control right now and it is never pretty or beneficial for the population and frequently results in human rights abuses.
This is why freedom and freedom of speech is so important!
A bad idea should be attacked and ridiculed and torn to shreds. That sounds like it is violating someone else freedom but it is not. They can still believe what they want and worship what they want because they have the freedom to listen to it or not. Why? Because the right to free speech and the freedom it protects does not extend to giving people the right to act against others.
The home or church or school or Facebook page of a believer is “their space”. We have no right to intrude into it uninvited whether that is to burst in to shoot or to shout - both are attacks on the freedoms of others. It is their room and their place to believe what they want to believe and say what they want to say as long as such things are legally acceptable.
So secular authorities should absolutely intervene when a religious group commits and / or covers up abuse or if they are advocating harm to others but if they want to believe that we’re aliens from another planet or that they have magical underwear then they absolutely should be able to believe such things in peace.
That doesn’t mean that those beliefs should be unassailable outside of their space. When we’re in our own space or shared public spaces then those ideas are fair game to be attacked and ridiculed, to be lampooned and satirized without fear of retribution from them. This is what the tension with Islam and the west is all about - one of Islam’s beliefs is that it cannot be ridiculed which puts it inevitably in conflict with the very ideas of freedom and free speech that so many people hold so dear.
But what about closer to home? What about religions that are nowhere near as aggressive or dangerous? Society as a whole feels less of a need to confront their ideas because they are far less of an immediate threat to them. What does it matter to me if some guy in the same street / town / state / country feels that they have magical underwear? As long as they obey the law and pay their taxes then what do I care? I don’t - neither do you and neither should you. Yes, it’s a curiosity and we think people are a little crazy but they are fairly harmless aren't they?
For the general public they are no threat and therefore of little interest other than as an occasional curiosity. This is why most opponents of such groups tend to be ex-members of them. Ex-members tend to feel more anger and resentment and whether they leave of their own volition or are forced to leave by the group it’s often due of the same basic issue: they no longer believe what the group believes. Remember the freedom that the group enjoys to believe what it wants to in it’s space? When we leave, we give up the right to voice our beliefs in that space - which is why it should be no great surprise that the beliefs expressed in each space are always compatible with that of the group. I know it sounds obvious but "most people in a religion believe that religion" seems to be a surprise to some.
Of course we have the right to criticize and satirize their beliefs and ideas but just as we have the right to do that, they also have the right to hold them and to believe in them in their own space. If they want to believe that tight pants are indecent and improper then they can. The majority of believers will tend to agree with the beliefs (the ‘group think’) and some will not, a few will disagree so much that they will perhaps leave (typically coupled with other larger issues in this case). Some people outside of the group will also hold the same beliefs which may make them more inclined to join the group at some point (again, depending on other ideas and beliefs that may also be in common).
I believe that is is an example of the fundamental principle of freedom and free-speech. They are allowed to believe what they want to believe and be able to do so in peace, without any harassment from us. While we should also be allowed to express our disbelief about the same thing in our own space in peace and without harassment from them.
When people are angry or passionate about an issue though it’s easy to loose sight of what is and isn’t acceptable. Unfortunately, our desire to act can often backfire and accomplish the exact opposite of what we intend. Instead of the focus being on the message, it becomes on the delivery.
If we are too intrusive and too aggressive in our opposition to a group then we risk appearing like persecutors more than the persecuted we believe ourselves to be. It is ironic that some who leave a group become so vehemently opposed to actions and behaviour that we ourselves may have taken part or contributed to years or even months earlier - few people are honest enough to acknowledge their own contributions to the system they now oppose.
When we were in the group we thought we we right and our beliefs should be the ones to enjoy all the freedoms and then when we leave we decide that our new beliefs should be the ones to enjoy all the freedoms. Hmm, remember I said at the beginning “Most people want freedom and free speech but when choosing it are perhaps unconsciously judging it to only apply to things that they themselves believe in”? This is the insidious and easy trap to fall into.
If we want freedom then we need to defend the right of people to believe the very things we oppose.
This can be easier said than done. How can we claim to uphold freedom and free speech if we want to deny the freedom to those who believe things different to ourselves? More ironically, to those who still believe things that we used to believe and want to promote as “the true belief” to others!
A common trait, especially among any opposition group, is to see lack of enough “anti” as meaning you support something. For ex-JWs it’s typically manifest in insults if you are seen to defend the WTS in any way by suggesting that certain criticism of them is unreasonable or going too far.
Let me go on the record as saying that I think the whole “Anthony Morris said wearing tight pants is stupid” was overdone. It was a useful vehicle for getting some attention and publicity but got taken a little too far overall and too much was made of it.
Why? Because it’s a reasonable belief for a conservative christian group to have and to express and it’s shared by many in society at large. The belief, expressed in their own ‘room’, doesn’t hurt anyone and there are far more important things worthy of attention. It is hardly an extremist view is it?
More crucially though, it makes us look more like persecutors and less like the persecuted.
Remember I made the distinction about thoughts and actions? We have legitimate complaints about the ideas promoted by the Watchtower and the way they treat members and ex-members. We need to ask ourselves if we are truly concerned with making things better or just want to make ourselves feel better by directing our anger toward them or toward anyone we see as not being “anti” enough.
Suggestions that we can or even should try to “bring the Watchtower down” are both fanciful and misplaced and accomplish nothing IMO. Creating petitions suggesting they are among the worst human-rights violators on the planet because they once said something half a century ago just looks a little obsessive and rather sad, certainly unrealistic.
No one is going to come and dismantle the Watchtower or any other group like them. Even if they splintered or fractured of their own accord (as they have in the past) then the same people would still be going to the same type of groups believing the same fundamental type of religion. Why? Because they want to and chose to and have the freedom to do so.
That doesn’t mean though that we shouldn’t campaign for change and that the secular authorities can’t be encouraged to impose better practices and procedures on them where their actions based on their beliefs do result in actual harm to people. The handling and reporting of child abuse cases is the most obvious and compelling issue. The way things are imposed on them is unlikely to be the result of direct legislation but appears to be coming in the form of judicial judgements and penalties against them which will accomplish the same thing.
As much as I despise the WTS and hate religion, it’s not going to be banned any time soon but while I defend the right for people to believe what they want and practice what they want in their own space, I want to exercise my right to criticize their beliefs and ideas and oppose any attempts to extend their influence into the public space.
Let’s look at a different issue entirely. Animal welfare. Have you ever seen people waving banners outside of McDonalds suggesting they should be closed down? Do you think they accomplish anything? Their goals are very lofty but also very unrealistic. They probably go home and feel great and high-five each other … but McDonalds still sells millions of burgers.
Compare those with the less noticeable groups who campaign for animal welfare and better treatment of animals. I believe these are far more pragmatic and far more likely to make a meaningful difference as a result.
The way to fight religious groups is not by head-on direct conflict and publicity stunts. Bursting into Kingdom Halls and shouting at people or being a nuisance is of course appealing on some base level but ultimately accomplishes little beyond showing how empty our own beliefs really are. If anything we risk giving them ammunition for greater protection of their beliefs.
If we want freedom then we need to respect other people’s freedoms.
If we want to reason with people then we need to be reasonable.
Only by being voices of reason pointing out the contradictions and errors in the beliefs can we still attack the ideas but not attack the people who hold them and in doing so, perhaps help people who do eventually leave those beliefs behind.
We can’t see JWs as “the enemy”. I think many times people understandably want to be angry because of their experience with the WTS. I understand those feelings completely. I lost many years with my father and now have no contact with my mother because of the WTS beliefs, particularly those on shunning. I have been both the shunner and the shunned and it’s so very easy to be angry at the WTS for both.
But is the WTS completely and solely to blame? I think they certainly share a great deal of responsibility. They promote the idea that people should be shunned and probably do so for their own controlling purposes. It is a bad idea and is generally recognized as such by most of the rest of society but isn’t one unique to them. But it’s just an idea - if no one believed it and practiced it then it would do no harm. It takes people to believe and follow the idea though and the only people who really harm us in doing that are the family and friends who do the shunning. Should we be more angry with them for believing a bad idea? Perhaps. I think it’s better for our own mental peace to let go of the anger and replace it with something less personally destructive - disappointment at the loss can make it easier to cope with and get past. Does anger and hatred ultimately help either side?
And that is really the problem with freedom. When we imagine it we picture only the good things but it also means that we are free to make poor choices or to believe bad ideas. Remember I said "If we want freedom then we need to defend the right of people to believe the very things we oppose"? Freedom is no free - it sometimes comes with a cost. Our family and friends are free to hold stupid beliefs that we don’t agree with. Our parents were free to bring up their kids in what they believed was the best and right way, however misguided we now believe it to be. People believe their abusive spouse will change or the next drink they have will make things better or the next spin of the wheel will land on black or the next scratch will reveal a prize - the world is full of bad ideas and people who believe them and we can never change either fact.
But I can’t imagine anything worse than not having the freedom to believe what I want, to think what I want and to say what I want. Hopefully we can keep chipping away at the bad ideas and each time we do, we make the world a little better.
Now if only we could agree who decides what the good and bad ideas are ...