Pope Francis recently defended freedom of speech, but he made a troubling comment about that freedom in relation to the Paris attack and 12 deaths at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo.
“You cannot provoke,” the pope said. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The sentiment is understandable. It can be hurtful to those of a particular faith to have their beliefs questioned or insulted.
But the pope’s position is unfortunate and is not appropriate in a society that values freedom of expression.
The problem lies in the distinction between should not and cannot.
In a free society we can do this and, moreover, should be able to do this.
The distinction between should (a moral argument) and can (a legal argument) is not trivial.
In a society where we value freedom of expression, we believe that it is right to be able to express our ideas openly, even if at times there are limits on how far we can go.
If our words physically endanger others, such as shouting “Fire!” in a movie theater when there is no fire and causing a stampede that injures people trying to get out, then we can’t do this.
The right to exercise free speech is trumped by the need to protect the lives of those exposed to that speech.
But insulting religion does not endanger others. At least it doesn’t as long as those who feel insulted don’t resort to killing those with whom they disagree.
And if those who value freedom of expression shut down in the face of this type of endangerment, then that freedom is not long for the world.
Insulting religion may disturb others and may make them feel bad, but it does not endanger them.
As a result, we should be able to engage in comments and debates about religion that some will find insulting.
And while it would be perfectly reasonable to have a debate about whether we should insult the faiths of others, in a free society we need to agree that we ought to be able to insult the faiths of others even if it is offensive to some people.
Religion deserves no special place shielded from insult, because if we protect religion, then we must protect any perspective that deems oppositional ideas insulting.
Should we next argue that we cannot insult the politics of others? Should we prohibit insulting the people who write editorials about things like freedom of speech?
Where do we draw the line if we want to take the perspective that you cannot say or publish things that someone of religion X, political view Y or just idea Z finds insulting?
Religion should not hold any special position in the world when it comes to discussion, debate, insult and accountability for its ideas and beliefs.
To take the position of Pope Francis is to effectively shut down the possibility of debate about whether a particular religion, or even the idea of faith itself, makes sense in our world.
That position is an enemy to the functioning of a secular society that values freedom of expression.
One might argue that one should not insult the faith of others, but people must be able to do so in a free society.
John W. Traphagan is a professor of religious studies at The University of Texas at Austin.