Religious Criticism

Oh God!

The criticism of religion has a great tradition in philosophy and art. Not every form of mockery is enlightening, however. When directed only at the religion of the others, it becomes bigotry. A commentary by Robert Misik

Synagogue, church, and mosque spires (photo: AP/DW)
True religious criticism is more than just criticism of a religion, says Robert Misik

​​"The everyday Christian," wrote the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, "cuts a miserable figure; he is a man who really cannot count to three." Jesus, he said, was an "idiot". Whilst this was rather a long time ago, a much more recent happening was the furore caused by a headline in the Berlin "Tageszeitung" newspaper that referred to the crucified Christ as "Balkensepp" (pejorative term for a crucifixion figure).

Only four weeks ago, Susanne Winter of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, was calling the prophet Mohammed a "child molester". Islam, she said, should be thrown back where it came from, "beyond the Mediterranean Sea." Comments that have since had sparks well and truly flying on several Internet forums. The "Hinternhochbeter" (literally, those who pray with their bottoms in the air) as the Muslims are disparagingly called here should not behave in such a way.

A noble legacy of the Enlightenment

Do not all religions have their share of emotional scars? Of course, religion cannot be above criticism, and invective and ridicule have their place in this. Religious criticism is a noble legacy of the Enlightenment. Without the spirit and enthusiasm in criticising religion and questioning the sacred, shown by those philosophers, essayists, writers, film-makers and visual artists, our societies would without a doubt be places less worth living in than they are.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach attacked the obsessive fixations of Christianity, while Enlightenment thinker Voltaire complained of the baseness of a Church that he believed had corrupted the people. British philosopher Bertrand Russell was amused by the idea of a God as "big brother who will look after you." Woody Allen has given us: "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on the weekend."

Western Christianity has become accustomed to turning the other cheek when it is exposed to mockery, even if its churches do resort to law now and again. A mere caricature, on the other hand, is enough to send "the" Muslims into hysteria. But are things that simple? Is all criticising of religion not the same?

It is clear that not all ridicule is Enlightened. Nazi contempt for the Jewish religion cannot be defined as religious criticism, but rather as one facet of their murderous Jew-baiting. In India, if a Hindu insults Islam or a Muslim the Hindus, no right-thinking person would dream of describing it as criticism of religion. They are more likely to view it as part of a latent religious war of a kind which regularly erupts into pogroms.

Different kinds of scorn

Historically at least, what is commonly referred to as criticism of religion is something that emerges "subversively from within" as Leipzig professor Christoph Türcke puts it – and, very often it does not even come from areligious people, but from those who are emotionally involved in what it is that is being criticised. Criticism, especially where it is aimed at powerful religious authorities, needs to employ scorn. But there is more than one kind of scorn.

"Scorn and contempt," writes Christoph Türcke, "served the goals of the Enlightenment only when the weak wielded them as a weapon against the powerful." "When the powerful or the culturally established mock underdogs, it is condescending and from a position of victory, dangerously close to racist sentiment.

In short: it does make a difference whether it is an ex-Muslim who is calling the prophet Mohammed a "child molester" or members of the petit bourgeoisie in Charlottenburg (West Berlin) who turn up their noses at the backward Turks and Arabs.

Islamic freethinkers

Islam, too, is not lacking in this vein of self-criticism. There were already Islamic freethinkers around in the Middle Ages. Intellectuals and artists such as Salman Rushdie, or the writer Taslima Nasrin belong to this tradition, as does the Egyptian Islamic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, who was condemned as a heretic by religious courts in his country before being forced to divorce. He now lives in the Netherlands.

Particularly noteworthy amongst these intellectuals is a man who writes under the pseudonym Ibn Warraq. Born a Muslim, he has written a brilliantly damning critique of Islam entitled "Why I Am Not a Muslim". The subversive criticism "from within" can also be exaggerated and unfair at times – the excess only being justifiable as reaction to fanaticism.

Is, then, the conclusion to be drawn from all this that religions can be criticised only from "within". Perhaps not. First of all, a majority religion, particularly in cases where it assumes the right to substantially direct and influence a society's moral character, is surely one that is well able to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged (religious) minorities. The Jewish satirists who make jokes about Christianity are a good exanple here.

No religion is sacrosanct

But it becomes rather more complicated when established members of the majority culture attack a religion whose followers primarily belong to an underprivileged minority. No religion, even that of a minority, is sacrosanct of course. It all depends on the way things are said, and on the context in which they are said.

Each case is different, the lines of demarcation constantly shifting. Let's take the example of Christianity. When Catholicism was all-powerful, and the cardinals regularly in the habit of blessing the weapons of war, no blasphemy could be insulting enough. The liberalist, diluted form of Christianity that characterises present day Europe, where even the most devout followers feel like an endangered species, makes derision cheap.

When, during the First World War, George Grosz made a drawing of Jesus wearing a gas mask, and found himself at the centre of a sensational blasphemy case, he was taking a bold and critical stance against the Church. If, on the other hand, pop queen Madonna chooses to have herself raised on a cross during a concert, it is no more than a calculated pose.

"A criticism of religious consciousness itself"

Above all, the concept of religious criticism as it was understood in Western intellectual history was not one that involved the bashing of any specific religion, but rather, as the Viennese philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann notes, as "a criticism of religious consciousness itself."

It is no coincidence that we tend to see a work of art such as Giovanni da Modena's The Last Judgement (where Mohammed is depicted being dragged into the abyss of Hell by a demon) as an expression of crusader mentality, whereas Voltaire's criticism of the fanatical prophet (as camel-merchant) is seen as evidence of an Enlightened sensibility.

Furthermore, true religious criticism is not limited to fighting the worldly power of religious authorities. It has challenged ideas about what faith itself does to people: that it prevents them from seeing the world clearly: that it turns them into neurotics because they become possessed by the idea of their constant state of sinfulness: that it infantilises them by making them believe that they are under the watchful eye of an omnipotent God, only to be approached on one's knees.

In a word, true criticism of religion has never had the wish to stir up hatred against a religion, but rather to create the kind of people who would not allow themselves to be stirred up in the first place.

Robert Misik

© Robert Misik/ 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.