There seems to be a lot of noise in Atheist blogs about a religious exception being written into a Michigan bullying law.
The exception reads:
“This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil and parent or guardian.”
This is being protested as a religious exception to bullying.
Well, I have a question.
Is the statement, "Creationism is stupid," an act of bullying?
What about "Evolution is a fact?" Is this not an act of bullying people who reject evolution into accepting a view that contradicts their religion?
Well, no . . . but it is easy for some people to interpret it that way.
I do not see this clause as providing an exception to bullying. It does not say that teasing or tormenting an individual is justified when it is done on religious grounds. However, it does say that one has the right to express a sincerely held opinion on matters of religion or morals without being accused of a crime.
In this blog, I defend the thesis that praise and condemnation are central to morality. A moral statement is (1) an expression of an action and reasons for action that exist, (2) an act of praise or condemnation.
Where does moral praise and condemnation - for such things as lying, stealing, or even, for that matter, bullying differ from bullying itself?
In many cases, the difference is found nowhere but in an agent’s belief that the condemnation is justified or not justified. Unjustified condemnation is “bullying”, whereas justified condemnation is . . . well, condemnation.
However, with a law that fails to recognize a distinction, any expression of a minority opinion on matters of morality would be at risk of being called “bullying”. Abolitionists opposed to slavery would be “bullying” slave owners. Gay-rights activists opposed to literalist objections to homosexuality will be seen as “bullying” religious conservatives.
Without this exception, I do not see how any moral statement - particularly a statement of moral condemnation - can be distinguished from bullying. Moral condemnation itself would be declared immoral.
In fact, in the protests to this exception claus, it seems that a substantial number of people already support the view that a "a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction" is equivalent to bullying and is to be prohibited, rather than protected.
Which would imply that this entire blog is an example of bullying - because it is nothing but statements of sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.
In effect, without this exception, this anti-bullying law would read a lot like the so-called “respect for religion” resolutions often submitted to the United Nations. Those resolutions prohibit people from saying anything negative about another person's religion. Saying that another's sincerely held religious beliefs are false - or insanely stupid - would be declared a hate crime that governments have an obligation to stop.
However, in that case, atheists correctly recognize that the declaration would constitute a violation of free speech. They fight to protect their right to say that certain religious beliefs are not only false, but insanely stupid, and in some cases malicious and evil.
Would this anti-bullying law - without this exception - not make it a crime to say that certain religious beliefs are not only false, but insanely stupid, and in some cases malicious and evil? Is that protected speech, or is that bullying?
If this law makes it possible to declare that such statements are acts of bullying, we have more reason to reject the law than to favor it – or to explicitly write in an exception in favor of freely expressing religious and moral beliefs.
Bullying is bad. I was a teenage atheist, and I was a recipient to some very brutal treatment as a result of my beliefs. In one case, I was in a situation where I was quite convinced I was being killed by classmates who sought to "baptize" me by holding me under water longer than I was able to breathe. As an act of desperation when I could not hold my breath any more, I screamed. Screaming while somebody is holding you underwater does not make any noise. But, they let me up.
This is the worst of what happened, but it is not the whole story.
So, I know the hazards of bullying.
At the same time, I recognize the importance of freedom of speech. I recognize that it is important to condemn people who do wrong, and that moral condemnation is not the same as bullying.
The law needs to recognize that as well.
Furthermore, please consider, which type of claim do you think is more likely to be branded as "bullying" and prohibited without such an exception? The claims of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens against those who believe in God? Or the claims of those who hold that atheists are un-American and you cannot have morals without belief in God?
Ultimately, if no exception is allowed for statements about sincerely held religious beliefs, it is probably the "militant atheist" who will be silenced as bullies before anybody else.
Sometimes, it is useful to defend freedom of speech, because, without it, one's own freedom to speak that would be the first to disappear.