(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, May 16.)
Something’s not quite right here. The 21st century buzzwords are diversity and inclusivity, but they seem to be applied very selectively.
It seems we’re in favour of diversity and inclusivity if we’re talking about race, colour, gender and sexual identity, the latter two of which keep spinning off into ever-new permutations. But puzzlingly, we’re only partially tolerant when it comes to religious belief.
We are encouraged to be tolerant toward Islam, especially since the Christchurch massacres, and so we should be. The right to practise one’s religion, at least unless it interferes with the rights of others, is one we should all unquestioningly support.
This applies even when secular society disapproves of some of those religions, or scratches its collective head in bemusement at their practices and beliefs.
But if freedom of religion is one cornerstone of a free society, so is freedom of expression, which includes the right to subject religion, along with every other institution of society, to critical scrutiny and even ridicule.
Virtually all religions – whether we’re talking Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, the Destiny Church or the Exclusive Brethren – possess what, to non-believers, are quirks, absurdities, hypocrisies and cruelties that render them ripe for mockery and condemnation.
For decades, comedians and satirists have taken joyous, blasphemous advantage of this freedom. How people laughed, for example, at Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, with its wickedly subversive song Every Sperm is Sacred – a dig at Catholic teaching on birth control.
If it offended devout Catholics – well, tough. Freedom to ridicule is the flipside of freedom to worship.
Mainstream Christianity is still considered fair game by comedians and satirists, and no one bats an eyelid. But somehow, Islam seems to be off-limits. Even a cool, reasoned criticism of Islam is likely to excite accusations of Islamophobia.
The champions of diversity don’t seem to grasp that you can abhor the grotesque atrocities perpetrated by Islamic fanatics while simultaneously defending the right of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims, such as those in Christchurch, to practise their religion.
There’s no contradiction here. It’s only when criticism of religion escalates into incitement to hostility or violence that it becomes unacceptable.
Neither do the defenders of Islam seem to realise that by denouncing all criticism of Islam as Islamophobic, they give the impression of condoning a religion that, in its extreme forms, thinks it’s okay to stone homosexuals, apostates and adulterers to death.
All of which leads us neatly to Israel Folau, who condemned atheists, drunks, homosexuals and fornicators with equal vehemence, but seems to have been pilloried solely for his statement that gays will go to Hell.
The first point to be made about the Folau hysteria is that it was avoidable by the simple expedient of ignoring him. The people who have so energetically helped to spread Folau’s message are those who insist he should have kept his supposedly hateful opinions to himself.
I’ve been searching for the logic there, but so far it eludes me.
Equally perplexing is that while Folau’s detractors would scoff at the very idea that such a place as Hell exists, they apparently took his Instagram post seriously enough to whip themselves into a frenzy of outrage.
They could have smiled indulgently and let Folau’s post go unremarked, but that would have been too hard for the social media trolls who swarm around in cyberspace looking for things to get furious about. It would also have meant passing up a chance to mount an attack on conservative Christianity, when obviously the opportunity was just too good to ignore.
So much for diversity and inclusivity, then. The attacks on Folau by people who profess to embrace difference are as fine a combination of sanctimony and vindictiveness as you’re ever likely to see. And it goes beyond mere criticism, because the purpose is to punish him.
If we truly believed in diversity and inclusiveness, we would accept Folau as part of humanity’s rich and varied tapestry, even if we don’t agree with him. Media bores like Peter FitzSimons, who has built a career out of being the Wallaby hard man who was really, all along, a sensitive liberal, would have to find something else to moralise about.
We would also acknowledge that Folau wasn’t trying to incite hatred against anyone. He was acting according to his Christian conscience, which calls him to save sinners.What’s more, his views are shared by many Pasifika people, and not long ago would have been considered unremarkable in mainstream society.
They are taken, after all, from the New Testament, which forms the basis for much of Western civilisation's moral and judicial framework. Perhaps that's the real target here, and the Folau furore just an appetiser.