By Grant Hall, Cultural Diplomacy Consultant and Facilitator
“Seeing Serrano’s Piss Christ convinced me to abandon my religion”
– no one ever
In the wake of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack, “Je suis Charlie” became a motto of support for the magazine and free speech. The first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the massacre featured a cartoon image of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the very act that many Muslims took offense to. Those who applauded the magazine for portraying the image argue correctly that no religion has a right of immunity from critical examination and intellectual evaluation based on reason – but I wasn’t among those applauding. Why? Because where is the intellectual rigor in deliberately offending a religion with simplistic crassness? What purpose will it serve?
It’s been argued that the image might prompt a much needed discussion about the self-bestowed importance that religion has developed for itself and how it continues to be detrimental to humanity. I accept this point, but slapping someone in the face isn’t the best way to start an intellectual, reason-based discussion, which is effectively what Charlie Hebdo’s response cover did.
I work in the field of cultural engagement and diplomacy. Cultural engagement seeks to find common ground as a basis for mutually beneficial dialogue. Cultural engagement promotes a live-and-let-live philosophy of co-existence and world peace. Crassly insulting a person’s religion is the opposite of cultural engagement and is unlikely to deliver positive results. It lacks tact and diplomacy. Criticising a religion by intellectual reasoning expressed verbally, in writing or via artistic means is an act of cultural engagement and is more likely to have positive outcomes. It’s like opening a door to let someone in rather than slamming a door in their face. Such intellectual criticism of a religion might still offend the religious, but as opposed to simplistic provocation, it seeks engagement and dialogue. What achieved more for atheism, Andres Serrano’s photographic artwork Piss Christ or Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion? Both mock religion, but the book is more engaging than the photograph. I’ve never, for example heard anyone say that Piss Christ led them to intellectually evaluate and eventually abandon their religion, whereas I have heard people say that of The God Delusion.
Governments and the media keep reminding us about the so called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist threat. Would-be lone-wolf terrorists are culturally disengaged from their environment and the society around them. As a society we need to work towards ensuring people are culturally engaged rather than disengaged.
A culturally engaged society is a peaceful society.
Let’s engage in the comments section below. I won’t shoot anyone who disagrees.