When Is It Okay to Criticize Religion?

A person’s religion is a huge part of their identity, so criticism of religion is often taken as a personal attack. Progressives claim it’s racist to criticize Islam, conservatives say liberals unfairly single out Christianity, and atheists criticize every religion (even Buddhism).

Some people say we shouldn’t criticize religion. Yet, religious beliefs have an enormous impact on people’s lives – especially for those don’t belong to the dominant religion.

Others say we can and should criticize religion because attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. But it’s an easy line to cross. If a belief is absurd does that make the believer absurd?

At least some criticism of religion is hard to avoid, however. Christians try to convert others, and they back it up with the threat of eternal damnation. By proselytizing a believer invites a response, and that response might be critical.

And Christians in the United States led the campaign against same-sex marriage primarily because of biblical morality. There was no way for marriage equality supporters to argue their case without criticizing what Christians believe.

The same is true of Islam. The severe impact Islam has on the lives of women, religious minorities, and others in Middle Eastern countries opens Islam to criticism. Yet, in 2014 Hirsi Ayaan Ali (an ex-Muslim and survivor of female genital mutilation) was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis University because she is an outspoken critic of Islam, which she calls a “cult of death.”

While I wouldn’t call Islam a violent religion, I wouldn’t call Islam a peaceful religion either. The same is true for Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions. And atheism too. Every one of these is a mixed bag because human beings are neither inherently violent nor inherently peaceful. We all have the capacity for both.

Perhaps it all comes down to how religion is criticized. I don’t go out of my way to dis religion, but neither am I silent. However, I avoid saying “you’re wrong” in favor of saying “I disagree.”

I try to minimize adjectives such as irrational, harmful, etc. Instead, I try to be specific about my objections, such as saying, “I can think of several biblical contradictions.”

I try to be friendly and humorous. I try to be open minded, which in my view doesn’t mean agreeing. Open mindedness means a willingness to listen, trying to accurately understand the other person’s perspective – even if I disagree.

Finally, there are some ideologues who only want to fight rather than engage in true dialogue. In those cases it’s best to just walk away if I can.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

6 thoughts on “When Is It Okay to Criticize Religion?”

  1. Great post! I’d add two things. 1) Nothing shuts down dialogue faster than telling someone everything they believe is wrong so I totally agree with your point about open mindedness. 2) I don’t think that atheism can be grouped with “Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions” since it is not a religion, just an absence of a belief in gods. I look forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Matt. You’re right that atheism is not a religion. I mentioned atheism in a separate sentence for that reason, though I didn’t make the reason for the separate sentence explicit.

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  2. I’m a religious person, but it’s an interesting life for a thoughtful person because religion is FULL of paradox. So I can relate to and appreciate atheists. I feel like if I weren’t a member of my church, I would probably be an atheist rather than a member of another church.

    But to me, life is full of paradox too. Follow the laws, except for the speed limit because that law is more flexible than say, murder. But even murder is justifiable in some cases. Life and religion are all about interpretation.

    We are what we make of them. If I want a biblical excuse to do almost anything, including rape and murder, I can find it. If I want a biblical excuse to be a really good person, I can find it.

    What I love about religion is the perspective and the hope, not the detail and the dogma. Other people feel differently. I think that’s why it’s all so personal. When you criticize a person’s religion (or lack thereof), you’re criticizing how they choose to interpret their experiences and values. That is rarely productive. IMO, it’s far more productive to share how your personal experiences contribute to your own interpretations because that leaves space for constructive disagreement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point, that criticizing someone’s religion or lack thereof is criticizing their experience of life, so speaking from one’s personal experience rather than interpreting someone else’s is key.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it depends on how you go about the topic of criticizing religion. I was brought up Catholic, and it seemed once people would hear where I went to high school(a Catholic one), it was open season on making snarky remarks about Catholicism. I went through a little of this with my husband’s family. That used to bug me.

    On the other hand I later had a blog that was partly about religion and gender…I have since shut it down. Much of the blog was about discussing material that was already out there.

    In real life, I try to be respectful of other’s religious beliefs.

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