Whereof One Cannot Speak…

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This famous quotation from Wittgenstein is usually interpreted as being an indictment on the inability of language to express complex truths. The implication being that if we do not have the necessary words we should refrain from the attempt. I’m stretching the scope of the quote slightly here to extend to the idea that in the field of which I am speaking – anti religious hate – knowledge and experience should also come into play. In my opinion where one does not have the personal association with the faith, one should be silent on the beliefs that sit behind the faith.

This was actually one of the first lessons I learned when I dipped my toe into fighting anti religious bigotry on social media. It was very easy to cross the line from defending the right to the faith to defending the faith itself. This led to some very difficult arguments relating to the finer points in scriptures of religions I do not personally practise. It also led to me defending some views that I didn’t agree with and getting flustered because it was hard to make the key point I wanted to make which was the right of others to the views of their own religion.

Although the group I work with does include adherents of all the Abrahamic faiths (and others) I do not practise any of them myself. It follows from this that there are elements of Christianity, Islam and Judaism that would not work for me personally. I would feel a hypocrite standing on my soap box and encouraging other people to follow these religions. But my neutrality does give me the advantage that I can speak up for the right of others to practise these religions without being accused of bias related to personal affiliation.

It is the right here that is the key for me. It is irrelevant whether I agree with the beliefs myself or not. What I am arguing for is the right of other people to hold different religious views to me. The right to believe differently, to worship differently and to have those views respected as being as valid as mine or anybody else’s.

When I am challenged by Anti Semites or Islamophobes the arguments invariably start with pointing to a section of scripture (usually an isolated quotation taken out of context) with the indignant demand to know what I think of it. The argument is deliberately set up to engineer me into either defending the religion or condemning it. These days I recognise the straw man arguments very easily and refuse to be drawn into commenting on a personal view.

But even if I did have the desire to debate the worth of other faiths it is a debatable point whether doing so would add any value or even if I have the right to do so. The three Abrahamic faiths (and I use these three as the primary example as these are the ones who seem to be subject to most of the persecution my group are involved with) all have a very rich and complex scriptural history which many interpretations are not unanimously agreed on in even within the faith itself. What right do I have as an outsider to offer a view? What arrogance would it be should I presume to speak for the Priests, Rabbis and Imams who have dedicated their lives to an understanding of their respective religions? Likely I would do more harm than good if as a self appointed spokesperson tried to give definite answers on theological viewpoints of faiths that are not my own.

The danger is that if I did allow myself to get involved in arguments relating to religious specifics I would start to make mistakes. It is frequently demanded of me “Have you read the Bible/Quran etc?” and I genuinely have but a long time ago. Hoping to recall enough of the book of a faith I don’t practise to put together a coherent argument on why the faith is valid or worthy of respect is a big ask. Expecting this argument to be put forward in the 140 characters a tweet permits is verging on impossible. My mistakes would lead to misunderstandings which would result in further prejudice.
I am also concerned that should I attempt to start to explain what parts of different religions appeal to me and which don’t I would be doing the genuine practitioners of the faiths a disservice. It would be rude of me and ignorant to start proselytizing on their behalf. It would be as insulting for me to assume a false position of knowledge in a positive light as it is their detractors to do it in a negative light.

Engaging in the detail would also be the total opposite of what it is I am trying to achieve. If I justify the religion and say I agree with it so therefore I support it I would be missing the whole point of freedom of belief. The point being that people have the right to hold religious views that I don’t agree with. It isn’t about supporting views that chime with mine or beliefs that I can see myself adopting, it is about looking at entirely opposing belief systems and fighting for their right to hold those beliefs. It is about believing a religion can be different or even wrong and still fighting for their right to those beliefs.

Roanna is one of the founder members of Resisting Hate. She is the author of the majority of our articles, and also publishes a blog on Huffington Post UK

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