What It Means to Listen: Free Speech from the Perspective of the Abrahamic Religions


The Abrahamic religions provide a radical interpretation of the importance of speech: it is the primary way in which God reveals himself. Because persons of faith believe that God has spoken, they are called to develop and deepen their capacities for listening. This aspect of free speech is often overlooked when concentrating on laws about what can or cannot be said.

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Muslims, Christians, and Jews are often accused of wanting to restrict free speech in favor of their religious beliefs. But a radically different argument can be found within the thought-system of the Abrahamic faiths.

On Real Time with Bill Maher, Oscar-winning actor and director Ben Affleck recently found himself embroiled in a heated dispute on whether Islam is, in general, a force against liberal views of minority rights and freedom of speech. Affleck argued that Islam should not be generalized as overwhelmingly extremist, but host Bill Maher and author Sam Harris dismissed his view. In their view, claiming that Islam does not contain illiberal convictions is nothing more than political correctness.

Dramatic global clashes over free speech frequently pit a liberal-inspired defense of freedom against the sensitivities of religion. In the United States, it is Islam that is most intensely scrutinized, but the same debate occurred in Russia with Pussy Riot’s unauthorized performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Whether it is in the protests surrounding the Innocence of Muslims YouTube video or the reactions to “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” religious adherents are easily framed as fundamentalist opponents to freedom of expression and proponents of either restrictive legislation or some kind of theocracy.

It is very rare indeed that any analysis is made of what religions think of freedom of speech itself, or whether there is anything positive they can contribute to the debate. This essay presents a view on free speech from within the perspectives of the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

What Does It Mean to Listen?

For descendants of the faith of Abraham, answering the question of free speech does not begin by demarcating what can or cannot be said, as liberalism frames the problem. Instead, we must ask what it means to listen.

The Tanakh, Bible, and Qur’an are believed to be accounts of God’s teaching, recorded by those inspired to hear, understand, and recount their contents. The Prophet Muhammad, for example, is understood to have listened to the word of God as dictated by the Angel Gabriel. In turn, believers aim to develop their capacity for listening as a way of grasping what has been revealed by God. Speech is not, therefore, normally framed in terms of a human right but in terms of a divine right, a capacity of God. To take one example of many, the Christian evangelist St .John starts his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

As the life of Abraham illustrates, the role of the believer is to come close to God’s message and to develop one’s capacity to hear, understand, and apply it. In a clear break from the liberal or progressive view, the Abrahamic faiths see a living of one’s faith to be a fundamental part of developing that ability to listen. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observes in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, this is a case of deepening one’s understanding through living a tradition, while the liberal perspective attempts to situate itself between traditions.

Whether one is reciting from a siddur in a synagogue, kneeling in silence with Carthusian monks, or pressing one’s forehead to the ground at Mecca, there is a certain commitment to the idea that the way to sharpen one’s intellect and reason is by working to apprehend the perfection of God as universal lawgiver. In this way, practicing Abrahamic religion does not challenge the idea of reason or rational judgment; it challenges the liberal lifestyle, based as it is on choice, consumption, and individualism. Those of Abrahamic faith doubt whether prioritizing the satisfaction of material desires supports one’s pursuit of the truth.

In this way, the living of one’s faith involves a commitment to the possibility that truth lies outside one’s appetites, and that these appetites must be mastered as part of attuning one’s ears. By appealing to a higher version of ourselves, we understand our creator, our surroundings, and even ourselves better.

Respectfully Examining the Unity and Rationality of Differing Belief Systems

Free speech arguments in Western Europe or North America often demand that persons subject their beliefs to rational discourse and debate. This is supported in the traditions of Abrahamic religions but not through the separation of believer from belief that is characteristic of liberal individualism. For someone of an Abrahamic faith, beliefs are subject to rational evaluation as coherent wholes, which are therefore refuted by an alternative system of thought that is able to display greater unity, coherence, and breadth of application.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the writings of the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, who enters into deep and open dialogue with Christianity in his book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. After spending the day in an imagined discussion with Jesus, Neusner returns to a rabbi of another town, who asks him what Jesus said that differed from what is found in the Babylonian Talmud:

Rabbi: “What did he [Jesus] leave out?”

Neusner: “Nothing.”

Rabbi: “Then what did he add?”

Neusner: “Himself.”

The best method of rational discourse between traditions comes not through attacking the other as irrational but through demonstrating greater completeness in one’s own position. Indeed, even though Neusner ends with a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, Benedict XVI found Neusner’s account touching and stimulating enough to quote it in his own book, Jesus of Nazareth. This is tradition debating with tradition, done in a way that takes the most coherent and complete views of the other as what is of most interest. It is the same with Islam’s appeal to Christianity: Muhammad is the last prophet, completing the accounts of his predecessors. An Abrahamic idea of free speech engages with traditions of thought systematically to arrive at a more consistent and harmonious account.

Abrahamic Faiths vs. Epistemological Scepticism and Secularism

The fact that there are so many religions that distinguish themselves within the Abrahamic tradition demonstrates how dynamic internal debates are. Such debates seek a more widely applicable and coherent system of moral thought at every stage. They are, therefore, qualitatively distinct from the epistemological scepticism of René Descartes and David Hume that accompanied the Enlightenment and underpins the moral relativism we see in Western Europe and North America today. Whereas the liberal tradition sees the separation of belief from believer as a step forward, those of Abrahamic religions often suffer it as an assault on their method of inquiry. Secularization occurs either with belief in God being held illogical and shameful, or because lifestyles simply become too busy and compartmentalized to think of the wider purpose. From an Abrahamic perspective these count as a lack of coherence, like pieces of a puzzle mixed with another set; the activity of putting them together makes less sense than it used to. Life is no longer a single puzzle.

For this same reason, it is always strange for those of Abrahamic faiths to hear the argument: “How can you say you do not like that book or film which ridicules your religion when you haven’t even read or watched it?” The person of faith is focused on his or her relationship with God and is taking care to develop listening powers that attune to God’s goodness and the unity of truth. Overtly satirical or blasphemous material plays with one’s understanding of God like a puppet on a string, mocking efforts to enter into a relationship with truth, in a way that does not offer a better method of discovery. The only equivalent would be asking someone from the liberal tradition, “How can you say you are against the abuse of human rights when you have not even committed human rights abuses?” Just as the liberal does not believe he or she needs to watch child pornography to know it is wrong, so too does a person of Abrahamic faith not need to watch Muhammad performing obscene sexual acts to know Innocence of Muslims is wrong.

The liberal argument for free speech envisages a free exchange of ideas that exposes the irrationality in other systems of thought. What the person of Abrahamic faith resists is not this but the way in which the method of exposing irrationality solidifies a position of moral relativism through which traditions of thought are rejected en masse as forms of indoctrination, dismissing in turn people’s capacity to reason from within them.

The Abrahamic religions do not provide ready-made quotes or proverbs that can be inserted into a free-speech argument to make it sound less liberal or Western-centric. Nevertheless, understood on their own terms, they do provide a radical interpretation of the importance of speech, noting it as the primary way in which God reveals himself. Because persons of faith believe that God has spoken, they are called to develop and deepen their capacities for listening, an aspect of free speech that is often overlooked when concentrating on laws about what can or cannot be said. For any advocate of free speech, it may be useful to see how focusing on a separation between the believer and the belief makes the liberal argument more, not less, difficult for persons of Abrahamic faiths, who see belief not as a property of the individual but as something pertaining to truth.

Dominic Burbidge is a postdoctoral research associate of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He completed his doctorate at Oriel College, Oxford University. An earlier version of this essay appeared at Free Speech Debate.

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