What is the proper place of religion in society, and what limits should be placed on the discussion of it?

When Mark Steyn, the conservative columnist, writes in a book chapter reprinted in Maclean’s magazine that jihad is unnecessary because the fertility rates among Muslims mean they will soon achieve dominance through democratic means, is he engaging in “hate speech”? Even if — as the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) complains to various human rights commissions in BC, Ontario and the federal government — Steyn’s views are offensive to Muslims, should he be prevented from stating them publicly?

How about the view, expressed by CIC president Mohamed Elmasry on television in 2004, that all Israeli adults are legitimate targets for terror attacks? Is that hate speech? Should that be forbidden?

What about the Bible, one of the foundational texts for all three of the major religious groups in Canada, in which it says (with authority often claimed to be divine) that men who have sex with other men are “detestable” (or an “abomination,” depending on your translation) and should be put to death? Is this hate speech? Should anyone printing bibles or repeating the words of the Bible be charged with a crime?

Or, to look at it from another angle, what about vocal atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who claim in print — citing the Bible, among other things — that religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are murderous nonsense that inspire hatred and violence? Are they engaging in intolerant hate speech? Should they be forbidden to do so?

Or does the tolerance and freedom of religion that allow us to live together in peace actually require us to allow the expression of such divergent and often offensive beliefs?

Does American presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent speech on “Faith in America” shed any light? When he says “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” is he making the slightest bit of sense? When he claims that he believes that Jesus Christ is the saviour of mankind, and that the American government is inseparable from “the God who gives us liberty,” and then goes on to say that his Mormon religious beliefs are irrelevant and that asking questions about those beliefs is intolerant, is he trying to have his cake and eat it too? Doesn’t his intolerance of the irreligious “religion of secularism” actually lay the theoretical framework for intolerance of his religion of Mormonism, or intolerance of any other religion?

Would it be fair to say that a speech in 1960 by US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in which he said that his Catholicism was irrelevant because he believed that the separation of church and state was “absolute,” was more coherent? When he went on to say that the president’s “religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office,” is he actually sketching an entire ideology for governing?

Does a view that everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs —?or lack of them — actually require that the state itself remain agnostic? And does that freedom of religion actually require, for its very existence, the protection of speech that expresses contradictory beliefs about religion and its uses? And doesn’t that protection, by definition, require the tolerance of opinions that some of us will find offensive and hateful?

And is it going too far to point out examples from societies where this freedom was not protected — say in Sudan, where a British schoolteacher was jailed for allowing children to name a teddy bear after the Muslim prophet; or in Medieval Europe where Muslims were tortured and murdered; or in World War II Germany where genocide was attempted in response to a religion that was deemed dangerous and evil?

In the end, is it even possible to have freedom of religion at all if that freedom does not extend to all religions (and to the irreligious too)? And if not, what exactly do we mean by freedom?

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on December 13.