A Censorship Problem

Posted on 2011/09/16 by


Feature Image - Censorship Dilemma

While on holiday in Boston MA, I was down a public street when I happened upon a DVD perched on a walled flower bed.  Curious, I picked it up only to read ‘Understanding Islam’ on the cover.

What I did next slightly bothers me.  I put the CD in my pocket, flew it back to London (not immediately; I completed my holiday) and put it in my filing cabinet under “religious leaflets”, unviewed.

I do this whenever I see such items strewn in the public path.  While Gideon International chooses Western hotel rooms as its distribution network, other religions look to more public places to hand out their material.  I now have quite a collection.  There’s a Mormon Bible from a bus stop in Birmingham.  A Hare Krishna leaflet from a park bench in Manchester.  Some evangelists appear to view empty London Underground seats as notice-boards, so I have a separate folder for those.  And many others.  It was also common for Alpha Course posters to disappear on my route through university campus, but that was before I started collecting.

Here’s a particularly absurd example picked up on the Piccadilly line around 11pm a year or so ago:

Why do I take these things? Just in case any unsuspecting Alice decides to accept their offer to “drink me“.  And, unlike Alice, who took small slips, I’m worried that someone might swallow it whole.  Temporarily shrinking to the size of a flower, or out-growing a house, would be a mild inconvenience compared to the permanent damage these objects could exact.  As the famous tag-line goes, religion poisons everything.

After taking them, I keep them (rather than dispose of them) for a much more straightforward reason.  Amusement.

If asked why I was doing it, I would say I was trying to protect the credulous from dangerous ideas.  But, even though this rings of a mild altruism (and perhaps a slight pomposity), I can’t help but hear the echo of ‘censorship’ whispering in my ear.  And that’s what bothers me.

Who would you delegate to be your censor, to choose what you can and cannot read?  I hope that every self respecting human’s answer is ‘no one’.  It is one of the consequences of a skeptical view of knowledge.  Yet, despite wishing this to be the case, I still seem to nominate myself for this role.  ’Better take this stuff myself,’ I think. ‘It’s mild entertainment for me, but could be a life-ruiner for someone’s life.’

Again that sounds pompous.  But, I have spent much of my working life as a physics teacher and know the stultifying nature of these religious ideas.  I now find myself taking preventative measures against them.


I anticipate that a few readers will misunderstand the difficulty before us, being both for religious evangelism and a form of censorship.  Indeed, the latter is so often used to effect the former.  To avoid doubt, the indoctroniees must be censored from the other religions.  Otherwise it would be difficult not to spot their similarities and equal plausability.  They must be inoculated from basic propositional logic, in a far greater respect than the usual inconsistencies we all hold in our thoughts.  They must be adverse to scientific thinking, just in case we discover  something that conflicts with their beliefs.

In the past, when religions had hold over government, they exacted censorship by force.  Indeed, they would often even censor their own religious texts, lest the population start to study it too carefully.  It was a crime to think certain ideas.

But, there is a  far more subtle type of censorship that is rarely considered.  Certain beliefs act as censors themselves, because they prevent the consideration of other ideas.

Most religions have a form of this.  There are at least 44 Bible verses dedicated to telling you that there is only one God (or, rather tellingly, that you should only worship one of the many Gods available).  Islam has The Shahada (literially meaning “to know and believe without suspicion, as if witnessed”) which says, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”.  It is this ‘nobel lie‘ (as Plato called it) which ensure that the subjects censor themselves from other religious ideas.

But it is not just other religious ideas that they censor.  It is any idea that is to the contrary whether it be moral, scientific or philosophical.  Thus, rather than a censorship from any particular set of ideas, they are censored from skepticism.  It is a censoring not of what to think, but how to think.

It is well known that the religious often choose the most vunurable, the weakest, poorest people on the planet to share their good news.  I have sat through enough Christian Union meetings to know this.  After a lubricating complimentary meal, a speaker gets up to tell you how they came to be a Christian.  Of course, they used to be an atheist too, just like you.  All well so far.

Then they tell you a story of a horrifying and traumatic event that happened to them.  A car crash, cancer, abuse.  You know the sort of thing; much worse than their puppy dying.  Then, when at their most vulnerable, all of  a sudden, Christianity suddenly started to make a lot of sense.  I felt a great sympathy for these people.  No only were they the victim of a terrible event, but also of a religious exploitation.

I mean to say, they are exploited by the ideas they hold, not necessarily the people who teach them these ideas.  I would imagine that most evangelists think they are performing charitable acts (although there is no doubt that there are many fraudsters).  Yet, despite the intents of the believers, is it not also the case the peeople upon whom these ideas will have a greater chance of settlement are the weak, the vulnerable, the poor and the ill-educated?

It is important to stress the difference between the supposed intentions of the agents and the actual cause of their success.  A confusion of the two often leads to some of the more absurd conspiracy theories.  In our case, we have believers perform certain acts because they consider them charitable, yet they succeed because they have chosen the most susceptible minds.  And let us not forget the wishful nature of these ideas.  It is the comfortable, yet unknowable claims that succeed best.


Back to the pamphlets.  I suppose I could claim to be cleaning up litter, albeit, rather selectively.  Or we could talk about rights.  If it is their right to leave these religious pamphlets in a public place, is it also my right to remove them?

But I think this silly little hobby of mine is a censorship problem rather than the alternatives.  And it is a problem present in every school in the country.  Do we teach religious ideas as though were fact to children – the most malleable minds on the planet?  Ideas that prevent the consideration of other ideas?

We all censor children from certain human activities (violent fiction, for example) and find it unproblematic.  Similarly, should we look at a religious pamphlet in a public area and wonder ‘what if a child picked that up?’

Adults, we leave alone.  But with ideas as dangerous as these, ideas which prohibit scientific thinking, I wonder whether it is a choice of values.  I value scientific skepticism and free enquiry, yet, in order to obtain it, would advocate a form of censorship.  Let’s call it ‘the paradox of free thought’.

What do you think?  Comments and discussion are welcomed below.

Posted in: atheism, Religion, Science