In the Middle Ages Christians had a terrible record of intolerance. In the 19th and 20th centuries the reverse was generally true as Christians took a lead in opposing censorship and creating tolerant societies that enshrine freedom of speech. In the 21st century the position is confused, and Christians have a variety of attitudes.
Everything that Christians believe about freedom of speech is based on the special duty described in the Bible to treat the name of God as holy. The ancient Hebrew cultures of the Old Testament regarded blaspheming the name of God as so serious that it was punished by death. It is ironic that Jesus himself was accused of blasphemy (although in the end it was for political offences that he was executed).
The first Christians determinedly asserted their right to proclaim their faith even when it was against the law. Many of them died because they refused to silence their beliefs. However, during the centuries when Christianity was the biggest religion in the world, attitudes changed. Not only did Christians seek to stamp out other religions, they also persecuted fellow Christians who had views that were different from theirs. (The Roman Catholic John Southworth was executed in 1654 for refusing to stop preaching. The Protestant John Bunyan was imprisoned in 1660 for preaching without a license.)
The way Christians think about tolerance today has been deeply influenced by the 18th century philosopher John Locke. He argued that no human being can evaluate the rival claims of religions – only God can. And even if they could, it is impossible to enforce a particular religion because violence can never change what you believe. Torture can change what you say you believe, but it can’t change what you believe deep down. It is because Christians promoted these principles that the UK and other western nations have largely tolerant political systems today.
These are principles that Jesus had advocated. He told a story of wheat and weeds growing next to each other. God freely lets good and evil exist alongside each other in the world, but in the fullness of time there will be a reckoning when justice is done. Until then, Jesus urged his followers to go on ‘sowing good seeds’. Destroying the bad seed is not a Christian’s responsibility, but God’s.
In the UK today the picture is mixed. Very few Christians want to stop freedom of speech. They want even aggressive opponents of religion to be free to express that. Their hope is that liberty to discuss these things helps people find their way toward the truth.
However, at the same time there is dismay among Christians that the freedom of speech they encourage means that Jesus is routinely mocked. Although their Christian principles support freedom of speech, they are hurt when they hear the name of someone they love dragged through the dirt. There are still anti-blasphemy laws in the UK. In the face of campaigning to have them removed, the majority of Christians would rather have them extended to all religious traditions than abandoned.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Jesus told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where did the weeds come from?’
‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’
Where to find it:
About these words:
A story told by Jesus to his followers. He later said that he told it to explain why God allowed evil to be done in the world, even though he could readily stop it.
And they said…
Hillary Clinton, former United States Secretary of State:
In every religion, there are those who would drape themselves in the mantle of belief and faith only to distort its most sacred teachings – preaching intolerance and resorting to violence.
Philip Yancey, North American journalist:
God’s terrible insistence on human freedom is so absolute that he granted us the power to live as though he did not exist, to spit in his face, to crucify him.
GK Chesterton, 1874-1936, writer:
Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.
Karen Armstrong, writer and former nun:
Ever since the Crusades, when Christians from western Europe were fighting holy wars against Muslims in the near east, western people have often perceived Islam as a violent and intolerant faith – even though when this prejudice took root Islam had a better record of tolerance than Christianity.
Charles Kingsley, 1819-1875, writer:
There are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.