Discover more from Friendly Atheist
A misleading survey suggests Christians are more tolerant of free speech than atheists
Shouting down controversial speakers is the wrong metric for measuring censorship
This newsletter is free, but it’s only able to sustain itself due to the support I receive from a small percentage of regular readers. Would you please consider becoming one of those supporters? You can use the button below to subscribe to Substack or use my usual Patreon page!
Do conservative Christians respect free speech more than atheists?
That seems to be the takeaway from a recent survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a non-profit group that purportedly defends freedom of speech and freedom of thought. (There’s no shortage of legitimate criticism about the group, including their questionable sources of funding. But for this piece, I’m going to sidestep critiques of the group.)
The survey involved over 55,000 student respondents who opted in from over 250 colleges and universities.
When FIRE asked people how acceptable it would be for college students to protest a campus speaker by shouting them down, the religious breakdown found that 45% of Protestants said it was “Never acceptable” compared to 24% of atheists and 26% of agnostics who felt the same way.
In fact, the people who most strongly opposed shouting down speakers were the more conservative denominations, including Mormons (44%), Catholics (42%), and Orthodox Christians (40%).
What gives? Aren’t secular people supposed to be more tolerant and progressive than our religious counterparts?
Indeed, when one person tweeted this information, the reactions suggested this data flew in the face of our understanding of the non-religious. The sort of people who use “woke” in every sentence took a victory lap, seeing this as evidence that young progressives can’t handle opposing perspectives. (Said one person: “literally everything the New Atheists told you, the opposite is true.”)
But I think those critics are missing the bigger point.
It’s not that people with different beliefs should be shouted down to the point where their opinions can’t be heard. I don’t support that and I suspect most other progressives feel the same way. If I were watching a debate on God’s existence (just to offer up one example), I could listen to the other side while hoping the person representing mine was ready with strong rebuttals.
That’s not the sort of thing we’re talking about, though, when it comes to campus speakers. Let’s not pretend the people getting shouted down are always good-faith proponents of controversial ideas.
Speakers who have been protested (sometimes to the point they can’t give their speech) include Ian Haworth, who denies transgender identities, calls trans women a “threat” to women’s sports, and refers to gender-affirming care as “genital mutilation.” There’s also Riley Gaines, a swimmer whose claim to fame is placing 5th at a national tournament, tying a trans swimmer, and who has now made it her life’s mission to oppose the inclusion of trans people in sports. There’s federal judge Kyle Duncan, a conservative provocateur who has used his position to support same-sex marriage bans, take adopted children away from gay parents, and misgendered a trans litigant on purpose in an opinion. There’s Charlie Kirk, the Christian Nationalist who opposes women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. There’s Milo Yiannopoulos, the deplatformed agitator whose only goal seems to be riling up progressives by saying increasingly inflammatory things.
I should go ahead and state the obvious point about how violence against these speakers can and should be (and has been) condemned.
Do you see the common bond, though? The sort of speakers who get protested are not people who simply have a different opinion worth debating. They are people who actively fight against civil rights. They support (or help write!) laws that would make it harder for marginalized people to exist in society. At a time when those marginalized voices have very little political power to push back, especially in red states and under the current Supreme Court, injecting themselves into the narrative when a bigot comes to their campus may be the most effective way to make sure the public understands what’s at stake.
It’s not that they can’t handle what the speakers are saying. It’s that they know exactly what the speakers are saying because they’ve heard it so many times before and they don’t believe we ought to be debating people’s humanity. They also know that kind of rhetoric can lead to violence against certain groups.
I’m sure there are instances where this can go too far and I’m not about to defend every example of it. But the reason you don’t see many stories about conservatives shouting down liberal speakers is because liberal beliefs just aren’t toxic in comparison. How worked up can people really get when your positions involve tolerance, inclusion, not banning books, trying to save the planet, and including more compassion and dignity in public policy?
All of that’s to say: There may be really good reasons to shout down a campus speaker. If someone is coming to your school to argue that we shouldn’t teach African American history or that trans people should be exiled from public life, then a polite exchange of ideas is never going to move the needle. If the goal is to prevent hateful, harmful ideas from spreading, shouting down a speaker advocating those beliefs doesn’t seem out of the question.
That’s why atheists and agnostics and Jewish people may be open to that form of protest. And why conservative religious groups—the sort of people who tend to hold indefensible bigoted beliefs—don’t like it.
The survey isn’t a sign that religious conservatives are more tolerant than secular liberals. It’s a sign that religious conservatives can’t handle the sort of opposition their cruel beliefs deserve. It’s a sign that their beliefs—and their lives—are rarely under attack. They’re less likely to support shouting down speakers on campus because it’s usually their people getting shouted down, and it’s their people getting shouted down because their beliefs are inexcusable and reprehensible.
(The irony of all this is that the same religious conservatives who supposedly love free speech also want to ban books.)
For what it’s worth—and I have no clue if critics will believe me at this point—I think it’s important that we debate controversial ideas. I would much rather challenge bad ideas than prevent those ideas from being heard. I brought “controversial” speakers to my campus when I was in college, and I’ve supported free speech that’s extremely unpopular (and arguably harmful).
But my humanity was never the topic of debate. I have a hard time faulting people constantly subject to demonization and violence for taking a different approach, especially when people in their community eagerly give a platform to bigots in the name of “free speech.” I would argue they often give a platform to bigots specifically to anger progressives, invite outrage, then use that as a marketing tool for their own conservative causes. (It’s the same reason Kirk Cameron holds events at public libraries while breaking their rules, then whines about persecution when the libraries push back.)
I’m just saying: I can see how the targets of hateful speech might want to make their voices heard in whatever way will get attention. That’s not the same as supporting censorship, regardless of what the survey claims to show.
If you appreciated this article, please subscribe to my newsletter for free (!) or share this post on Reddit, Facebook, or the godawful Bird app.