Secular freedom, compassion, and controversial spiritual symbols

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A recent controversy over Islamic art raises the question of how we ought to deal with art and images in a world of deep diversity. At Hamline University in Minnesota, Erika López Prater lost her job teaching art history because she showed students artistic representations of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. A Muslim student took offense. The University’s Dean of Students accused the instructor of Islamophobia. And she was not rehired. How should we deal with controversies involving art, including Islamic art, and other controversial symbols?

Academic freedom and the study of religion

This case has prompted critical commentary, including on OnlySky by Hemant Mehta and Barry Purcell. In my contribution to this discussion here, I suggest that we need to think more carefully about the spiritual power of art and images. The secular principle of freedom of expression allows us to disagree about symbols and their spiritual power. But the symbolic realm is a place of controversy because art and religion are ways that we imagine who and what we are. Controversial symbols require us to respond with compassion, as we work out what it means to be human.

Academic freedom is central to this. So we should applaud those who responded to the Hamline case by calling for greater respect for academic freedom. Indeed, academic freedom is good for the study of Islam and other traditions. Without that kind of freedom, we would not be able to learn that there is diversity within Islam and that not every Muslim was offended by the Hamline case. Recent commentary also teaches us that despite a common canard about Islam, it has not always been considered blasphemous to represent the Prophet. 

One expert in Islamic art, Christiane Gruber, analyzed the artwork in question, explaining that the image was created by medieval Muslim artists as part of a Muslim art movement in which it was not uncommon to portray Mohammed. Professor Gruber concluded that these artworks are not Islamophobic but are in fact “Islamophilic.” She points out that these Islamic artworks are not equivalent to anti-Muslim cartoons that have been condemned as Islamophobic.

It is fascinating to learn more about diversity within the Muslim world. It is academic freedom and freedom of expression that allows this lesson to be learned.

The magic of words and images

Behind this lesson is a deep question about the power of symbols and how we ought to manage that power. Are some words and images so important or powerful that they should not be uttered or seen? And how should we handle controversial symbols in a world in which people disagree about their meaning and power?

There is no doubt that words and images are powerful. Poetry, music, and art transform the world and move our hearts and minds. The Greeks thought that art and poetry were divine gifts, associated with the Muses. Many people still believe that sounds and objects possess magical power. Prayer and worship can be understood on a continuum with spells and incantations. Some people hold on to good luck charms. And political life is pervaded by flags, pledges, and anthems, which unite and inspire.

Social life rests upon a kind of symbolic magic. Consider the power of a wedding ring to define a whole web of relationships. Some words (“the n-word”) are so offensive that they should not be spoken. Political imagery can provoke emotions and empower violence and hate (for example, the swastika). And religious imagery can give meaning and purpose to life.

Religious belief tends to trace the power of words and images to some divine source. Religious texts are often supposed to be gifts of God. And religious words and images are thought to possess spiritual power. Some think it is blasphemous to spell out the name of “G-d” or to “take the Lord’s name in vain.” People venerate icons and holy books. And religious violence is linked to the desecration of those symbols.

A respectful humanistic explanation of symbolic magic

Atheists often roll their eyes and scoff at all of this. Humanists tend to think that there is no such thing as magic. Words are simply sounds. Art is form and color. And prayers and pledges are merely hot air infused with wishful thinking. From this perspective, the magic of words and images is entirely human. It resides in our brains and in the way that symbols work in human cognition and social life.

But humanism cannot deny the powerful emotional, social, and cognitive force of the symbolic realm. Poems, books, and songs move people and unite them in social groups. So do representational artworks, monuments, and film. There is indeed “magic” here: the magic of thought and imagination.

This can be explained in terms of cognitive processes, the evolution of which is connected to our existence as social beings. Cooperative social animals like ourselves communicate across distances. A raised eyebrow has meaning, as does a raised fist, or a sob, or a shout. Human beings have supplemented visceral, vocal, and immediate communication with technologies such as art, writing, and electronic media.

This humanistic explanation does not appeal to divine powers. But it reminds us of the need to respect the cognitive and social processes that inspire art, religion, and other works of the human imagination. Even if words and images are entirely human, they are nonetheless of fundamental import. Symbols matter. They give shape to social life and are deeply embedded in human psychology. That’s why we should do our best to understand and respect the values that different people place in words and images.

A compassionate secular response

So, what about the case of Islamic art with which we began? Well, we’ve seen why academic freedom is important. Compassion and understanding develop when we are able to explore the symbols of the world.

Furthermore, it is disrespectful simply to ignore the claims of those who are offended by certain uses of images or words. The mystical tendency to venerate symbols is a natural and near-universal occurrence in human thought and culture. Words and images move us. We ought to take that fact seriously. 

And if some people are offended by certain symbols, let’s try to figure out why by inquiring more deeply. This does not mean that those who are offended get the last word on the matter. Freedom of expression is a basic value in a world in which people who inhabit different symbolic orders must live together. But the project of secular living-together works better when we are generally more attentive to the power of words and images.

It is always a good idea to be careful in what we say and considerate of the responses of others. Freedom of expression needs to be supplemented by principles of civility and compassion. Disagreement is inevitable. The power of symbols to inspire and unite is linked to the way that symbols also divide. And if someone is offended, let’s listen to them and try to understand why.

Human beings will never agree about the significance of our symbols. That’s why we need secular principles of freedom of thought, expression, and religion. Those freedoms allow us to coexist in a world in which the mysterious power of the human imagination is always busy making meaning. And compassion helps us build bridges of understanding among the diversity of symbols that structure the human world.