What makes religious identity different?

On , Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo posted an image on his Instagram of him posing with a statue of Buddha. The problem? His foot was on the base. Cue the screeching outrage.

To be clear, Ronaldo does not appear to be trying to be disrespectful. Quite the opposite, actually. It looks like he thought the statue was cool and interesting, and wanted to take a picture of it. Naturally, he wanted to be in the picture as well. So… he posed with the statue. You can see the result in the picture below.

[A photo of Cristiano Ronaldo posing with a Buddha statue; the base of the statue is surrounded by a wooden frame, and Ronaldo is standing with his hands in his pockets, one foot resting casually on the frame.]
Cristiano Ronaldo posing with a Buddha statue.

At the current time of posting this, Ronaldo has neither apologized nor taken the picture down (at least as far as I know). The question I want to tackle today is: should he?

Let me start by explaining why I found this question interesting enough to blog about it. , Bill C-16 passed its second reading in Parliament. C-16 is the bill that will add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. I was having a discussion with one of those “freeze peach” types who think that freedom of speech means the right to say anything you please, any time you please, without any consequences; his concern was some vague fear that C-16 would result him being jailed if he mistakenly failed to use someone’s preferred pronoun when addressing them. It won’t, of course, but his irrational fears happened to be timed perfectly with the Ronaldo outrage.

The connection that formed in my mind was based on inadvertent offence, and apologizing for it. Let’s say you mistakenly address someone who identifies as female with a male pronoun; she gets hurt by this. Once you learn your mistake, of course you apologize and correct your error. In fact, you have an obligation to apologize and correct your error. Failing to do so would be rude in most situations, but in some situations – those situations where discrimination is actually forbidden by law – it would actually be illegal to refuse to correct the mistake. What exactly is the difference between that kind of situation, and the situation with Ronaldo?

Consider the similarities. In both cases, there is an inadvertent offence. You certainly didn’t intend to hurt the woman’s feelings, and you probably had no reasonable way to expect that you might. Ronaldo doesn’t appear to have intended any offence to Buddha or Buddhism, and – let’s be realistic, angry mob – there’s no reasonable way he could have expected that he would.

Many SHAFT people have utter disdain for religion. On the flip side, many religious people have utter disdain for gender identity or expression. But all too frequently, the people who disdain the one demand respect for the other.

In both cases, the offence caused hurt. (Well, I’m assuming the frothing outrage and vile insults to Ronaldo from the religious mob is… “hurt”… in some form or fashion.) In both cases, the hurt done was to some aspect of people’s identity. In the hypothetical it’s the woman’s gender identity; in the case of Ronaldo, it’s people’s religious identity.

Many SHAFT people have utter disdain for religion; put that aside for now. On the flip side, many religious people have utter disdain for gender identity or expression. But all too frequently, the people who disdain the one demand respect for the other. In all likelihood, judging by my readership, you’re probably an atheist, humanist, or something similar, and you probably respect gender identity. You probably don’t respect religious identity. But a person’s identity is their identity, is it not? You don’t need to like it, you don’t need to agree with it, but unless and until it is interfering with anyone else’s rights, you do need to respect it. You don’t get to pick and choose how they identify. If you think it’s wrong to piss on someone’s gender, racial, sexual, or ethnic identity for no good reason, explain to me why it’s okay to piss on their religious identity. (Note: challenging their religion and its precepts – especially if they put them on the table for debate – is not the same is insulting their religious identity for no good reason. The assumption in this post is that you’re offending someone’s religious identity accidentally, or otherwise without a good reason for doing it.)

And vice versa, if you are outraged at having your religious identity mocked, disdained, ignored, or otherwise challenged… how the fuck dare you mock, disdain, ignore, or otherwise challenge someone’s gender identity. If you want your religious identity respected, you damn well better be respecting other people’s gender, racial, sexual, or ethnic identities.

But now we’ve arrived at a problem. I would argue, as most progressives would, that it is abusive and harassing to continue to use a non-preferred pronoun with someone after they have asked you to respect their gender identity. If you keep calling that woman “him”, you’re an asshole at least, and – if you are in a situation where the law does not tolerate discrimination – illegal at worst. So… what about Ronaldo? He has done something that belittles and insults people’s religious identities. Unintentionally, yes, but that first misused pronoun was also unintentional. If he persists in his belittling and insulting, even after he has been told that that’s what he’s doing… is he not also an asshole at least, breaking the law at worst?

I’m troubled by that conclusion, as I would imagine many nonbelievers would be. Before we go any deeper, let’s dismiss the lazy objections:

If you hurt someone, regardless of whether you meant to, regardless of whether you think what you did should be hurtful, regardless of whether you like the person you hurt or their identity… the bottom fucking line is you hurt someone. Just apologize. Seriously, what the fuck?

It was not intentional.

The first offence was unintentional, and for that reason neither the use of the wrong pronoun nor the foot on the statue deserve any punishment. But what follows is intentional. After learning of the offence done, persisting in using the wrong pronoun, or refusing to remove the picture (and refusing to apologize)… those actions are intentional.

It wasn’t that big a deal.

That is not your call to make. Mistaking a woman for a man may be a harmless “whoops, my bad” mistake, or it may be a powerful blow to that woman’s confidence and identity. It doesn’t even matter if “most” women wouldn’t be fazed by it. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if most Buddhists won’t even bat an eyelash at a foot on the base of a Buddha statue. For some, it is a very hurtful and belittling image.

By the same token, dismissing those people who are offended as “hypersensitive” is just a dick move. If you hurt someone, regardless of whether you meant to, regardless of whether you think what you did should be hurtful, regardless of whether you like the person you hurt or their identity… the bottom fucking line is you hurt someone. Just apologize. Seriously, what the fuck?

I don’t care about religious feelings.

Then you’re an asshole. Fuck off and find another blog to read.

The one objection I’m left with (that I have managed to come up with) is that religious identity and gender identity are somehow “different”. This seems intuitively true to me, but I’m having trouble articulating exactly how they are different.

The difference can’t be that the identity is chosen by the person, rather than them being born into it. Both religious and gender identity are a matter of choice, as are many other types of identity. The difference also can’t be that the identity can be changed over a person’s life.

You can be a person without any religious identity, but you can’t be a person without any gender identity.

I feel that the difference is that religious identity is somehow… “appended”… to a person’s identity. You can be a person without any religious identity… but you can’t be a person without any gender identity.

“Agender” is still a gender, different from the way that “atheism” (or “areligion”) is not a religion. When someone says they are “agendered”, that doesn’t mean they have “no gender”, it really just means they have chosen some option that is neither male, nor female, nor any combination, nor any recognized third option. But they do have a “gender”… it’s just the gender “other”, or a gender specific to them individually: “Sam’s gender”. But when someone doesn’t have a religion… they just don’t have a religion. They haven’t chosen some “other” religion off the beaten path.

That almost sounds like the solution… but then there’s the case of sexual orientation. When you are “asexual”… you really don’t have any sexual orientation. A block of concrete is asexual, is it not? It would be absurd to say that a block of concrete has a sexual orientation.

So I’m stuck. I believe Ronaldo is not in the wrong for refusing to apologize for offending someone’s religious identity, yet I believe that someone who offended someone’s gender, sexual, racial, or otherwise identity would be in the wrong for refusing to apologize. I suspect there is some kind of qualitative difference between religious identity and those other types of identity, but I can’t narrow it down. And by the rules of reason, if I can’t find any meaningful difference, then I can’t demand different behaviour; either Ronaldo does have to apologize for offending people’s religious identity, or no-one ever has to apologize for offending any way a person identifies. I do not accept the latter, and I do not want to accept the former.

So I’m laying it out all out there, in the hopes that the Internet can provide an answer. What’s the solution to this dilemma? Is religious identity different in some meaningful way from other types of identity? If so, how?

And if religious identity is not meaningfully different from other types of identity, what does that mean for things like International Blasphemy Day? If that is okay, wouldn’t a day dedicated to belittling and mocking people’s gender identities also be okay?

Let me know your thoughts on this.

CC BY-SA 4.0 What makes religious identity different? by Mark A. Gibbs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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