Stanley Fish perfectly captures the expectation of a secular liberal society that religion will be “worn lightly,” as a mild preference, and that all ideas will be “celebrated” — although, as astute children have observed, saying that “everyone is special” is another way of saying that no one is. Mr. Fish captures the problem — that the religiously faithful are unwilling to wear their beliefs lightly, but cannot convince the rest of society to honor that fact. He is also correct that it is, in a peculiar way, admirable to hold your beliefs strongly enough to want to do the wrong thing (e.g., be insulting or even violent) to see those beliefs prevail. And he is certainly right that there is something loathsome and low in insulting someone’s beliefs, not because you believe they are wrong or evil, but simply to make an abstract point about freedom.
Yet he seems wide of the mark when he says that
But a firm adherent of a comprehensive religion doesn’t want dialogue about his beliefs; he wants those beliefs to prevail. Dialogue is not a tenet in his creed, and invoking it is unlikely to do anything but further persuade him that you have missed the point….
Those who wrote in to the Times to complain about Mr. Fish’s article were almost universally concerned with his disparagement of liberal society, but the above seems to me to be a far worse misreading of the history of religion, which, even under Islam, has always conquered “the citadel of men’s hearts” through vigorous discussion and debate. That one believes strongly in a “comprehensive religion,” that one considers it worth dying for and worth re-shaping society around, in most cases, makes one want to rise up and share the new Word, to defend it eloquently and with passion. It will necessarily involve dialogue and discussion. There is literally no other way to affirm its truth. It is because he wants his beliefs to prevail that dialogue is an essential tenet in his creed.
Only those who now, in the winter-time of the history of their Faith, feel powerless to promote it through speech will mistakenly rise up to defend it through violence.