Offensiveness, as defined by dictionary.com (the best source of information bar Wikipedia), is: causing resentful displeasure; highly irritating, angering, or annoying.
I’ve always supposed that, being a political atheist (or ‘secular humanist’…as a more accurate term in the context of politics), I would end up raising the ire of certain groups – particularly ones such as the Catholic Church, Family First party and SaltShakers all of which I have absolutely no patience or sympathy for. Politically, these groups and I are diametrically opposed on most issues. All three, in my view, are bigoted, anti-science, sexist, homophobic and dogmatic. I’ll discuss the finer details of that later, but for now, I’m talking about offensiveness.
What constitutes offensiveness in this context? If I say “I hate religion”, most people won’t take offense to it because I’m not attacking a particular religion. But because religions vary in their dogmaticness, vitriol and rationality, it would simply be too simplistic to say that all religions are bad, or all are good or all are mediocre. They are all relative; I for one would argue that, compared to the three main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), Sikhism is fairly mild. I also find Mormonism to be particularly bad a religion if not for their door-to-door marketing techniques and the clear absurdity of believing Utah to be some kind of holy site (whereas no other monotheistic religion says so). Utah isn’t Jerusalem. But is this targeting of certain religions fair?
Freedom to insult religion is a fundamental human right, I believe. If the insult isn’t justified, then the argument can be taken down in true argumentative style (complete with jibes at the opposition’s facial hair). If I declare that Judaism is evil because of events in Israel/Palestine and that the conflict there is because Judaism is an evil religion, it can be safely concluded that what I’m saying is abjectly specious. But people should have that right to think that. It might be terribly and deliberately offensive, but it’s no more irrational than Creationism. I’m opposed to any attempt to remove free speech. In that example, I’m fairly sure most Jews would be offended if I called their religion evil. I’m maliciously targeting them. But how is this different to liberals calling conservatives ‘evil’? If someone holds that value (be it religion or politics) close to heart, then it can be very offensive. But what if that value of theirs offends you?
As an atheist, should I have the socially-permissable right to insult the hell out of Christianity – seeing as Christianity as a concept and a religion, offends me? Actually it doesn’t really…but I’m reacting to Christians who are offended by atheists. In an ideal world, nobody would be offended by diverse views on the world – but let’s assume they do. Well..the thing here is that saying Jews are evil (to re use that same example) is deliberate and calculated. Me saying that Christianity is throughly annoying is not deliberately offensive. I don’t go out of my way to insult Christians. I might vote against them or rally against attempts by Family First to destroy secular education…but that’s about it.
People can choose to be offended by someone’s actions, assuming their actions were deliberately offensive. I could choose to be offended by anti-abortion protesters (whose inability to recognise the difference between a bunch of totipotent stem cells is second only to their inability to understand women’s rights), but I’m not. I would understand, however, if a woman who’d recently had an abortion would be offended – particularly if the anti-abortionists were religious ones (the ones who say you’re going to hell if you do X, Y and Z). The midway point between being insulting to someone and unintentionally being rude about their belief system is insensitivity. Most people suffer from this. It’s not deliberate. The problem that lies herein is determining whether something said or done was deliberate or not. It’s no easy feat.