Respect, Religion, and the Teddy Bear

December 1, 2007 at 1:34 pm 30 comments

Readers outside the UK may be unaware of the teddy bear incident that has been one of the headline stories the UK press this week. For those of you who don’t know, Gillian Gibbons, a primary teacher from Liverpool, recently went to Sudan to work. She asked her class for ideas for what to call the class teddy bear. One pupil, named Muhammad, suggested “Muhammad”. Someone on the school’s administration staff reported the incident and Gillian was charged with insulting Islam – a crime which could have resulted in 40 lashes, a six month prison sentence, or a fine. Gillian, who protested that no insult was intended, was found guilty and given a 15 day prison sentence. Because of public demonstrations against the leniency of the sentence, she is being kept in close police custody for her own protection.

The philospher A.C.Grayling argues that no religious person is automatically worthy any more respect than any other person. In fact, if anything, the opposite is the case. Faith is a commitment to belief, contrary to evidence and reason. Therefore to believe something against evidence and against reason is irresponsible and ignorant and merits the opposite of respect.

Muhammad (and his millions of followers) and Gillian Gibbons are automatically worthy of respect, first and foremost as significant, creative, talented human beings. Respect for individuals has to be based on their humanity, irrespective of things that they have no choice over – ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, natural gifts, presence or absence of disability. Secondly, they can be afforded respect for the things they choose. These choices will influence the kind of person they are – kind, considerate, peace-loving, loyal, truthful, aspiring to knowledge, seeking after the good of humankind, or ungenerous, willfully stupid, narrowly moralistic, superstitious, and violent. These choices will influence their belief systems, political affiliations, and lifestyle. They have respect because of their humanity. They may gain more because of the choices they make.

And just out of curiosity, who do you think is more worthy of respect – a woman who gives up a comfortable lifestyle and job to go to a third world country to teach children, or a man screaming that he wants another human being whipped for calling a teddy bear Muhammad?

Personally, I do respect the decisions taken by Muslim associations in Britain and in Canada, to appeal to the Sudanese government to release Gillian immediately.

Religious founders and their followers do not merit respect simply because they are religious. No-one would dream of arguing that political parties (and their founders and members) should be afforded respect simply because they are political. Why shouldn’t politicians and their followers be subject to the views and skills of satirical cartoonists and puppet makers? Why shouldn’t presidents be likened to teddy bears and vice-versa? Why shouldn’t leaders be written into soap-operas with Jerry Springer? I don’t suppose for a minute that Gillian Gibbons wanted to insult the prophet Muhammad, but why shouldn’t she be allowed to if she wants to?

I leave A.C. Grayling to conclude:

… all who have secure grounds for their views should not be afraid of robust challenge and criticism ; if they are confident in their views they should be able to shrug off satire and mockery. The more insecure people are, the less confident they feel, the less mature their outlook is, the angrier they are made by what they label as ‘offence’ to their religious sensitivities – even to the point of violence. They undermine and refute themselves thus. (p.9 in Grayling, A.C. (2007) Against All Gods. London: Oberon Books.)

– A Thinking Man


Update: 03/12/07 Gillian Gibbons has been pardoned by the Sudanese President al-Bashir after a meeting with two British Muslim peers.

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Suspend your belief a while… The route from belief to unbelief

30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. HeIsSailing  |  December 1, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Yes, this sickening story has broken in the West, and my workmates and I have been following it closely. I was sorely tempted to write an article on it, but in the end it is fitting that a Brit handled the job.

    Because of public demonstrations against the leniency of the sentence she is being kept in close police custody for her own protection.

    Here is an article from the British tabloid Daily Mail, that shows some photos of the demonstration.

    My favorite demonstrator is the guy weilding the 3 foot scimitar. I also visited one of the BBC blogs yesterday. Amazingly, some British Muslims say not only should the teacher receive the public lashes that she could have received, but they also demanded that her school children were also to blame and should be thrown in prison!

    It is the year 2007, and we are still discussing public whippings for blasphemy!! Unbelievable. This just shows the very real power and potential dangers of religion. Very tragic.

    On the upside, Ebay bids for teddy bears dressed as Muhammed are going through the roof!!

  • 2. strawdog  |  December 1, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    A.C. Grayling rules, by the way!!! I’ve just read ‘the meaning of things’ and I love it.

    As for this teddy story: of course it’s barbaric! But it’s also stupid (or naive) to CHRISTEN a teddy on the name of Mohammed in Sudan …

  • 3. the chaplain  |  December 1, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Come on, guys, this is just the Religion of Peace spreading around some more of its particular, peculiar brand of goodwill.

  • 4. karen  |  December 1, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    It’s peculiar, all right. 😦

  • 5. Quester  |  December 1, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    If the child could be called Muhammed, there’s no real reason to assume the teddy bear couldn’t be. I don’t blame the teacher at all. I wouldn’t want to be the teacher explaining to a child that a toy can’t share his name because riots could break out.

    I wonder if the child named Muhammed understands what’s going on, or if he’s afraid something similar will happen to him or his parents for giving him the same name that’s causing all the trouble.

  • 6. Army-Navy 2007 and other topics « blueollie  |  December 1, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    […] extremism: The Sudan “Teddy Bear” incident: a teacher from Great Brittan had asked her school children to name a Teddy Bear. The kids chose the name “Muhhamed”. She was given a 15 day jail sentence for this, and […]

  • 7. USpace  |  December 1, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Well said! Green Ink has a great cartoon of a MoTeddy, THAT would get the European Muzzies rioting too.

    This would make a wonderful Ramadan gift. A New Dark Age is Dawning has a link to them for sale at the Cafe Press store.

    Calling these ignorant freaks in Sudan human garbage is just too kind. Oh so peaceful, effin SICK animals…

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    give a pig a prophet’s name

    glorify the godly swine
    and thank him for his bacon

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    outlaw all teddy bears

    before some little kids
    try to honor a prophet

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    pay your teachers with DEATH

    for visiting to help out
    your ungrateful country

  • 8. blueollie  |  December 1, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    The Chaplain:

    come on. You don’t think that our fundies would act in a similar way if they didn’t have the moderating presence of secularism among them? 🙂

  • 9. LeoPardus  |  December 1, 2007 at 10:23 pm


    Though I no longer hold to religious faith, I must object to one statement you made. And it’s a statement that gets made a lot.
    Faith is a commitment to belief, contrary to evidence and reason.

    Such a blanket statement is inaccurate and misleading. And it is inconsiderate for people to keep repeating it.

    Faith may be held contrary to evidence, but that is not always the case. Faith may be also be held in a simple lack of evidence. Or it may held along with evidence, though the evidence is not conclusive. To say that it is held “contrary to evidence and reason” is a slap in the face to every person of every faith.

  • 10. HeIsSailing  |  December 1, 2007 at 10:35 pm

    LeoPardus, if I may add one thing –

    My wife continues to have faith in Christianity, although her views have become more liberal in our journey together. She has seen me in my reading, heard me discuss this issues numerous times, and knows why I do not believe. Yet she still believes in the mythic ‘Christ of Faith’.

    Why? If you ask her, this is what she will say: ‘I believe because it makes me a better person’.

    Hey, Good enough for me!! Seriously. Bogus apologetic arguments for Christianity drive me a little nuts sometimes, but just having faith despite evidence because you believe it makes you a better person is really good enough for me. I could never do it, but I will not argue against it! That is why I will never try to argue my dad out of his kooky mormon religion. In his case, it really *has* done him a world of good, and that is good enough for me!!

    So I guess now that makes me both a Christian heretic and an atheist heretic. yikes – go figure.

  • 11. the chaplain  |  December 1, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    I would not put it past American fundies to behave similarly should they ever acquire the power they seek. My comment was limited to Islam because that was the only religion discussed in the post. I am not persuaded that Islam is the “religion of peace” that it claims to be, nor am I convinced that Christianity is the “religion of love” that it claims to be.

  • 13. LeoPardus  |  December 2, 2007 at 2:10 am

    So I guess now that makes me both a Christian heretic and an atheist heretic. yikes – go figure.

    Heh. I figure I’ve been a heretic everywhere I’ve been, so why quit now? Maybe it’s my calling. 🙂

  • 14. Rachel  |  December 2, 2007 at 2:11 am

    “To say that it is held “contrary to evidence and reason” is a slap in the face to every person of every faith.”

    Thanks, Leo.

    “nor am I convinced that Christianity is the “religion of love” that it claims to be.”

    I don’t know if Christianity really claims to be a “religion of love”…Christians just trust in a God of love.
    I agree with you on Islam, though. Did any of you hear about the young woman in Saudi Arabia who was gang-raped? She’s getting 200 lashes and 6 months in jail for being in a car with an unrelated male when the attack took place. Absolutely deplorable. Hearing stuff like that seriously scares me. But it’s pretty politically incorrect to say that nowadays. I think it’s very ironic that the liberals are preaching tolerence and touting Islam as a religion of peace. The whole women’s rights thing puts them in a little bit of a conundrum, don’t you think?

  • 15. lousirr  |  December 2, 2007 at 2:50 am

    What labels can do!
    Labels kill!
    Labels murder!

    Let there be peace
    Let there be peace between us

  • 16. HeIsSailing  |  December 2, 2007 at 2:57 am


    Absolutely deplorable.

    What I find deplorable is the fact that this kind of stuff has been going on for a very, very long time. It is only with the advent of 24 hour news, the internet and instant information that this stuff now leaks to the surface and shows its ugly face to the world. This is why religion fascinates me so much, and why I feel the study of religion is so important. These religious beliefs, like it or not, have the power to change the world for better or worse.

  • 17. HeIsSailing  |  December 2, 2007 at 3:01 am

    Scavenger | December 2, 2007 at 1:29 am

    I went to the evangelistic scare-link and read it. The whole thing. I gotta admit, it was pretty inventive. Do you know of any evangelistic sites that describe the heavenly paradise in such detail? Shoot a link here, I would love to check it out.

    You ever wonder why the horrors of hell are so much easier to describe than the glories of heaven? Why are infinite tortures so much easier to concoct in our minds than infinite pleasures?

  • 18. athinkingman  |  December 2, 2007 at 4:24 am

    Thanks all for your comments.

    Helsailing. Thanks for the link. It appears that if the whipping was to be carried out there was some agreement that it should be done in private by a woman so as not to offend sensibilities!

    LeoPardus, Rachel, I didn’t mean to slap anyone in the face, least of all in a posting about potential whipping. I concede that when I had faith I would have argued that I had reasons for doing so. Now I consider those reasons to be invalid and unreasonable.

    Would it be better to say: Faith is a commitment to belief, contrary to scientific evidence and philosophical reason? I suspect that too may still offend you or not meet your objection, but I think it goes further along the road of conveying what I was trying to say.

  • 19. Stephen P  |  December 2, 2007 at 8:33 am

    My 2c worth: Faith is a commitment to belief in the absence of empirical evidence or in contradiction to it.

    I don’t think it’s correct to say that faith is necessarily contrary to reason. Some aspects of faith, at least in some churches, are very carefully reasoned. But they are based, somewhere, on assumptions unsupported by evidence.

  • 20. writerdd  |  December 2, 2007 at 9:25 am

    I must object to one statement you made. And it’s a statement that gets made a lot. Faith is a commitment to belief, contrary to evidence and reason.

    The reason this statement gets made a lot, is simply because it’s exactly what the Bible says about faith: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

  • 21. aniche  |  December 2, 2007 at 10:21 am

    It’s all over the world. Everyone’s heard about it already. I think it’s ur pretty stupid if u believe a white woman travelled all the way to Sudan under the pretext of teaching the poor children there inorder to defile the religion of Islam. If she wanted to she cud hav stayed home and named a half dozen teddy bears mohammed.crazy world, crazy people.

  • 22. MR  |  December 2, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Greetings, I am young Muslim American and I am against this. Please see my post about this:

  • 23. Feeding Frenzy  |  December 2, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    […] Respect, Religion, and the Teddy Bear @ de-conversion I leave A.C. Grayling to […]

  • 24. karen  |  December 2, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    MR, I’m proud of you for speaking up and giving a different perspective on this from another Muslim viewpoint. Thanks for your link.

    It’s worth noting that the Muslim associations in Britain have denounced this teddy bear incident and called for the teacher to be released. Just as we have a tendency to overlook liberal and moderate Christian viewpoints on hot button issues in the U.S., we probably do the same about moderate, Westernized Islam.

    It’s difficult, because it’s always the fundamentalists who are yelling the loudest (or in this case, marching around with swords!) and whose positions are most polarizing and as such they dominate the news.

  • 25. julia  |  December 2, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    my day has just been made.. hehe there is something that puts this to bed for everyone, except those who can never be reasoned with. Teddy Bear Muhammad, no thats the name of a teddy bear that is being sold all over the place. Go christmas shopping, buy the teddy bear muhammad and we will all have peace on earth. amen.

    here’s the link.

    My mom says she is getting one for her and I. I hear they may be developing some clothes and weapons or something like that. hey a turbine would be awesome with a strap on … beard. hehe Don’t know yet, but I’m getting one. Worst case, I got a cool bear that I can remember how crazy this world was one day and its also an in your face moment for me as well.

    now if they can only get the internet or tv where those wackos are at and see what they started.

  • 26. julia  |  December 2, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    oops i can’t spell teddy bad link bad…

  • 27. Mo  |  December 2, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    Support Gillian, get a teddy:

  • 28. LeoPardus  |  December 2, 2007 at 6:40 pm

    Why not just, “Faith is a commitment to a belief.” ?

    No statement about whether it is contrary or in keeping with evidence or reason is needed. Particularly since any such statement is bound to be untrue to some degree.

  • 29. Respect, Religion, and the Teddy Bear « Tipped Ear Clan  |  December 6, 2007 at 3:38 am

    […] just want to say that just as with cat-issue complainants in Singapore, I find myself agreeing with the view that “a woman who gives up a comfortable lifestyle and job to go to a third world country to […]

  • 30. Atheist Revolution  |  March 23, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    Day of Mockery: The Obligatory Easter Post

    Easter is an excellent day for mocking Christian beliefs, but I do not advocate mockery of all Christians. In fact, I’ll go so far as to suggest that the majority of Christians should not be mocked at all.

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