Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Defense of Blasphemy

Today Sept 30, 2012 is International Blasphemy Day.  This is a day dedicated to raising awareness about the encroachment upon free speech rights by anti-blasphemy laws around the world.  Generally there are two reactions that I hear against Blasphemy Day: "We don't want to be offensive.  Free speech is about being respectful of diverse ideas and opinions." and "You are just using the banner of free speech to disguise your hatred and mockery of God."

As I've explained before, the second response is just nonsensical, since I can't hate something I don't believe in.  However, the first response does give me pause and I'm very sympathetic to that attitude.  I would consider myself to be a first amendment absolutist in the sense that I believe all people should have the right to have their voices heard, but that also means that all people must have a right to voice a contrary opinion.  Free speech means nothing if people are not free to say things that may offend us.  That is why I am diametrically opposed to any legislation that would seek to curtail our most important right, whether domestic or international.

I recognize though that not everyone shares my views on the centrality of the first amendment to our democracy.  And while I think we should apply the principles behind this critical right around the world, it has no legal authority beyond our borders.  As such, I would like to put forward a laundry list of reasons that I support Blasphemy Day (and why you should too).

1. There is no clear line between religious dissent and blasphemy.
A Christian who denies that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet blasphemes Islam by her very existence.  A Jew denies the divinity of Jesus, and hence blasphemes against Christianity.  Every single one of you reading this post is a blasphemer or a heretic to someone's religion.  By following a different religion than your neighbor (or by following none) you are blaspheming against other religions.  The right to blaspheme other religions underlies religious liberty, as we see in countless cases around the globe.

In Saudi Arabia, people voicing religious opinions not sanctioned by the government (including Shi'a Muslims) are being tortured, beatendetained, deportedpersecuted, and sometimes even sentenced to death for professing or even secretly holding a faith other than the Saudi's narrow interpretation of Sunni Islam.  Hamza Kashgari has been charged with blasphemy over 3 very mild tweets that he made earlier this year and under current law could face a death sentence.

According to a 2009 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused."

In Ireland, the constitution requires a blasphemy law to be on the books and in 2009 such a law was passed stating that: "A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding 25,000 euro."

An 11 year old Christian girl in Pakistan was accused of burning pages from the Koran.  A mob wanted to burn her alive, citing Pakistan's blasphemy laws as legal justification.

The list goes on and on, and that's just in the past decade.  Think of all the books that have been burned, people executed, and religious groups persecuted throughout the millennia all for the victim-less crime of blasphemy.

The freedom to disagree on which religion to practice or not to practice is in jeopardy around the world and blasphemy laws like these are appearing with increased frequency all over the globe.  The freedom of religion depends on the freedom to disagree with other religions, and blasphemy laws disallow that freedom.

2. Opponents of free speech have learned to use the language of religious tolerance against us.

I have no desire to go out of the way to offend people and never do anything with offense being the central goal.  But opponents of free speech have learned to speak the language of tolerance and mutual respect and turn it against that attitude.

Every year since 1999, a group of UN member countries has put a resolution "Combating defamation of religions" before the Human Rights Council.  Here are some excerpts from the March 2008 incarnation of the resolution that actually passed:
"Also urges States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from the defamation of any religion, to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and their value systems and to complement legal systems with intellectual and moral strategies to combat religious hatred and intolerance;"
Sounds reasonable right? I want to respect everyone and don't like hatred and intolerance and it makes sense to encourage their protection right?  Well let's read a little further:
"Emphasizes that respect of religions and their protection from contempt is an essential element conducive for the exercise by all of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;"
Note that they are again talking about the freedom of thought and conscience, but what does protection from contempt mean?  Protection from people disagreeing?  Let's read on:
"Emphasizes that, as stipulated in international human rights law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression, and that the exercise of this right carries with it special duties and responsibilities, and may therefore be subject to certain restrictions"
Subject to certain restrictions? What restrictions are those?
"...prohibition of the dissemination of all ideas based upon racial superiority or hatred is compatible with the freedom of opinion and expression, is equally applicable to the question of incitement to religious hatred...the use of printed, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and of any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards Islam or any religion;"
So it starts by telling us that we have to be tolerant and respectful of all religions but ends with telling us what we can and cannot say about them and limiting our free expression.

If you still think that this resolution has good intentions behind it and is promoting an agenda of tolerance and free expression, take a look at who voted for the resolution, who thought this resolution aligned with their goals and ideals:

China, Cuba, Indonesia, Pakistan, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and others.
All countries with great records on freedom of expression

The United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Switzerland all voted against the resolution.  40 human rights groups petitioned against the motion because they saw through it.

They were trying to put a blasphemy law at the heart of the UN.  If you're wondering why you've never heard about it on ABC, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, or any other major news network it's because they didn't cover it.  That's why blasphemy day is so important. It draws attention to and starts a conversation about the slow and steady erosion of free speech rights around the world.

Just this year, the European Union made a joint statement with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Commission of the African Union which contains even stronger language than the UN resolution.  Michael Nugent summed up the situation perfectly:
We are in danger of conceding the step between the state respecting somebody’s right to believe what they want, and the state automatically respecting the content of the belief itself – and insisting by law that citizens do so also. - Link

3. Blasphemy laws are an appeal to force that limit our ability to question religious ideas

Blasphemy laws spread the idea that it is OK to allow ideas to be defended by laws prohibiting their critique than allowing them to stand or fall on arguments and evidence.  The moment you make an idea illegal to criticize you remove all accountability from its adherents.  Religion is already uniquely armored against criticism because it lacks a reality check.  Adding legal protection from reproach only increases their resistance to new evidence and ideas.  It sends the message that censorship and intimidation is a valid and effective way to win an argument.

And it is effective.  Think back to the infamous danish cartoons of Muhammad.  The fear of reprisal from the extremist Muslim community was so widespread that Yale University press censored the cartoons from the book The Cartoons that Shook the World.  Why? "The decision rested solely on the experts’ assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims." In a media that is dominated by images, we are not being allowed the freedom to view and judge the cartoons for ourselves.

When you are dealing with people who are using the Law to force you to respect your beliefs, history has taught us not to expect respect in return.  Just as the wall of separation between church and state is not a one-way wall, tolerance is not a one-way street.

4. Not only should we be allowed to criticize religion, but religion needs to be criticized.  

Not all religious people are opposed to contraception, LGBT equality, gender equality, stem cell research, assisted suicide, the teaching of science in schools, and more.  But the driving force behind the opposition to each is overwhelmingly religious ideologies   If we as secularists, and perhaps more importantly liberal believers, are not allowed to voice contrary opinions because of deference to religious beliefs, then we will never escape the gravity well of those ideas.

5. The response to hate speech is not suppression, it's more speech.

In recent weeks a horribly produced and horribly conceived video called The Innocence of Muslims has sparked worldwide controversy and has been used as an excuse to instigate violence.  The appropriate response is not to ban the video and imprison the people who made it.  The correct response is to speak out against the video and make it clear that we don't support its content or its quality.  President Obama's address to the UN on the issue gave me hope that we can move in that direction.

"...the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.  The question, then, is how do we respond.  And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.  There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents.  There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.  There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn down a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan. 
In the modern world with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world.  We empower the worst of us, if that's how we respond." 12:50

But beyond our ideals, history should teach us that suppressing hateful ideas is a poor way of combating them.  Holocaust denial is probably one of the most pernicious and widespread negative memes still present in Europe.  Austria has actually banned the idea and recently arrested British historian David Irvine for the possibility that he would deny the holocaust.  Yet holocaust denial is more prevalent in those countries that ban it than those who allow open discussion and critique of the position.

6. Blasphemy is fun.

This reason is admittedly more self serving, but it's not hard to recognize this statement as true.  If you laughed during Monty Python's Holy Grail or Life of Brian, DogmaRowan Atkinson's extended version of the water to wine miracleThe Babelfish Argument from Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMr. Deity on the Naughty Bits, The Book of MormonGeorge Carlin on religion, Ricky Gervais on Noah's Ark, Magic Man Done It, Touched By an Atheist, Tim Minchin, or the picture below, you acknowledge that blasphemy has some aesthetic value.

Sometimes you just have to appreciate something for itself and blasphemy can be very entertaining. To a non-believer, it's much like having a mirror-smashing party on Friday the 13th while walking under as many ladders as possible.  Blasphemy is a victim-less crime, and even if by some off chance God is real I think he could take care of himself.  Why should his followers need to step in to defend their all powerful deity?

Your thoughts?

No comments:

Post a Comment