October 29, 2009
Have you blasphemed today?
(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)
This year's International Blasphemy Day was on September 30. As the (no longer active) website created to propagate this said:
International Blasphemy Day is not just a day. It is a movement to dismantle the wall which exists between religion and criticism.
The objective of International Blasphemy Day is to open up all religious beliefs to the same level of free inquiry, discussion and criticism to which all other areas of academic interest are subjected.
International Blasphemy Day is a movement, not just a day, to remind the world that religion should never again be beyond open and honest discussion or reproach.
As usual with anniversaries and other commemorations, I forgot all about it until it was too late. But today's post can be considered my belated contribution to that celebration.
The idea of free speech is something that everyone approves of, or at least gives lip service to. But when they hear speech that criticizes something that they personally cherish, then some people become willing to chip away at that right. That is a big mistake. The best way to combat speech that you disapprove of is not to abridge that right but to use more speech.
No rights are strictly absolute. All rights, however noble in concept, have inherent limitations as soon as one is part of any social community, because one person's right should not be allowed to encroach on the rights of others, and free speech is no exception. As far as I can tell, the only restriction that the US Supreme Court has placed on free speech is when it creates a clear and present danger to other people's safety, that threatens their rights to life and liberty. The classic example is the one that denies one the right to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.
But there are always people who want to try and restrict free speech even in cases where there is no danger of immediate harm to others. For example, governments love to invoke 'national security' as an exception to free speech because that allows them to prevent the reporting of all their lies and mistakes and crimes.
Other attempts at restricting of free speech come in the form of seductive concerns about civility, arguing that speech should be restricted even if it merely offends people, simply because it expresses ideas that some or even most people find abhorrent. Hate speech legislation that restricts the rights of people to say despicable things against those they dislike is one such example. People who indulge in anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-minority rhetoric may be saying things that we despise and find positively hateful but that is not, by itself, sufficient to suppress their right to do so.
It becomes trickier when speech is used to actively incite violence against the people. People should not have the right to create an imminent danger to others, but defining 'imminent danger' and drawing the line between that and hateful, but legitimate, speech is not easy.
But of all the attempts at restricting free speech, are there any more obviously fatuous than the attempts to stifle criticisms of religion by creating laws against blasphemy? After all, blasphemy is aimed against god, the allegedly supreme being, the master of the universe, king of kings, lord of lords, the almighty who knows everything and can do anything. If his feelings are so sensitive, why on earth would he need our puny laws to protect them? He can just smite us with his preferred smiting weapons like floods and earthquakes and hurricanes.
The United States can be justly proud of the fact that unique among countries (I think) its constitution guarantees the right of free speech to everyone. And yet, in an appalling move, the Obama administration is supporting a UN movement backed by conservative Muslim countries to pass an international blasphemy law. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley writes about the growth and use of such laws around the world:
Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.
While attracting surprisingly little attention, the Obama administration supported the effort of largely Muslim nations in the U.N. Human Rights Council to recognize exceptions to free speech for any "negative racial and religious stereotyping."
In the resolution, the administration aligned itself with Egypt, which has long been criticized for prosecuting artists, activists and journalists for insulting Islam.
The public and private curtailment on religious criticism threatens religious and secular speakers alike. However, the fear is that, when speech becomes sacrilegious, only the religious will have true free speech.
Muslims in particular seem to think that their religion and their prophet should be protected from anything that they consider insulting, and they often threaten or even carry out violent attacks against those who are alleged to have offended their religion. But Muslims have no more right to be protected from statements they dislike than any other group. They can revere their prophet and their god as much as they want but it is absurd for them to expect the rest of us to do so or to not make fun of them for their irrational beliefs. Their running amok in 2006 when the Danish newspapers published cartoons of Mohammed is an example of what happens when people become too accustomed to thinking that their particular sacred cows should also be sacred to everyone. (I wrote about the cartoon controversy and the hypocrisy on all sides of that issue here and here.)
The true intent of blasphemy laws is to pander to the dominant religious bloc in a country and to preserve the protected status of at least some religious beliefs because people know deep down that religious beliefs have no rational basis and that if they are exposed to sustained criticism, the whole structure will fall apart.
POST SCRIPT: CNN and Christopher Hitchens on the UN move
You have to sit through Lou Dobbs' anti-UN rant, his nativism, and xenophobia though. This report was back in February, before the Obama administration's support for the move was announced in October.