The Liberty to Blaspheme

Considering how often I’ve written about this topic in the past, I had some reluctance to return to it, fearing I wouldn’t have anything new or unique to say this time around. But the right of free speech is once again under assault, and whenever that happens, I believe friends of liberty around the world have a moral duty to man the barricades and raise our voices against the barbarous fanatics who would take it away.

So, here’s the story in a nutshell (HT: Andrew Sullivan). Johann Hari, the courageous freethinker and journalist whom I cited last August in “Speak Boldly“, wrote an editorial calling attention to another case of tyrannical Islamists seeking to suppress the right of others to criticize their barbaric practices. It happened at the U.N., where a bloc of Islamic nations successfully pushed through a resolution demanding “respect” for shariah law, with the shocking result that things like child marriage or the stoning of women can no longer be discussed by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

In response came Hari’s editorial, Why should I respect these oppressive religions? Like his previous piece, it was an outstanding condemnation of irrational beliefs of all kinds, and a clarion call for the most basic of human rights. Here’s an excerpt to give you the flavor, though I highly recommend reading the whole piece:

All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.

…a free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.

Yet this idea – at the heart of the Universal Declaration – is being lost. To the right, it thwacks into apologists for religious censorship; to the left, it dissolves in multiculturalism. The hijacking of the UN Special Rapporteur by religious fanatics should jolt us into rescuing the simple, battered idea disintegrating in the middle: the equal, indivisible human right to speak freely.

A respected Indian newspaper, The Statesman, reprinted Hari’s essay, explaining that they felt it was in accord with India’s rich and venerable tradition of secularism. You may be able to guess what happened next:

That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was “prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet” and I should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings”. I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

Once again, religious lunatics and terrorists have hijacked the marketplace of ideas and twisted the universal right of free speech into a right, possessed exclusively by themselves, to never be offended. They demand legal protection from ever having to see or hear anything they disagree with, and because they’re always willing to resort to violence if their demands aren’t met, even supposedly liberal, democratic governments give in to them with depressing frequency. The de facto result is the censorship and suppression of freethinkers. Meanwhile, we who are outraged by their vicious and savage creeds seemingly have no right to call upon the government to imprison them.

In a follow-up essay as brilliant as the first, Hari refuses to apologize, and slices swiftly through the flimsy excuses offered by these tyrants and their apologists:

These events are also a reminder of why it is so important to try to let the oxygen of rationality into religious debates – and introduce doubt. Voltaire – one of the great anti-clericalists – said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” If you can be made to believe the absurd notion that an invisible deity dictated The Eternal Unchanging Truth to a specific person at a specific time in history and anyone who questions this is Evil, then you can easily be made to demand the death of journalists and free women and homosexuals who question that Truth. But if they have a moment of doubt – if there is a single nagging question at the back of their minds – then they are more likely to hesitate. That’s why these ideas must be challenged at their core, using words and reason.

…Yes, if we speak out now, there will be turbulence and threats, and some people may get hurt. But if we fall silent – if we leave the basic human values of free speech, feminism and gay rights undefended in the face of violent religious mobs – then many, many more people will be hurt in the long term. Today, we have to use our right to criticise religion – or lose it.

Amen and hallelujah! We need many more brave freethinkers like Hari – we need a thousand modern-day Voltaires willing to strike back against the evil tyranny of religious extremists, from Islam or from any other religion. If the Indian government arrests one publisher for printing essays like this, we need a thousand more who are willing to reprint them. We need to disseminate these ideas and criticisms into every corner of society, to shine a light on the barbarism of theocracy and call it what it is. Words alone may seem a small thing against the darkness and savagery of fundamentalists – but the fundamentalists themselves must be afraid of them, for why else would they lash out with such fury?

If free speech is circumscribed by the “right” of religious groups to be protected from offense, then it is an empty and meaningless freedom. Any religious sect can stifle any speech, just by taking offense at what is said. We as a species can never make moral progress if those laws shelter evil superstitions from the light of scrutiny and let them fester in the shadows. That’s why, law or no law, we freethinkers must speak out! Letting fundamentalists and fanatics control the terms of the debate is a road that leads directly back to the dark ages. If we’re to take the high road that leads to a brighter and better future, we must never hesitate to name evil and unreason what they are, and never permit ourselves to be daunted or cowed.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.nullifidian.net/ nullifidian

    They’re both excellent essays. While I don’t always agree with everything Hari writes, in this regard he’s spot on.

  • Raven

    If your religion is true, you have absolutely nothing to fear from criticism of it. What exactly are they afraid of? I really want to know.

  • http://blocraison.blogspot.com Paul Fidalgo

    I think Hari’s essay makes for a good summary of the developing tenets (if one can say there are tenets) of the burgeoning New Atheism, as opposed to what is often said about it, that it is aggressive for the sake of meanness. I hope more writing like this pops up in more publications.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Cannonball Jones

    Spot on Raven, these strongarm tactics always smack of fear, desperation and insecurity. The best thing for us to do is keep chipping away at that insecurity till the facade crumbles and we reveal the ugliness behind it. Have to say I’m hugely disappointed in the UN on this one, I’ve always tried to defend it against accusations of irrelevance but they seem to be throwing away every shred of credibility they’ve built up. It’s not too late to get back on track but someone in there needs to grow a pair first…

  • John

    I’d really appreciate a few tips to go along with the inspirational post. As it is I’m not sure what I could do that would make an iota of difference. That might be because I don’t have to deal with fundamentalists where I am but I really have no idea where to start.

  • Joffan

    Licence to riot

    Effectively what is being claimed in Calcutta is that Islamic fundamentalists have the right to go on a destructive rampage whenever they feel someone is challenging their beliefs. They can throttle the organ that has offended them and “protect” those within their community who might experience that moment of doubt, those who could be swayed by a logical argument in favour of tolerance, from the snares of free-thinkers and their non-magical wiles.

  • TEP

    If fanatics were rioting and killing people because someone criticised Robert Mugabe, then there would be worldwide condemnation of those fanatics. But when the fanatics follow a dictator who’s been dead for 1300 years (and who was far worse than Mugabe), then we should all be apologising for the ‘offence’ caused to them by suggesting that their fuhrer wasn’t the nicest of people. Quite the double-standard.

  • DemonHype

    If you want to believe that invisible purple leprechauns hold the universe together and must be placated by flushing a bottle of Irish whiskey down the toilet every day, I don’t care. As long as you don’t force others to follow suit, directly or indirectly, then as Pat Condell said, I would respect it about as much as I would respect the decor in your home. But if that belief demanded that you must execute rape victims, or that certain members of society must be enslaved and others must be killed for having the audacity to exist, etc. etc. (we all know it goes on and on)….well, you have no right to any kind of respct.

    This is what comes of that attitude that “all religions must be respected” a priori. You end up arresting people for speaking their mind while fathers who murder their raped daughters are dutifully overlooked.

    I can’t help but think, when an otherwise rational and decent person says we must “respect” every religion regardless of anything, that they are more interested in protecting their own faith rather than, for example, the Islamists’ faith. You let those durn atheists and freethinkers start questioning the hallowed tradition of stoning gays and enslaving women, they might start in on US. And besides, the reasoning of these fanatics is identical to my own religous reasoning. If I let their faith reasoning fail, mine won’t be far behind. No, us magic fairy-believing folk need to stick together. Stifling free thought serves the purposes of both the sweetheart liberal Christian and the fanatical Islamist.

    Sometimes I wonder if almost everyone in the world is retarded or something. Or insane. It’s like that Boogie man episode of the Real Ghostbusters, where they wonder if they can use the proton packs in the boogie man’s realm and Ray goes “No way of telling. Laws of physics are different here. Could be even worse than crossing the streams.” That’s what it’s like to talk to someone with religious beliefs–it’s like I’m here in Reality-land, arguing with the logic and reason of Reality, and they only appear to be here but they are really in some parallel dimension where the logic and reason of Reality-land simply don’t apply. You could say that sticking a fork in a light socket will kill you, and they say “not if you wear a paper bag over your head” and act like you’re the one with something wrong with you if you dont’ agree wholeheartedly.

    Just like arguing with an insane person. Wrap the insanity in leprechauns and you get committed. Wrap the insanity in Jesus or Allah, or any other accepted mainstream belief, and you get UN resolutions forbidding the sane from contradicting you or any violent and barbaric practices you’ve chosen to associate with it.

    Remind me again of those really important benefits religion has for society again?

  • Leum

    I think some of the tendency among our fellow liberals to say “we must respect religious beliefs” stems from our belief that tolerance is a virtue. The problem is that if you hold each form of tolerance in isolation without respect to its neighbors, you forget why we practice tolerance. Hence we have laws against Holocaust denial in an attempt to increase tolerance for Jews without regard for tolerance for hateful speech and suchlike.

    This tendency must be curbed. Tolerance is a virtue to be practiced in full spectrum or not at all. Tolerance of only some parts of society is little more than bigotry against the overlooked aspects.

  • TommyP

    Wow, I would be terrified of being arrested for offending Muslims. The only thing that really offends Muslims is themselves, in the end, and they refuse to admit it. People that can twist away from the horror of their own existence like that are difficult to persuade, but there must be some real power to the criticism, or they wouldn’t want to stifle it.

    I say we absolutely flood such people with the truth, till there is nowhere for them to run, and they must face it and face the legitimate criticism that we have for them. We need, very much, to put them on the run.

  • http://2nonbelief.blogspot.com Uruk

    Copernicus and Galileo keep happening over and over again.

    History repeats itself. Time for another Enlightenment.

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    DemonHype “Or insane. It’s like that Boogie man episode of the Real Ghostbusters, where they wonder if they can use the proton packs in the boogie man’s realm and Ray goes ‘No way of telling. Laws of physics are different here. Could be even worse than crossing the streams.’”
    No way. It’s more like the Chicken, he clucked episode. And by “more like”, I mean “not similar at all”. I just really like that episode. A guy selling his soul to rid the world of chickens? What’s not to like?

    “…and you get UN resolutions forbidding the sane from contradicting you or any violent and barbaric practices you’ve chosen to associate with it.”
    Try to look at the UN as a work-in-progress, rather than a finished project.

    Uruk “History repeats itself. Time for another Enlightenment.”
    Another? A bunch of people skipped the first one (they had a letter from their mum excusing them from Enlightenment). I saw them hanging out, smoking in the quad. They think they’re so cool.

  • Tom

    “Remind me again of those really important benefits religion has for society again?”

    I rather suspect religion has the benefit of uniting and imposing stability on irrational people (along with all the disadvantages that come with it, such as a tendency to hate people of other religions), and is perhaps the only force capable of doing so, and was thus a necessary step in the memetic evolution of human society – rationality probably couldn’t have dawned without a preexisting, somewhat stable society with sufficient economies of scale that its members would actually have time and energy available for abstract thought.

    Wandering hunter gatherers, spending every waking moment just trying to barely stay alive and tending to be solitary, would struggle to develop and apply higher concepts; close knit tribe members with maybe even a little free time to converse between daily necessities stand a much better chance, and religion is easily observed, even today, to be an exceptionally effective way of holding together and maintaining the stability of small villages of yokels. I think religion was probably essential for the dawn of rational society but, since that society should be capable of maintaining itself once established, religion is now an unnecessary drag factor and, being a relic of less rational times, a real danger to our civilisation; just as it was essential for the dawn of our world, it is equally essential that it be discarded now that it has served its purpose and we continue to experience its ugly downsides without any further benefit.

  • Richie

    A very good and timely post! Here in Britain something comparable (though not quite as extreme) has happened in the last few days.

    The visiting Dutch politician Geert Wilders, was thrown out of Britain for wanting to show a film about Islamic extremism to 30 members of the House of Lords. The Muslim peer Lord Ahmed immediately called for him to be thrown out of Britain for attempting to insite racial hatred, and home secretary Jacqui Smith swiftly obliged.

    Now, in all fairness Geert Wilders apparently does have a reputation as being rather strongly right-wing, and personally I find his film to be rather emotive and far removed from a rational debate. He may well have despicable views and wanted to come over to Britain to express nothing more than hate speech but – and here’s the point – we will never know, because he has been silenced in advance out of fear of him expressing views which may offend.

    The really worrying thing is that all Muslims are now in danger of being tarred with the same brush. When MP’s bow down to the demands of Muslim extremists, it fosters resentment among the people towards Islam in general, with little distinction between frothing fanatics and law-abiding, respectable, moderate liberals.

    Geert Wilders was quoted as saying “Even if you don’t like me, if you don’t agree with my views, in the name of freedom of speech I should be allowed to hold a debate on those views.”

    Indeed.

  • prase

    Tolerance is a virtue to be practiced in full spectrum or not at all. Tolerance of only some parts of society is little more than bigotry against the overlooked aspects.

    First of all, tolerance cannot extend to tolerating intolerant behaviour. That would be sort of paradoxical when the so called tolerance were a pre-requisite for propagation of its converse. This “tolerance” is in fact mere indifference. The fact that some prejudices are tolerated by the society while others aren’t is not surprising. I am not sure what would the “full-spectrum” tolerance look like, but I suspect it is actually impossible. And, of course, this is not only about written laws.

    I would define tolerance as a determination not to intervene into matters which are unimportant for me but important for the others. Like not demanding your neighbour to change the decoration in his house to fit your preferences. But the problem with this definition is that if you happen to be a moderate atheist, it’s likely that your beliefs are more important for some religious fanatic than for yourself. So maybe better to abandon speaking about tolerance. Free speech is more important than tolerance (or at least it is easier to see what it means).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I’d really appreciate a few tips to go along with the inspirational post. As it is I’m not sure what I could do that would make an iota of difference. That might be because I don’t have to deal with fundamentalists where I am but I really have no idea where to start.

    John’s question is a good one, and I have three suggestions.

    First: If you’re a U.S. citizen, write your senator or representative. The U.S. still provides the lion’s share of funding for the United Nations, and while I think the U.N. is a noble experiment – one that’s done more good than harm, overall – the recent political coups staged there by states that don’t respect human rights are unacceptable. We need to pressure Congress to instruct our U.N. representatives to take a stronger stand against this kind of barbarism. We do have the leverage to force the U.N. to do so.

    Second: Write to India’s tourism ministry and tell them how upset you are over their prosecution of people for exercising their free speech rights. Here’s a copy of a letter I sent to India’s tourism ministry, whose address I dug up with a little Googling:

    To: contactus@incredibleindia.org
    Cc: amitabhk@nic.in

    Subject: India tourism and Johann Hari

    To Whom It May Concern:

    I’m an American citizen and a frequent traveler. Reading the news, I recently came across a story which said that the editor of a prominent Calcutta newspaper, The Statesman, was arrested for reprinting a column by UK journalist Johann Hari which caused anger among Muslims. I also found out that Mr. Hari himself was told he would be arrested if he ever came to India.

    I was under the impression that India was a free and democratic society, but this news has certainly set me straight in that regard. I was not previously aware that voicing my opinions was a crime that could get me arrested in India, even if I happen to be a foreigner. Knowing this, I can be certain that I will not visit India as long as these laws are in force, and I’ll be certain to pass this information along to as many of my friends and relatives as possible to discourage them from coming as well.

    Thank you for your time.

    -Sincerely,
    Adam Lee

    Third: If you have the time, set up your own blog and publicize these issues! As I said in my post, Islamist fanatics must be afraid of criticism; there’s no other explanation for them trying so hard to suppress it. We need, as TommyP said, to flood them and the world with the truth and make it impossible for them to hide from it.

  • Leum

    First of all, tolerance cannot extend to tolerating intolerant behaviour. That would be sort of paradoxical when the so called tolerance were a pre-requisite for propagation of its converse. This “tolerance” is in fact mere indifference. The fact that some prejudices are tolerated by the society while others aren’t is not surprising. I am not sure what would the “full-spectrum” tolerance look like, but I suspect it is actually impossible. And, of course, this is not only about written laws.

    That’s actually what I meant. Full-spectrum tolerance means you can’t tolerate one group at the expense of another, so banning speech is entirely contrary to tolerance*, as is accepting riots, permitting crime, and so on. And you’re correct, tolerance is or can be a form of indifference.

    *some exceptions with respect to inciting violence may apply

  • Christopher

    Remind me again of those really important benefits religion has for society again?

    It makes a greeat tool for inculcating people with all sorts of nonsense they wouldn’t swallow otherwise – effectively, it’s a form of mind control that social order doesn’t want to let go of (thus the reason they demand that it be “respected”).

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    We need to pressure Congress to instruct our U.N. representatives to take a stronger stand against this kind of barbarism. We do have the leverage to force the U.N. to do so.

    What a novel suggestion, Ebonmuse. The US pressuring the UN to do something ethical? And not for simple strategic gain? It’s almost like you think your country could be a force for peace and justice in the world…

    Seriously, thanks for the suggestions on possible action. I was going to just read and shake my head, but now I think I shall write some emails.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    It’s almost like you think your country could be a force for peace and justice in the world…

    It’s a syndrome that sometimes occurs in the aftermath of an election, in which the sufferer experiences a temporary euphoria and an irrational sense of hope and optimism. The recommended treatment is to expose the patient to six to eight weeks of nightly news reports.

    (By the way, Lynet, good to see you back around here!)

  • Justin

    It’s a syndrome that sometimes occurs in the aftermath of an election, in which the sufferer experiences a temporary euphoria and an irrational sense of hope and optimism. The recommended treatment is to expose the patient to six to eight weeks of nightly news reports.

    Didn’t even take me that long, Ebonmuse. Just FYI, I did vote for Obama.

    Back to article:

    The de facto result is the censorship and suppression of freethinkers. Meanwhile, we who are outraged by their vicious and savage creeds seemingly have no right to call upon the government to imprison them.

    Yup. This about sums up the double standard of fundamentalists. I hope that fewer of us nonbelievers would call for censorship of any sort.

  • Eric

    I tolerate religious people. I am very tolerant of religions. I “tolerate”, but I do not accepet. To tolerate something is to bear a burden. I was less well off a few years ago and drove a beater car with no AC in southeast TX. I tolerated the heat. I sweated and did the best I could. I took cold showers before long drives to job interviews. But if I had had the means I would not have tolerated having no AC. I would have had the AC fixed or bought a new car. Tolerance is what one does when one does not have the power to do otherwise. Forbearance is what one does when one has the power to to do otherwise, but chooses to not exercise that power.

    Tolerance is the virtue of the weak, Forbearance is is the occasional virtue of the strong. We must retain our position of strength to argue against or even ridicule the religious. We must never allow ourselves to be put into the position where we are reduced to tolerating them.

    Tolerance sucks. I tolerated the heat because I had to. When I had he means to no longer tolerate it, I ceased doing so. We must keep in mind that the devout Muslim, the Christain fundie, and probably even Orthodox and observant Jews, want to put their boots on our faces forever. They will not relent until we gain the same power over them. The hardcore among them do not believe in right and wrong. We cannot appeal to their moral senses because those senses are dulled by their faiths. They understand only power. Thus we must gain the power to limit the harm they have done and might do.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Thank you for your suggestions, Ebonmuse. I’ve followed all three. The UN’s decision on this matter is most certainly a revolting development; I hope that our collective efforts bear fruit.

  • Maynard

    The recommended treatment is to expose the patient to six to eight weeks of nightly news reports.
    You should try my girlfriends treatment for maintaining mental stability in today’s world: only get your news from Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. She was doing great until we watched A. Pelosi’s “Right America” last night.

    Why is it that the Alex Joneses of the world start looking more sane as I get older? He was the first person I ever heard rail against the dangers of the U.N.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    You should try my girlfriends treatment for maintaining mental stability in today’s world: only get your news from Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.

    Throw in some Olbermann The Doberman for good measure…

    She was doing great until we watched A. Pelosi’s “Right America” last night.

    Ooooo, how was that?

  • Staceyjw

    How annoying, how predicable-

    This type of thing makes me want to take tiny korans, use them for target practice (like that Marine last year), bronze them, and wear them as a charm or use it as a key chain. Maybe I’ll make t-shirts with mohammad in a compromising position too.

    Hey- a million dollar idea! Shocking enough to get press, which will guarantee success, AND a fatwah.
    What more could a woman want??? (I’m going to do it- watch for the website.)

    Is it deliberately offensive and provocative- YOU BET. Since it does NOT matter if you are deliberately or accidentally offensive, why bother holding back? This needs to be brought out, and slayed in the public, or this strangulation of freedom will continue to creep into our society.

    SJW

  • Archimedez
  • Archimedez

    My apologies; the above link didn’t display properly. If you click on the red text that will take you to The speech Geert Wilders would have given at the House of Lords.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/19/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • franklin

    The relationship of fundamentalists to their god is personal. To insult Allah or Mohhamed or Jesus is a sacrilege . God , to the religious is sacred.

    What would a muslim feel if you say that Allah is a killer and Muhhamed is a womanizer. Or what would a christian feel if you say Jesus was a zombie, a living dead.

    What would you feel if somebody says your mother is a whore or god damn bitch.?

    There must be guidelines to freedom of speech.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    “Your mother is whore” may well be libelous. If it’s not there’s no legal redress so all one can do is feel offended. No-one has the right not to be offended.

    Mohammed was a womaniser (and a pedophile). If someone wants to be offended by hearing that, fine! But there should be no legal protection from hearing it.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Shorter franklin: Freedom of speech is great and all, but not when it’s used to insult someone’s feelings!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The relationship of fundamentalists to their god is personal. To insult Allah or Mohhamed or Jesus is a sacrilege . God , to the religious is sacred.

    What would a muslim feel if you say that Allah is a killer and Muhhamed is a womanizer. Or what would a christian feel if you say Jesus was a zombie, a living dead.

    Who cares? In a free society, their recourse is to change the damned channel. No one here has the right to not be offended.

    What would you feel if somebody says your mother is a whore or god damn bitch.?

    Why does that matter at all? This is merely a blatant appeal to emotion. If the religious are that offended by sacrilege, good. They can apparently use a little desensitization, and there’s no time like now to start.

    There must be guidelines to freedom of speech.

    Gee, I wonder who you have in mind for writing those guidelines?

  • Peter N

    Franklin,

    Religious people constantly say because I am an atheist, I am morally depraved, that I commit heinous offenses against children for teaching them that religions are all outdated fairy tales, and I will suffer eternally in Hell. Every day, from the pulpit, on TV, on billboards, at my front door. I consider these remarks to be false and defamatory, and they offend me deeply. So under your “guidelines to free speech” should these people be prohibited from making them?