Three Cheers for Blasphemy Laws!

Three Cheers for Blasphemy Laws! September 30, 2009

Today is International Blasphemy Day, inaugurated as a protest against the new Irish blasphemy law, the Muslim furor over cartoons of Muhammad, and every other law or social norm intended to protect religious ideas from criticism. From the Blasphemy Day website:

The last day in September is the anniversary of the original publication of Danish cartoons in 2005 depicting the prophet Muhammad’s face. Any visual depiction of Muhammad is considered a grave offence under Islamic law.

…The newspapers which chose to publish these cartoons were in many cases blamed for the outpouring of violence which followed. This unfortunate yet inevitable sequence of events clearly demonstrated a dangerous misconception that had piggy-backed into the 21st century on the shoulders of ignorance, fear and apathy, that all religious beliefs and ideas deserve respect and are beyond criticism or satire.

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. Our future depends on it.

I know the usual thing to be done here is to criticize blasphemy laws as outdated relics of a medieval era, an unjust infringement on free speech, a tactic of power-hungry religious theocrats, etc. I don’t disagree with any of those characterizations, but today, I want to take a different perspective. The way I see it, anti-blasphemy laws, both de jure and de facto, do us atheists and skeptics a favor. Namely, they let us know where to focus our rhetorical fire by pointing out the ideas whose advocates don’t think they can withstand criticism.

As I wrote in “Doubting the Sun“, any idea that was obviously true, or that could be defended by resort to the evidence, wouldn’t have to be protected from criticism. The truth never has anything to fear from even the most searching examination. It’s only ideas that can’t withstand inquiry that need to cower behind a shield of protective laws threatening any who would dare to call them into question.

In the short run, blasphemy laws wreak destructive and unjust consequences on individuals who transgress them, especially the barbaric versions that exist in countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But in the long run, they achieve nothing other than highlighting these religions’ vulnerability. The internet has made it possible for anyone’s speech to be heard in every corner of the world, and despite the inevitable and futile attempts at net censorship, no national government can stifle criticism from skeptics everywhere on the planet. Those who try have handed us a potent weapon, by letting us know which truths they fear the most. (This analysis isn’t just true of religion; it also applies to countries like China that try to censor any information deemed embarrassing or dangerous by their political rulers.)

When Chinese autocrats try to suppress historical facts about the Tienanmen Square massacre or the Tibetan independence movement, that’s how we know those facts should be communicated to people under their control. When Muslim mobs start howling for blood when essays and editorials criticize Islam as a violent and backward religion, we should take that as encouragement to write more of those essays. When Christian fundamentalists demand to remove certain books from libraries – or even demand to burn them! – then we all know what books we should be giving our children and young people to read. And when peddlers of woo and superstition threaten critics with frivolous lawsuits, they let us know exactly what we should be saying to weaken and undermine them.

If these rigid ideologies believe they have something to fear from this information, they’re probably right. That’s why the rest of us should work all the harder to spread that information, to broadcast the truths that they don’t want to be known. In this way, we can accelerate the breakup of every church and every political system that denies humans intellectual freedom. The only ones that will be left standing, in the end, will be those that have nothing to fear from reason and skeptical inquiry.

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