Blasphemy again

Derek C. Araujo points out that Pakistan is using the definition of blasphemy used in the recent Irish law as part of the concerted Islamic effort to get the UN to urge member states to prevent defamation of religion.

Now, let me make a not-so-wild guess and predict that in the medium term, we should expect free speech to become more curtailed where criticism of religion is concerned. Conservative religious groups are strong, organized, and determined to remove offense to their sensibilities from the public realm. At the very least, I expect they’ll be able to force more political compromises that bring legal regimes closer to their point of view.

In that case, what should those of us who enjoy the occasional bit of blasphemy do? I’m not sure. But I think we should give some thoughts to where we would definitely want to take a stand and protect a freer speech regime. Academic environments, some parts of the Internet, maybe some specialized media. Maybe what we have to do is to say that we can live with restrictions on public criticism of religion if we have to, provided that

  • There are places where criticism of religion is allowed;
  • Engaging in criticism in such protected environments does not disadvantage participants when they join the wider public realm, aside from possible informal disapproval and censuring;
  • The entry barriers to such free speech environments remains relatively low.

In other words, divide and balkanize the public sphere. The secular liberal ideal of a common public sphere where all reasonable people can interact may have to be shelved for a while. Give the religious what they want—offense-free spaces. But also allow for more secular enclaves that are hospitable to the godless minority.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07634446297679892416 twinertia

    Horseshit!

    I will knock their silliness any time, anywhere.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03034292023591747601 PersonalFailure

    Sure, I'll balkanize, right when they get their hands out of our politics, or start paying taxes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: Give the religious what they want—offense-free spaces.

    Erm… No. Why should religion *alone* be immune from criticism?

    The reason it wants to be free from criticism is because it simply can't stand up to criticism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15575410885851841473 Baconsbud

    I don't think this will fly for long once people actually think about what it means. All those extremist christians will find out that when the denounce the muslims that they can be charged will start wonder why it is so.

    In a way I would like to see this passed but know that it will hurt more then help in the short run.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Cyberkitten: "Why should religion *alone* be immune from criticism?"

    This isn't about what you and I want. I'm just trying to speculate on what we might have to live with.

    There are a lot of religious people who ask why they should have to put up with what they consider to be disrespectful, blasphemous speech in a public sphere that is supposed to belong to them as much as anyone else. It is not unreasonable to imagine a future where some of their demands are met. Secularists should, I think, ask ourselves what position we'd have to retreat to in such an eventuality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09008081424738897179 lecombier

    Why the defeatist stance? Most European countries will not countenance blasphemy laws (except those who stick to the medieval Common Law tradition) and in fact the EU Court of justice just ruled against crucifixes in classrooms.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: This isn't about what you and I want. I'm just trying to speculate on what we might have to live with.

    But we *don't* have to live with it. If religions of all kinds want to compete in the so-called marketplace of ideas they're going to have to do just that – compete. That being the case they're going to have to stand up to criticism. If they are either unable or unwilling to do that they belong in the dustbin of history.

    TE said: There are a lot of religious people who ask why they should have to put up with what they consider to be disrespectful, blasphemous speech in a public sphere that is supposed to belong to them as much as anyone else.

    Tough. Is there a *single* reason why religion should get a free ride in this regard? Should other things too? Politics for example? Obviously not! So why should belief or faith make certain kinds of ideas specially protected?

    TE said: Secularists should, I think, ask ourselves what position we'd have to retreat to in such an eventuality.

    A *very* unhealthy one I think… and why should we even consider the possibility of retreat? Retreat from what? From where I'm sitting I see religion in retreat not secularism. Secularists and atheists have no reason to reteat from religion. Quite the opposite in fact.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10771412622555066727 Mikko

    i would plaster muhammed pictures all over the town at night

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: Give the religious what they want—offense-free spaces.

    Erm – Don't they already have them? – they're called *CHURCHES*.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    All freedoms, including freedom of speech, can be abused, and they are certainly abused when they are used to hurt others. Indeed freedom without respect for others becomes hubris.

    Sometimes atheists ask why they should make an exception in the case of religion. But they should *not* make an exception in the case of religion. Rather they should behave towards religion and religious people with the same kind of respect they themselves expect. Indeed I find it remarkable when the same people who loudly defend freedom of expression approve when other people are not allowed to wear a crucifix at work or a headscarf at school.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15575410885851841473 Baconsbud

    Dianelos Georgoudis I agree with you about treating others with the respect you want to be treated with. The problem is that isn't how things work on the other side from what I have seen. I doubt there would be near the problems if people of religion respected all others as the expect it.

    I don't think most people care if a person wears the items you mentioned. Most people being denied or fired do so because of company policies to avoid problems from those small numbers offended by them.

    I will never give up any of my free speech rights, if there is a blasphemy law passed I will be headed to jail I guess.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    DG said: Rather they should behave towards religion and religious people with the same kind of respect they themselves expect.

    …and presumably you would expect that respect to work equally in *both* directions?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03040819796035416524 notlost

    I am from India where the Christian missionaries have been merrily blaspheming the Hindu gods from the day they landed here calling them devils, demons and so on. Of course, they are doing it under the freedom of religion clause whatever it is which is said to have approval from the U.N. If the U.N is moved to make blasphemy a crime will they have a schedule of gods against whom blasphemy will be considered a virtue and against others as sin? It is a question of employment also. What I find interesting is that those who find the attitude of the atheists insufferable should fund missionaries for evangelization. The atheists are new age evangelizers and they have as much right to evangelize as others

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    It goes without saying that respect should be mutual, and I can imagine many cases where a religious person might abuse their freedom. Christian missionaries in India calling Hindu gods “demons” is such a case. To say to a child of atheist parents that she and her parents will burn for ever in hell if they don’t repent is also I think an abuse of freedom of speech. But in my mind to publish a series of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet whom Muslims revere is I think an abuse of freedom of speech also.

    The issue is not about the freedom to criticize a religion, or to criticize any belief by that matter. I trust we all agree that belief in astrology, or in paranormal phenomena for that matter, is wrong, but this does not mean that we should feel free to ridicule the people who hold such beliefs. There are better ways to criticize such beliefs, indeed better ways to convince people who hold them that such beliefs are wrong. And even here there are some limits, which is the point of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck”.

    In any case I think in the current zeitgeist too big a deal is made of freedom. There are other important goods around, such as respect (including respect for nature), justice, fairness, and wisdom.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    I've said it before in this forum, and I'll say it again: There is no right not to be offended. On the other hand, there is definitely a right to freedom of speech. We can and do restrict the exercise of free speech, but we should do it only when the exercise of speech interferes with the exercise or enjoyment of other basic rights.

    For instance, a few years ago, you could not go to the airport without a Hare Krishna or some other cultist harassing you. They would approach and ask if you would like to buy some worthless trinket or book of nonsense. This they had every right to do. However, "No thank you" was not a good enough answer for them, and they would follow you begging, pleading, cajoling, and practically insisting on a donation–and ignoring repeated requests to be left alone. This they had no right to do, because their freedom to speak and practice their religion at that point interfered with my right to move freely and without harassment in a public place.

    Eventually, those soliciting your donations were placed behind counters and not allowed to follow people through the airport. Soon they disappeared entirely. This was, of course, a restriction on their movements, but an entirely reasonable one, as their abuse of their freedom of speech interefered with the rights of others. Similarly, a panhandler has a right to ask you for money, but he does not have a right to harass or intimidate you if you refuse.

    Of course, we do have laws against things that are gratuitiously offensive. For instance, we have laws against indecent exposure. Unless my neighbor were Angelina Jolie, I would probably be offended to see him or her walking about naked and I support laws forbidding it. But I know of no right to walk about in public naked, so laws restricting such behavior do not interfere with basic human rights.

    A religious belief, qua religious, does not deserve any special protections or priveleges. If we start to mark off certain beliefs or doctrines as a specially protected class, there will be no clear, non-arbitrary criteria to mark off such a class. Any proposed set of necessary and sufficient conditions would be fatally subject to a plethora of counterexamples–or be intractably vague or ambiguous. Better to just suck it up and admit the other guy's right to offend you (and your right to reciprocate).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith Parsons: "A religious belief, qua religious, does not deserve any special protections or priveleges. If we start to mark off certain beliefs or doctrines as a specially protected class, there will be no clear, non-arbitrary criteria to mark off such a class. Any proposed set of necessary and sufficient conditions would be fatally subject to a plethora of counterexamples–or be intractably vague or ambiguous."

    What about "religious freedom"? It seems to be fairly universally taken to be an important principle today. It's legal status is vague, but that's not necessarily a fatal problem. The important point is that when you speak of religious freedom, you have to recognize religion as special, marking out religious people as a protected class in some sense. Sure, the boundaries of religion will be vague and fuzzy, but that is why we employ lawyers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    It seems to me that "religious freedom" is too broad and vague.

    The important parts should already be adequately provided for via freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and a broad liberty of action. But religion shouldn't get any special liberties of action that aren't available for any other human activity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Taner: "The important point is that when you speak of religious freedom, you have to recognize religion as special, marking out religious people as a protected class in some sense."

    Actually, Taner, I do not think that this is so, at least not in any sense that would entail the shielding of religious beliefs from criticism. Freedom of religion, as presented in John Locke's classic "Letter Concerning Toleration," means (a) the freedom to espouse any creed without government censorship or persecution, and (b) the right to free exercise of one's religion (e.g., to establish places of worship, hold worship services, peacefully proselytize, etc.). Such rights in no way imply special protections from criticism.

    On the contrary: If toleration is extended to all religious and non-religious creeds (Locke drew the line with atheism, but that is another story), then the free exercise of one creed will unavoidably involve the criticism of competing and incompatible views. If you tell, e.g., Baptists that they cannot criticize Roman Catholic doctrine, you are restricting the free exercise of the Baptist religion. Indeed, every creed is an implicit critique of contrary creeds. If my religion dictates that total immersion baptism is the only legitimate, divinely-sanctioned sort, then, logically, I have to condemn those who merely sprinkle.

    As for leaving it to the lawyers (and such recommendations always make me shudder), a legal judgment is at least supposed to be principled. Not even a Supreme Court justice can support a judgment with "Because I say so." Trying to define what is "religious" belief or speech would be much worse than the notorious difficulties of giving a legal definition of "obscenity," and, as in the latter case, it probably would boil down to "I know it when I see it."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Jim Lippard: "The important parts should already be adequately provided for via freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and a broad liberty of action. But religion shouldn't get any special liberties of action that aren't available for any other human activity. "

    Well, freedom of conscience itself is, if anything, even more broad and vague.

    But I can also see why defenders of human rights might want to single out religion as a special category. Given human nature and human history, there is an argument that religious institutions are seen by most people as uniquely important embodiments of their deepest identities and strongest convictions. So there is at least a pragmatic case for paying special attention to religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith Parsons: "I do not think that this is so, at least not in any sense that would entail the shielding of religious beliefs from criticism."

    Maybe not. But lets make this more concrete. Existing agreements (in the UN, for example) on religious freedom allow broad latitude for countries to base their social order on a particular official religion, such as Islam. They recognize that public order and morality can be a justification for protecting religion(s). A Muslim country, for example, can right now justifiably claim that their notions of public order and morality are tightly coupled to Islam, and that preventing blasphemy is legitimate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “There is no right not to be offended

    I thought there was. Is it legal in the US to walk up to someone and swear at them, or threaten them? In any case the main issue is I think moral. One should not gratuitously cause others pain, whether physical or psychological. Indeed I think one should go the extra mile. When, some years ago, my wife and I visited Konya we knew there would be a lot of traditionally religious people around the sights we would visit. So my wife donned a headscarf, which I think was a fine thing to do. And she looked fine in it too.

    Taner Edis said: “ The important point is that when you speak of religious freedom, you have to recognize religion as special, marking out religious people as a protected class in some sense.

    and

    Jim Lippard said: “ But religion shouldn't get any special liberties of action that aren't available for any other human activity.

    I’d say there is a way to combine these ideas: All groups of people united by common beliefs about how reality is, or common customs or ways to be together, or common ethics, should be given protection from abuse in action or word as long as they operate within the rule of law and society’s broadly accepted standards of decency. This would cover religious groups, atheistic groups, societies such as the freemasons, aboriginal communities, hippie communities, UFOlogical associations, and whatever.

    Keith Parsons said: “[Religious freedom should not be understood ] in any sense that would entail the shielding of religious beliefs from criticism.

    I don’t think anybody is against the freedom to criticize beliefs per se. Rather, I think, all civilized people should be against criticizing beliefs by ridiculing or demonizing those who hold them. In others words one should criticize ideas but not persons. On the other hand, as far as I am concerned, one should be free to argue about the bad consequences a belief can have. A difficult issue is the idea of ridiculing beliefs. I think that making good-spirited fun of beliefs sometimes works, but that mean-spirited ridicule never does. In any case I think it’s almost always better to stick with the arguments.

    Now my own position is that religion is basically right, but also that it is weighted down by millennia of superstition and pigheadedness. Therefore I welcome all criticism of religion, because if valid it will help religion clean its house, and if invalid it will help show that religion is stronger than its opponents think. Either way religion will be strengthened. That’s why I welcome the New Atheism phenomenon.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15575410885851841473 Baconsbud

    Dianelos Georgoudis no it isn't illegal for me to cuss at people as I walk by them. It isn't the right thing nor a smart thing to do but it is still legal. Threatening someone is not the same as offending someone. If I do not interfere with people by cussing it is just being rude but if I start making threats or interfering with them it is illegal.


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