September 30th is designated as International Blasphemy Rights Day. This is when we bring awareness to efforts to censor dissent using the false cover of “protecting religious beliefs”. Although very rare in the US, jail time and even death comes to people deemed to have committed Blasphemy. In the US, public bullying sometimes results in “voluntary” self-censorship. Blasphemy laws are bad for freedom. A vibrant society needs and allows dissent in all forms so that the people are able to make informed choices in their lives. And how tolerant we are of dissent says a lot about how we view our country and our freedoms.
What is blasphemy? The dictionary says:
The act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God
But as noted on The Friendly Atheist:
That is what is so problematic about blasphemy laws: We never really have a good answer for what constitutes blasphemy. Does my existence as an atheist count? Can I proclaim out loud that there’s no God? There are several countries in the world that throw people in jail for being apostates or atheists and there are too many nuances where this could easily get out of hand.
Unfortunately, due to the protests caused by the film, ‘Innocence Of Muslims’, there is renewed talk in the UN of making blasphemy a crime:
For years the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a 57-member bloc of countries, has proposed a resolution criminalising the defamation of religion. By last year free-speech proponents had persuaded so many countries to ditch the cause that no new defamation-of-religion resolution was proposed.
Now, Turkey heads the Organisation and the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said he would raise the topic in New York next week.
The Atheist Foundation of Australia said in response:
The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) in the strongest possible terms opposes the United Nations moving to a stance where blasphemy will be made a crime. David Nicholls president of the AFA responded today with “It should be emphasised to the UN how irrelevant blasphemy is in a democratic secular society such as Australia and other western countries. We would do well to strongly remind those that propose worldwide blasphemy laws that our opinion of the idea of blasphemy is that it is just a tool to stifle criticism of religion, and in this country we welcome criticism and discussion. Ban Ki-Moon is making a grave error of judgment on this matter and appears to be pandering to the Islamic world.”
Nicholls continued, “Blasphemy laws are essentially religious laws, and will always impose upon people in other religions and the non-religious. Blasphemy laws serve to deny people the right to question, to explore the possibilities or to come to their own conclusions. To artificially restrict the marketplace of ideas only to those imposed by fear and force is to deny people the right to decide for themselves.”
We already have examples of people being jailed or threatened with death for blasphemy such as the members of Pussy Riot and Egyptian Alber Saber and there are probably hundreds more we haven’t heard about.
Several freethought groups including the American Humanist Association and Center for Inquiry released a report titled “2012 Report on Discrimination Against Atheists, Humanists and the Non-Religious” that described and documented discrimination of nontheists in other countries that never seem to make the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
Here in the US people aren’t always jailed just for their dissent but public outcry, threats, and vandalism can cause a dissenter to be bullied into self-censorship out of fear like what happened when American Atheists removed two billboards criticizing Christianity and Mormonism that had been put up in Charlotte, NC where the Democratic National Convention was held in early September. There are hundreds if not thousands of billboards in favor of religion yet two that dissented from the dominant religion were forced to be removed by bullies.
As I posted in a blog post, “Violence Brought On By ‘Innocence Of Muslims’ Film Brings Out Problematic Reactions“:
No religion should be exempted from scrutiny no matter the reason given. Fear of violence is exactly the wrong reason to hide one’s head in the sand when these incidents come up. If your first response to dissent is to murder the dissenters then your beliefs have no moral foundation to stand on and your actions prove it. People who don’t condemn it right away when it happens enable that irrational response. (As if any religion is rational…).
The response to stupid ideas is not censorship – it is more speech. The film that sparked the riots was a stupid movie made by an amateur. That person should be ridiculed not murdered.
In his speech to the UN on 9/25/2012, President Obama said pretty much the same thing:
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
So today give thanks to the founders, who had the foresight to put the 1st amendment in the US Constitution, when you speak out against someone’s beliefs. If you get offended by someone speaking out against your beliefs don’t support censorship – speak out against their beliefs.
Besides if your beliefs are so fragile you need laws to silence dissent then maybe your beliefs aren’t good enough to hold.