Limiting Free Speech (23): Blasphemy Laws

Blasphemy laws are obviously limitations on the freedom of speech, and in my view, unjustifiable limitations. Blasphemy is a disrespectful or insulting statement about a God or a religion. It’s a kind of defamation or libel of God. (I disregard in the current context the act of claiming the attributes or prerogatives of deity, also a kind of blasphemy).

I never quite understood how people can think that an almighty God can be insulted by statements made by unbelievers, and needs to be protected against such statements by blasphemy laws. And I don’t say this because I’m agnostic. I would say the same thing if I was a believer. I think my God would be able to take it, and I can’t understand the concept of a God who can’t take it.

More intelligent proponents of laws prohibiting blasphemy see my point and redirect these laws towards a defense, not of God himself, but of his teachings and his flock. Blasphemy is then a verbal attack on a particular faith or on the followers of this faith. But this is also a sign of weakness and self-doubt. It implies that blasphemous statements can hurt a community of believers, individual believers or elements of a faith. It implies, in other words, that this faith isn’t very strong, either as a system of belief, or as someone’s conviction. So maybe the system of belief is so weak that it needs to be defended by law against criticism, because otherwise it would fall apart. Or maybe the believers need protection so as not to loose their belief. But perhaps the hurt in question doesn’t refer to a teaching or a belief, but is merely a matter of being insulted. And then I refer to a previous post in this series, more generally on the supposed right not to be offended (see also here).

Fortunately, blasphemy laws are more or less defunct in most western democracies. They are common only in theocracies. However, there are calls for their reinstatement in some democracies, especially those with large Muslim communities. It is an unfortunate fact that most of the modern day terrorist attacks are carried out by radical Muslims, and this fact convinces some people that there is a kind of necessary link between the religion of Islam and terrorism. As a result, public discourse in some circles is rife with incendiary remarks about Islam (Wilders is a particularly loud example). No matter how simplistic and unfair these remarks are, they are taken very seriously by many Muslims who seek to stop them by demanding the reinstatement and application of blasphemy laws. Some democratic governments seem to take these demands on board, and consider blasphemy laws to be a good way to accommodate religious and cultural sensitivities, to avoid social divisions, violent protest and radicalization of young Muslims.

However, I think they are wrong. Rather than silencing the debate about Islam and terrorism, governments should allow moderates within and outside of Islam the chance to win it. Blasphemy laws will only encourage islamophobes in their belief that Islam is intolerant and weak, seeking special protection because it is flawed to such an extent that it cannot survive criticism. And they get further encouragement from the often harsh and brutal punishments for blasphemy demanded by some vocal Muslim minorities.

In many countries, blasphemy laws are used as a means of political oppression. When religious leaders are also political leaders, or closely affiliated with political leaders, these laws can stifle dissent and opposition because they recast criticism of politics as criticism of religion. Even a secular leader can use blasphemy laws to decide religious animosity between groups in a way that suits his own purposes.

Blasphemy laws are a symptom of an insufficient separation between state and church. Religious liberty requires equal treatment of all religions, and equal political and legal power for all religions. Otherwise the choice for a religion wouldn’t be a free one. Blasphemy laws typically do not apply to all religions equally.

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