International Blasphemy Rights Day 2014

September 29, 2014

Tuesday, September 30, is International Blasphemy Day Rights Day (IBRD). Moreover, it’s the fifth anniversary of the Center for Inquiry’s launch of IBRD.  It is an appropriate time to take stock of the state of freedom of religious belief and expression in the world.  Unfortunately, it’s not a terribly encouraging picture.

Too many nations still have laws punishing their citizens for religious dissent, contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as several United Nations covenants and conventions.  Roughly fifty persons in various countries, all with Muslim majorities, are currently in prison as a result of blasphemy convictions, with a significant percentage on death row.  Some of the punishments imposed on offenders are truly barbaric, such as the 1,000 lashes to which Saudi dissenter Raif Badawi has been sentenced.  (The flogging of Badawi is scheduled to begin within the next few weeks.)

These harsh punishments can be presumed to have their intended effect: they intimidate religious minorities into keeping silent, embolden their persecutors, and help immunize majoritarian religious views from criticism.

Of course, the nations that have laws on the books criminalizing religious dissent do not typically frame the laws in those terms.  They do not expressly prohibit religious dissent.  Instead, they prohibit conduct showing “contempt” for religious belief or language “defaming” religion.  But framing laws in terms of protecting religious sensibilities cannot obscure the fact that the laws suppress expression of views contrary to majoritarian religious beliefs.  Moreover, the purported rationale for these laws is morally unsupportable: There is no right to have one’s religious beliefs—or political or philosophical beliefs—protected from questioning or criticism, no matter how deeply offended one may be by such questioning or criticism. 

It’s a profound irony that the prophets who founded the three major monotheistic religions all complained bitterly about the persecution they and their followers  faced, at least if we are to believe the statements attributed to them. It’s an irony because as soon as these religions gained controlled of a territory they immediately undertook to relentlessly persecute those of different faiths. If the Hebrew Bible is to be credited, the ancient Israelites make the fanatics of ISIS look like UN peacekeepers.

A principled stand against religious persecution—that is, a stand which objects to persecution of anyone, including those who don’t share one’s beliefs—was a long time coming in human history. Fortunately, in most developed nations, most legal restrictions on criticism of religion have been removed. However, even in some developed nations there have been attempts to immunize beliefs from criticism on the ground that such criticism constitutes “hate speech.”

Protecting the fundamental human right to free expression, including the right to express one’s views on religious issues, is an ongoing struggle. Whether this fundamental right will ever gain truly universal recognition remains an open question. What is not in doubt is that if we who support free expression become apathetic about this struggle, the right to free expression will erode. Fanatics never lack for motivation.

Happy International Blasphemy Rights Day. And, by the way, #FreeRaifBadawi.