It’s understandable these days to want to avoid the news. There’s no Hollywood horror movie which compares to what we are seeing on CNN or in our newspapers on a daily basis. The onslaught of terrible stories for those of us who support a secular government based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values seems to be increasing in pace and seriousness. And it’s hard to condemn someone for wanting to hide from it all, and hoping it just goes away.
In just the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen our government repeatedly use its power and authority to try to institutionalize discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. The religious right is making further attempts to use its newfound majority on the Supreme Court, accomplished through the undemocratic foisting of Justice Kavanaugh onto the bench, to enshrine Christian privilege and permit for profit businesses to use religion to discriminate.
And even more frighteningly, we have seen an explosion of politically and racially motivated violence we all hoped belonged in history books rather than the present day. A Florida man, apparently an obsessive supporter of President Trump, stands accused of sending pipe bombs to multiple Democratic politicians and famous supporters.
A Kentucky man sought to enter a black church, then went to a supermarket, shot two African Americans, only to cower in the parking lot when confronted, begging for his life with the words “whites don’t shoot whites.” And, in the worst act of anti-Semitic terror seen in US history, a Christian racist burst into a synagogue and murdered 11 Jewish people at prayer, shouting “all Jews must die.” In response, our President blamed the synagogue for its lack of armed guards, and his advisors sought to blame atheists and non-believers for the attack.
The international sphere has also seen disturbing news. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently ruled against an Austrian woman who had been convicted of publicly disparaging religious doctrines when she gave a series of seminars in which she described Mohammed as a pedophile who “liked to do it with children.” As a result, she was fined in excess of $500.
I’m not an expert on Austrian law, or on the procedures of the ECHR. As such, I can’t comment on whether the ruling was legally correct or not. But it’s wrong. Categorically so. Blasphemy laws and all other legal provisions that seek to protect the feelings of religious believers from being hurt by others have no place in democratic societies. Such laws are, fortunately, contrary to the First Amendment and unenforceable in the United States.
Defending freedom of expression, and the right to blaspheme, is at the heart of defending a free society. There’s much about this situation not to like. The seminars at issue in this case, titled “Basic Information on Islam,” were advertised by the far right Freedom Party. Its first leader was an ex-officer in the Nazi SS. It has run under such slogans as “Daham Statt Islam” – “Natives not Islam.” It’s not a group apparently committed to rational discussion of religion.
Freedom of speech, and freedom of expression, however, don’t apply only to civilized people. Just as the ACLU represented a Neo-Nazi group seeking to march in Skokie, IL in order to defend the greater principle of free speech, so the right to (peacefully) challenge religion includes the rights of odious groups to do so. We can, and do, condemn this decision while being able to condemn the politics of the people behind the message.
There has, though, been one shining light in all this darkness, and that has come from the Emerald Isle. In a referendum held along with its Presidential election, the Irish voted by 65% to 35% to remove the offense of blasphemy from the country’s constitution. This represents not only a victory for free thought on its own, but comes as part of a fast and welcome shift for the Republic of Ireland from being one of the most socially conservative, religious dominated countries in Europe to a forward looking, socially progressive one. The Irish people have voted to legalize divorce, same sex marriage, abortion, and now blasphemy. The grip of the Catholic church, shaken by scandals of child sexual abuse, the mistreatment of women and children in the ‘care’ of the church, and the death of Salvita Happanavar after being refused a medically necessary termination, no longer controls Irish politics and society.
So there is hope. And this is why, in the face of newspapers full of violent bigotry and government promotion of religious privilege, we keep on fighting. Whether it is filing suits in Michigan and soon Texas to challenge their laws allowing only the religious to solemnize marriages, or suing to protest pharmacist chains’ deceptive marketing of worthless homeopathic products, or fighting attempts by naturopaths to gain equivalent state recognition to real doctors, or battling on Capitol Hill to roll back efforts to divert money from secular public education to private, overwhelmingly religious schools, CFI isn’t backing down. As you give out (or collect) candy tonight, remember the real scary creatures aren’t the goblins and ghouls, witches and wizards. It’s those who are seeking to enforce Christian privilege and roll back science-based policy making. And CFI’s still committed to stopping them at every turn.