Blasphemy Laws Belong in the Dark Ages

By Gad Saad Ph.D. | 14 December 2011
Psychology Today

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

One of the defining features of a free, liberal, and secular society is the fact that individuals have the unalienable right to criticize every imaginable scientific theory, belief system, political ideology, religious narrative, political figure, etc. without fear of persecution (or prosecution). No one has the birthright to be protected from being offended. Rational discourse and the scientific method are the means by which enlightened societies resolve their debates. This has been one of the foundational tenets of liberal democracies, and it is uniquely enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

In the recent past, a disturbing global trend has begun to materialize. For example Ireland has instituted a new blasphemy law. I wonder if under such a law, it might be illegal to criticize or mock the Catholic Church for the numerous sex scandals that its priests have been involved in. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC; recently renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), which consists of 57 member states, is trying to supersede the existing UN Declaration of Human Rights by arguing that any criticism of religion (they really mean of Islam) in any country that is a signatory of their proposed charter would constitute a punishable offense. Hence, if the United States were to sign the charter, and if an American journalist were to write an article (in an American outlet) criticizing some aspect of Islam deemed religiously insulting, he/she would be liable under this universal law. Incidentally, Hillary Clinton is hosting several dignitaries from the OIC (December 12-14) to discuss ways by which “religious defamation” might be curtailed (see here). None other than Barack Obama appears quite sympathetic to the OIC’s stated agenda. It is difficult to imagine how such a reality would fit within the notion of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. If the First Amendment cannot guarantee one’s right to criticize any and all religions in the most forceful of manner, the United States is no longer a free country. Incidentally, the Secretary-General is Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turkish diplomat and academic. Turkey has repeatedly rejected the undeniable fact that the Armenian Genocide took place. Turkish citizens who publicly proclaim that the Armenian Genocide has taken place have been arrested for the crime of “insulting Turkish honor.” One wonders how this Turkish law fits within the OIC’s mandate.

The Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders was recently prosecuted in the Netherlands for having exercised his right to free speech by producing a movie titled Fitna that was highly critical of Islam. He stated that he could not imagine how in a free country such a trial could take place, let alone that according to him the facts in his movie were veridical. The Dutch magistrates retorted that the truth was irrelevant. Rather, his movie had hurt the feelings of a specific group of individuals by attacking their religion, and in so doing he was libel (he was apparently fomenting religious discrimination by criticizing a religion’s doctrines). The veracity of the information contained in Wilders’ movie should rightly be judged, be it in the court of public opinion and/or in his case by the electorate (since he is a politician). The judicial system has no place in this debate. One need not be a sophisticated constitutional scholar to appreciate the dangerous precedent that such a trial establishes.

During my time as a doctoral student at Cornell, I remember a heated debate that had raged across campus regarding whether the university should allow an infamous holocaust denier from speaking at a particular venue. Clearly, such a person is espousing a highly objectionable, offensive, and astonishingly false position yet it would have been antithetical to the tenets of a free society to arrest him on the ground that he was offensive to Jews. On a highly controversial episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David accidentally “splashes” (with his urine) an image of Jesus hanging in a bathroom. The “humor” was rather puerile if not offensive and crass, yet it seems unimaginable that he would be arrested for his comedic choices. A 1987 photo by Andres Serrano titled Piss Christ received huge critical acclaim, and yet it was extraordinarily offensive to the sensibilities of hundreds of millions of Catholics. Should we prosecute Holocaust deniers, Larry David, and Andres Serrano? Should they be violently silenced? Curtailing “offensive” speech is a very dangerous slippery slope.

A while back I had a lively debate with a fellow PT blogger about the right to offend on religious grounds. I argued that in a free society, it was untenable for a group of people to threaten (if not engage in) repeated violence should their religious sensibilities be hurt. He did not seem to agree with me. Political correctness is a very dangerous weakness. Empires have fallen for lesser cancers. Countless luminaries (e.g., Socrates, Galileo, and Spinoza) have had to suffer at the hands of institutional decrees that determined that their teachings, ideas, and/or scientific theories were heretical. Do we wish to return to such dark eras?

The bottom line is that we should all go about our lives trying to be polite, respectful, and kind to one another. That said irrespective of one’s religious belief system, no one has an unalienable right from being religiously offended. One cannot discriminate on religious grounds (e.g., an employer refusing to hire an employee because he is a scientologist) but everyone is allowed to criticize, analyze, or mock any religion in the most forceful of manners. Such are the guarantees of a free society. Once we give up this right, it is a very quick path to totalitarianism.

I’ll leave you with three poignant quotes regarding the import of free speech:

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” (George Washington)

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Voltaire)

“Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.” (Salman Rushdie)

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Gad Saad is a Lebanese-Canadian evolutionary behavioural scientist at the John Molson School of Business (Concordia University, Canada) who is known for applying evolutionary psychology to marketing and consumer behaviour. He holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences and Darwinian Consumption and has a blog at Psychology Today titled Homo Consumericus. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter (@GadSaad).

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