About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Blasphemy laws in the 21st century

Blasphemy is a strange concept, according to my dictionary it refers to “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously of God or sacred things.” By that definition, every religious believer constantly engages in blasphemy — of all the other gods she doesn’t believe in. You would think that this simple observation would put an end to any silly talk of legislating blasphemy, but you would be spectacularly wrong. A recent checklist of blasphemy laws worldwide makes it clear that they are found not only in the obvious places — Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other similarly unenlightened nations — but in most European countries, Canada and several states in the US.

To add irony to tragedy, of course, Saudi Arabia — that beacon of tolerance — has recently mounted a campaign at the United Nations to pass an anti-blasphemy resolution, sponsored (surprise surprise!) by the 56 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Because nothing speaks more loudly in favor of religious tolerance than the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, to pick on most obviously the motor behind this effort, an inter-faith conference on religious blasphemy simply could not be held, because Jews, Christians, and even representatives of non-Saudi versions of Islam would not be allowed into the country if they openly professed their respective creeds.

Proponents of anti-blasphemy laws within international bodies like the UN or the European community seem oblivious to the obvious legal (not to mention moral) contradictions that such laws immediately raise. As far as the United Nations is concerned, for instance, blasphemy laws are in stark opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which constitutes an essential part of the UN’s raison d'être. In Europe, as recently as May 2009 the Venice Commission, which is the EU’s advisory body on constitutional issues, clearly stated that blasphemy comes under freedom of expression, which is protected in the EU charter.

Fortunately, most western countries simply do not use their blasphemy laws, though attempts to eliminate them altogether have failed in recent years in Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands, for instance. The UK is a glaring and positive exception: in March of last year the House of Lords finally abolished anti-blasphemy statutes with a 148-87 vote. It is instructive, however, to read how conservative member of the house Detta O’Cathain attempted to defend the indefensible:

“The essential question is: Should we abolish Christian beliefs and replace them with secular beliefs? As long as there has been a country called England, it has been a Christian country, publicly acknowledging the one true God.” Ah yes, the one true god. Except of course for all those other religious people who are legal British citizens and happen to believe in other gods. And of course that is precisely not the essential question: O’Cathain is making the same (possibly willful) mistake that is common among Christian fundamentalists in the United States, the confusion between freedom of speech (including of course for non-theists) and the persecution of one’s own faith. Could it be that this persecution paranoia comes from the actual legacy of intolerance and violence that has characterized Christian churches throughout their history?

But the UK's positive step is about to be countered by an unusual move in a nearby part of Europe: Ireland is considering putting a new blasphemy law on its books! The proposed statute says in part “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000” and defines blasphemy as speech that is “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” I’m not sure what the difference is between “grossly abusive” and simply abusive, or where ithe threshold is that defines a “substantial” number of offended, but the concept of “insult” is so tenuous that I seriously wonder how such a law — God forbid it should be passed — would allow the preservation of any free speech at all in Ireland. Suppose I start a religion that has only one commandment: there are no gods other than the Big Green Blob in the sky.” (You will appreciate that this isn’t that far fetched, considering that a similar clause represents the first commandment of all three Abrahamic religions.) Even at the onset, with a membership of one, my new religion will both have to be protected against blasphemy and simultaneously manage to be blasphemous to all other religions in one fell swoop. Talk about logical contradictions! The example might seem outrageous, but it is simply a very obvious version of what is already out there: as my atheists friends often tell their religious counterparts, I disbelieve just one more god than you do, so everyone is by definition blasphemous.

But of course the real argument against blasphemy laws is not a matter of logical contradictions or legal consistency, it’s a matter of simple decency. This was stated most clearly by the US Supreme Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952): “It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.” That’s because an open society can only thrive by being, well, open. I understand that this doesn’t go down well in theocratic countries like Saudi Arabia, but it really ought to be a no-brainer in western democracies. And this principle ought to apply to non-religious speech as well: Canada and several European countries, for instance, have “hate speech” laws that make it illegal (e.g. in Germany) to deny historical facts like the Holocaust. Denying the Holocaust is stupid, bigoted and ignorant, but we should not be getting into the business of legislating against people’s stupidity, bigotry or ignorance (it would be a truly Sysyphean task anyway). Instead, we should combat them with education and critical thinking.

What needs protection is not hate speech, of course, but hate action: burning down churches, killing abortion doctors, or attacking the embassies of countries whose citizens publish satirical cartoons ought to be strongly condemned by all and swiftly prosecuted on legal grounds. There is only one reasonable exception to an uncompromising protection of speech: when someone directly incites hate crimes. But on that count, it is religions across the world that have a really bad record. Should we not cleanse our own house from actual violence and hatred, before rallying against the imaginary ones that our paranoia attributes to other people?


  1. Contrarian that I am, I sometimes hope that laws like that *will* get passed, just so that we can marvel at the court cases that come of it. On the other hand, I hate to think that the people we rely on to run the government for us would be so stupid as to pass such legislation. But I've never actually been impressed by the abilities of those who desire to govern us so neither am I surprised when they do idiotic things. It just scares me that so much power goes with so much idiocy.

  2. I was pleased that you mentioned hate speech laws, which are just blasphemy laws by another name.

  3. Just a very small correction to make. It was the UK, not England, which abolished the blasphemy law. As such, the change in law applies also to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  4. "a country called England... publicly acknowledging the one true God."

    A country called England. It must be very special, or should I say she must be very special.

    In what way can a country rather than a person acknowledge the one true God?

    If it can, can a country be existentialist, skeptic, or structuralist?

  5. What a good blog you have here! Keep it up for long please! I'm so excited when I see that you have posted something new!

    Eva from Hauptstadtreisen

  6. SgtSkepper,

    thanks for the correction, I updated the entry accordingly.

  7. "What needs protection is not hate speech, of course, but hate action: burning down churches, killing abortion doctors, or attacking the embassies of countries whose citizens publish .."

    Tho it is true that talk is getting cheaper by the second, we don't need to rush to cheapen it by "saying" that there is nothing that cannot be said WHATSOEVER. That reduces your own words to meaninglessness. And talk becomes especially cheap when some are claiming to not even be responsible or accountable for what they say PERIOD. Therefore, nothing is sacred, nothing is off limits, not even free speech.

    Further, anyone with a fraction of an IQ knows that the person who did kill the abort/doc was NOT pro life. Tho there is such a thing as a citizens arrest there is no law that allows for citizen execution. (um..except for abrtn)

    I think that certainly a mentally ill person may have been stirred up to create further angst between pro-life and choice oriented groups. This person Roter goes on to claim that there are many attacks like this planned all over the country?

    THAT is "hate speech" directed towards both prolife and prodeath individuals.

    Look, I know many pro-life people.. have for years and I have never heard of anyone EVEN SUGGESTING that prolife people ought to kill abort/docs. NEVER

    Roter is either deliberately lying or in fact belongs to a prodeath group.

    Truth matters, ya'll.

  8. Notice how Cal makes a "No true Scotsman" logical fallacy...
    If Ireland does pass a blasphemy law, they will soon spiral into a meltdown of tit-for-tat lawsuits as we have witnessed in Australia since the enactment of their blasphemy law, in which Muslims go to the local Fundagelical church, sit at the back, and take notes, and the fundies go to the mosque and do the same. They they clog the courts with their tit-for-tat lawsuits.
    O, happy days!

  9. Kimpatsu said...
    "Notice how Cal makes a "No true Scotsman" logical fallacy..."

    In other new, the sun rose from the east today.....


  10. [Then] they clog the courts with their tit-for-tat lawsuits.

    That's the part I love. And it's so foreseeable. Sigh... to hell in a handbasket.

  11. "to hell in a handbasket."

    OT, but check the comments here regarding this phrase.

  12. sorry. here we go.


  13. On the Irish blasphemy law, we think this was an attempt by a beleaguered government to start a "values" debate along the lines beloved by US Republicans.

    However, I think it has proved a non-runner. Hopefully.

  14. GIGO,
    Yes, "wheelbarrow" makes for a more understandable metaphor. Rather than the devil wheeling sinners off to hell, I envision politicians, even well-meaning ones, rushing us pell-mell into a social morass.

    And I can laugh at the blasphemy laws, especially if they are in Ireland, because it is unlikely that they will seriously affect me in the USA. If I lived in Iran or Saudia Arabia where I stood to lose a hand or a head I might feel differently.

  15. But I've never actually been impressed by the abilities of those who desire to govern us so neither am I surprised when they do idiotic things.

    I'm even less impressed by those who elect them to office... The enemy has won, and the enemy is us.


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