Blasphemy and Other "Hate Speech"

You have International Blasphemy Rights Day (IBRD) on your calendar, right? It’s only a couple of days from now—September 30—in case for some bizarre reason you forgot.

The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization of which I was formerly the president, launched IBRD in 2009 in part to draw attention to the fact that criticism of religious beliefs is prohibited through legal sanctions or social pressure in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, although there is now a formal campaign to end blasphemy laws, and this campaign has met with some success in Western countries—Demark abolished its centuries-old blasphemy law in June—many countries, especially those with majority Muslim populations, still retain laws that impose harsh penalties for blasphemy. Pakistan, to cite just one such country, continues to have a number of blasphemy cases each year, often targeting religious minorities and sometimes resulting in death sentences.

Even when blasphemy laws are not enforced by the state, the underlying mentality that supports such laws often results in social pressure to refrain from questioning majoritarian religious views. This pressure can take the form of homicidal violence from those outraged by the questioning of their beliefs. Consider, for example, the several Bangladeshi bloggers who have been hacked to death by religious extremists over the last few years.

The purposes of blasphemy laws are clear: they intimidate religious minorities into keeping silent and help immunize majoritarian religious views from criticism. What is considered sacred must not be questioned.

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.

Which brings me to the United States. No, the U.S. does not currently have any blasphemy laws. Nor do we have any laws expressly restricting criticism of political or philosophical views. The Constitution (currently) prohibits the government from interfering with one’s speech. That said, recently there has a troubling increase in the intolerance shown toward those whose speech offends certain individuals. The offended parties can be found on both ends of the political spectrum. We have the president (!) calling athletes who exercise their rights of peaceful protest “sons of bitches” and urging their firing; on the left, we have campus mobs who chase away those they consider “fascists” or “racists” —terms now used so indiscriminately that they threaten to be drained of any meaning.

The excuse given for this behavior is that the speech objected to is deeply offensive or hateful. “Hate speech is not free speech” is a slogan embraced by more than a few. But one cannot consistently claim the right to suppress speech one finds despicable without giving that same broad license to suppress speech to everyone else. “Hate speech is not free speech” is a slogan the Bangladeshi extremists would doubtless find congenial. For them, questioning Islam is a form of hate speech, just as Trump supporters assert that protesting athletes are showing hatred toward their country. Admittedly, no one in the U.S. has been hacked to death—yet—but there has been serious debate over whether it’s permissible to “punch a Nazi.”

There are those who express views which most of us find utterly repugnant. I’m not sure there is, or ever was, a coherent Nazi ideology, but to the extent there is one, it is a candidate for the most immoral, disgusting, and just plain stupid set of ideas ever advanced. But even Nazis have a right to spew their nonsense, provided they adhere to the standards of peaceful protest.

Allowing all to express their views is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, and of confidence that one’s own views have a sufficiently secure foundation that they can withstand a challenge from others.

On this coming Blasphemy Rights Day, we should not only support those who are being denied the right to express their criticism of majoritarian religions, but we should also commit to holding no view so sacred that it cannot be questioned through peaceful expression, whether in other countries or our own.

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