The class I teach is reading great American freethinkers–Thomas Paine, Frances Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Walt Whitman, Robert Ingersoll and others (see Susan Jacoby’s books for their courageous stories). Each of these revolutionaries, reformers and champions of human rights was attacked by the “fearfully faithful,” calling them heretics, infidels, apostates and other happy titles meant to show disrespect but carried proudly in the face of bigotry. Like so many freethinkers of ages past, these activists were often labeled with a term that in many places in our world would mean a death sentence: blasphemers. I wrote the following for the class.
A Brief Reflection (and Insult to) Blasphemy
“Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy!”
(religious scholars reacting to Jesus of Nazareth, Mark 2:7)
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Blasphemy: “The act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God. The crime of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God or a religion and its doctrines and writings.” (Webster’s)
An alarming number of secular thinkers, writers, bloggers, publishers and professors are being persecuted, imprisoned or killed, most notably in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and parts of Indonesia and Africa. Last week another blogger was murdered and this week a professor of English was nearly beheaded. The “crime” committed by each of these: blasphemy. Accusations of blasphemy are the weapons of choice for authoritarian orthodoxies. Its sharp edge is figuratively and literally cutting off heads. Reason is ultimately the fearless victim.
In Western countries we’re not (usually) so crude; murdering unbelievers or skeptics is rare. But we have our tensions too, most often along the battle-lines of “offensive” or “anti-religious” speech. We have other, subtler ways to attempt to kill freethought and free speech without using the word blasphemy. We have more creative ways of beheading Reason. Excluding or silencing secular thinkers (or even unorthodox believers) can include denying public office (see how many openly agnostics or atheists are elected), barring speakers from addressing “controversial” or “offensive” topics in universities (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bill Maher, Gloria Steinem, Connie Rice, etc.) or allowing only one dominant religion’s displays in public places including schools (think Christmas, ten commandments and prayer). Current highly charged arguments within the liberal community over “Islamophobia” are one example of this whining edginess. Is it “attacking faith” to raise questions or seek reformation, especially on a college campus? No question it is wrong to lump peaceful believers and terrorist believers into one. . .yet, they are all “true believers” who identify with the same religion, and self-criticism appears quite weak. This is also true, by the way, within Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other groups. The legitimate questions are, Isn’t a free society (especially in a university) a place for hard thinking? and, Why are people so afraid of alternate viewpoints, even if they offend? and, Maybe it’s not your God who needs protection—it’s your fearfully emotional faith that may not stand honest critique?
On the less dramatic end, even giving tax exemption or special preference to religious groups is quietly accepted by the masses. When these privileges are questioned, freethinkers are accused of infringing on the “religious freedom” of the privileged—of being “anti-religious” (usually meaning specifically anti-Christian). Notice the casual dismissal or snide ridicule of “silly” court challenges to “In God We Trust” on public money or “One Nation Under God” for all true patriots to pledge, or “God Bless America” sung at national events or spoken by every President (whose “God” are we talking about, by the way?). Indeed, it will probably be a “cold day in somebody’s hell” before any of this changes.
Blasphemy has to do with insult and offense toward beliefs or believers. The cry of “religious persecution!” can merely reflect a fear of serious critique or debate—a real challenge to the piously privileged. “How dare you call out the People of God into the light of rational, reasonable debate!” “You cannot be allowed to question our faith!” At its extreme this can become, at times literally, expressed as “We will not permit your voice to be heard!” One example of this can be seen in many town councils and legislatures across the country where “invocations” or “blessings” are given primarily by Christians, also excluding other religious representatives. And when a citizen, with faith or without faith, questions why prayers need to be said at all in public forums, they are ridiculed.
The most dangerous form of a blasphemy charge is when an individual or group (such as Charlie Hebdo) is accused of insulting God or God’s representative (Muhammad, Jesus, Ted Cruz, etc). The defenders of God become outraged and believe it is their sacred duty to defend the Lord of the Universe who is somehow hurt or angry over words or images. And if one is accused of insulting God’s words (Bible, Qur’an, Sutras, etc) this can prove fatal. The best/worst example was last year’s brutal public killing of Farkhunda, a young Muslim woman in Kabul who was falsely accused of burning a Qur’an. In the U.S. this does not happen, except the threats and character assassinations that occur when some seculars speak critically of God or religion in areas dominated by religion, or when artists present “offensive” works that some feel are attacks on their faith.
Freethought, Philosophy, Science. These are a direct threat to “God’s defenders.” It seems to me one reason Science is ignored or attacked by those I call the Fearfully Faithful is not that Science dissects frogs, but ideas. The danger of Science (and Philosophy) is not that it explores and investigates our world, but that it cannot explore and investigate other worlds. Freethought is a dangerous threat to. . .non-free thinking. . . precisely because it accepts there is one world and no other; Nature is enough and super-nature is, at best, a distraction. Put another way, supernatural beliefs are beyond reasonable thinking, so Freethinkers really have no time, let alone ability, to think about the unthinkable! They leave it to the theologians and protectors of creeds to claim their “special knowledge.” As Ingersoll said, “The clergy know that I know that they know that they do not know.”
Back to blasphemy. It is somewhat disturbing—no, actually shocking—to find out that nine nations in Europe have blasphemy laws! Italy, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Germany, Malta, Austria, Poland and Ireland. The United Nations Human Rights Commission says these laws are a violation of international law. While some of these nations have had the laws on their books for a long time (and they are rarely noticed or enforced), Ireland added them as recently as 2009 and Poland passed them in 2015! Talk about stepping forward into the Dark Ages.
In a related stunner, five of forty-five countries in Europe have laws prohibiting “insults” against heads of states or royalty. Germany, Sweden, Monaco, Spain and. . .wait for it, Britain! In recent days Angela Merkel of Germany has been hotly criticized by many for allowing the prosecution of a German comedian who insulted the Turkish Prime Minister. She says the law should change, but then allows the legal process to go forward. Strange. But this is what happens when “you offended me by what you said, and you should be punished” becomes more important than “you offended me, but just like me, you have that right.”
Whether in Religion or Politics, speaking and writing freely is something non-believers and believers both should be committed to defending. It seems to me that people of faith would be as concerned and disturbed by “blasphemy” issues and laws as seculars, since shutting down free discourse, intimidating minority voices and pulling the plug on the freedom to disagree is completely counter and opposed to a free and open society. We are reminded that a secular society is the last best hope for a diversity of perspectives, including a wide array of spiritual beliefs. Once again, as Ingersoll so eloquently stated, “I am not so much for the freedom of religion as I am for the religion of freedom.” This kind of “religion,” that anyone can practice, seems much more fundamental than any fearfully fanatical fundamentalism. This is the blasphemous gospel of the heretics and infidels that cannot be silenced.