Blasphemy is an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense.
- Robert Green Ingersoll
Today is International Blasphemy Rights Day. It’s an appropriate occasion to reflect on one basic human right many of us take for granted: freedom of expression. Many countries, particularly those with Muslim majorities or theocracies, have laws against insulting or criticising religion. Punishments for transgressing such laws include fines, jail, and the death penalty. Apart from these legal, state-sanctioned punishments, there’s also the informal consequences of social condemnation, ostracism and physical violence inflicted upon those who overtly disrespect religion.
Blasphemy laws have been used to silence and intimidate those who dare to challenge religion’s self-awarded exemption from criticism and mockery. Mortal, fallible men (and they are almost always men) pretend that they are defending the sacredness of their God by creating laws punishing those who slander him, but what they are really doing is imposing their own temporal authority on others. As the 19th century American humanist orator and outspoken critic of religion Robert Green Ingersoll observed:
An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment.
Let’s be clear about the purpose of Blasphemy Rights Day – it’s not an excuse to be a dick just for kicks. As the good folks at the Center for Inquiry explain:
The goal is not to promote hate or violence. While many perceive blasphemy as insulting and offensive, it isn't about getting enjoyment out of ridiculing and insulting others. The day was created as a reaction against those who would seek to take away the right to satirize and criticize a particular set of beliefs given a privileged status over other beliefs. Criticism and dissent towards opposing views is the only way in which any nation with any modicum of freedom can exist.
If we can make fun of people’s political, philosophical or cultural convictions, we should be free to do the same for their religious ones. Religionists who demand that their beliefs be treated as an exceptional case are like so many naked emperors demanding that their non-existent raiment be unquestioningly admired. But they’re starkers, and blasphemers are simply pointing that out.