22 December 2011

Blackford on the UN’s new stance regarding ‘defamation of religion’

The UN, to paraphrase Churchill, can always be counted on to do the right thing – after it’s tried everything else. For the first time since 1998, the UN General Assembly didn’t qualify its latest call for religious tolerance with the expectation that states ban all forms of expression perceived to be critical or insulting towards religion.

No prizes for guessing which brand of sky-fairyism was largely behind the anti-religious defamation ban: of all the major religions, Islam is arguably the only one that has state-sanctioned anti-blasphemy tendencies that often manifest in violent, murderous ways. Until recently, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which comprises 57 Muslim-majority countries, was successful in pushing through annual UN resolutions on “combating defamation of religions”. But the OIC’s decade-long winning streak has finally been broken.

Russell Blackford’s new book Freedom of Religion and the Secular State explores the relevant issues of freedom of speech and freedom of religion in depth. Blackford wrote the following comments on his blog, which touch on the salient aspects of the UN’s position, past and present, regarding religious defamation:

It is one thing for the UN to condemn actions to provoke inter-religious hatred. No one wants to see the world’s societies riven with hatred, though it is worth remembering that much of the hatred comes from religious conservatives who refuse to tolerate sexual freedom (especially that of women), female emancipation, and any expressions of erotic love outside of heterosexual monogamy. Even in Western societies we see this in the emotive opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. It’s another thing to become so focused on this issue that important kinds of speech are stigmatised and even prohibited. There is a public interest in scrutiny of religion, and it should be a fair target for criticism, denunciation, or satire.

At any rate, we should always err, if err we must, on the side of freedom of speech. Whatever lines are drawn in the area should allow bold speech that might offend – and this includes various forms of anti-religious criticism and satire. Such a liberal attitude to speech might permit some ugly speech, but the long-term effect would be to reinforce a valuable lesson: ideologically opposed groups of whatever kind – religious, political, or philosophical – must make their own way, enduring criticism, and even satire, from their opponents, without asking the state to interfere.

Any ideology, religious or otherwise, that requires force and coercion to propagate reveals itself to be insecure, flawed, and tyrannical. You have to threaten, torture, jail and execute people to make them accept the validity of absurd ideas. True and good ideas on the other hand are self-evident to all reasonable people.


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