Blasphemy May Be Offensive, But Blasphemy Laws Kill

As a Christian, there is one thing I dislike even more than blasphemy, and that is legislation that prohibits it. Such laws invariably contribute to increasing intolerance, violence and injustice, and are widely open to misuse. And the key point is, if your God needs man-made laws to protect him from insult, he must be a pretty small and weak deity.

As a Christian, there is one thing I dislike even more than blasphemy, and that is legislation that prohibits it. Such laws invariably contribute to increasing intolerance, violence and injustice, and are widely open to misuse. And the key point is, if your God needs man-made laws to protect him from insult, he must be a pretty small and weak deity.

Yet laws criminalising blasphemy, defamation of religion or insulting religious belief are included in the criminal code of several countries, with Russia becoming the latest. On 26 June, Russia's State Duma passed a bill on "causing offence to the sentiments of religious believers", with punishment of up to three years in prison. Countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Turkey and Indonesia have had such laws for many years and in some cases it carries the death penalty. The UK repealed its blasphemy law in 2008

In Pakistan, for example, at least 79 people have been arrested for blasphemy. Some have been jailed for life, or sentenced to death, and while to date no one has actually been executed for blasphemy by the State in Pakistan, even if acquitted or released from prison eventually, a person accused of blasphemy is in danger of being murdered by extremists. Two prominent Pakistani politicians, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and someone I was privileged to call a friend, were assassinated because they called for reform of the law.

In Indonesia, three people are currently in jail for blasphemy: two are Shia, and one is a Christian. In May, I visited one of them, a Shia cleric called Tajul Muluk. I also returned to see Alexander Aan, an atheist charged under both the blasphemy law and the Electronic Information and Transactions Law because he declared himself an atheist on Facebook. He was eventually sentenced to two years under the Electronic Information and Transactions Law.

There are several problems with blasphemy laws. In most cases the 'crime' is very poorly defined. Often there is a very low requirement for evidence - sometimes, as in Pakistan, a reliance simply on the accusation of one person. As a result, many blasphemy charges turn out to be completely false. The law is used to settle personal or commercial scores that have nothing to do with religion. The accused never even said or did anything offensive - the blasphemy law is simply used as a convenient tool for a vindictive adversary.

There is typically no proof of intent. In Pakistan, people have been charged and jailed for inadvertently throwing into the rubbish a newspaper containing a verse from the Qur'an. In many cases false accusations of blasphemy have led to mass violence.

The concept of 'defamation of religion' is particularly problematic. People can be defamed, religions and ideas cannot. Similarly, people can be insulted, while religions or ideas cannot. And while defamation already exists as a legal term, there is no law against insult. If there was, few people would do or say anything at all. There are laws to prevent hate speech, and incitement to violence, and rightly so, but that is different.

A fundamental human right is the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. Another is freedom of expression. Without either of these, what other freedom matters? Yet so-called blasphemy laws are complete violations of these two rights, established respectively in Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If we do not have the freedom to think, to choose what to believe, to change our beliefs, to question the beliefs of others, to share our beliefs with others without coercion, or to decide not to believe, we have no freedom. In the course of thinking, questioning, exploring, it is legitimate - indeed essential - to ask probing questions of religions and beliefs, our own and others. Sometimes those questions may be awkward, uncomfortable, challenging. That is the nature of freedom of thought. Legitimate inquiry and debate, and disagreement, cannot be held ransom by prohibitions on insult.

Deliberate, gratuitous offence is unnecessary and unpleasant. Where it crosses the line into incitement to violence, it should not be permitted, and there are rightly laws to prohibit such incitement. But in countries with blasphemy laws, those laws themselves are a de facto - indeed de jure - incitement to violence. And unless offensive words actually spill over into incitement to hatred and violence, we should all be big enough to ignore them and walk away. If someone will engage with me in a serious discussion about beliefs, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, I'll gladly engage with them. If someone is unnecessarily and gratuitously offensive, I have the option of disengaging. In neither case would I want to legislate to stop them.

Furthermore, it is not the role of government to play God. John Locke, the 17th century philosopher and author of A Letter Concerning Toleration, argues that we must "distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion." It cannot be the business of government to determine blasphemy and heresy, let alone to legislate against them. Religious teachers can teach and preach about them, but politicians should not outlaw them.

An open society consists of open minds and, whether we like it or not, open mouths too. Even when we come across views that inherently offend, or are expressed in an unnecessarily offensive way, we should accept the freedom to think and express such views, just as we wish to have the freedom or express ours. We accept this principle in the political realm; we should apply it to the world of religion and belief too. We should also recognise that we can sometimes find we have common cause with our intellectual or ideological opponents, or at the very least develop a healthy respect. Two of my favourite contemporary thinkers and writers are the late Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen. Both are lefties and atheists, and I am a Conservative and a Christian. But Cohen's 'What's Left?' and 'You Can't Read This Book', and Hitchens' memoirs 'Hitch 22' and some of his other work, are riveting.

Furthermore, not only do I admire Hitchens' and Cohen's intellect, and enjoy their literary style, but I passionately agree with their defence of freedom. I would like to see a society in which I defend their freedom to think and say what they believe, and they defend mine.

In our politically correct era, religion and race are often and too easily conflated. There is no excuse whatsoever for criticising or insulting or questioning someone on account of their race, because race is not an idea, it is a fact, and not one that the holder can answer for or change. Religion, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs and ideas which, no matter how divine they may be, should be open to scrutiny, debate, discussion and questioning, even at the risk of offence.

The God I worship is encountered through a journey of soul-searching and intellectual inquiry which must inherently involve at least the possibility of questioning, and disagreeing with, another person's God. If God is God, he is surely big enough to take some blasphemous insults without needing us to protect him. And if he isn't, he wouldn't be a God I'd want to believe in.


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