27/02/2015 12:29 GMT | Updated 29/04/2015 06:59 BST

The Religious Right to Blaspheme

The BBC poll for the Today programme on Muslim attitudes to free speech and blasphemy has done the debate a disservice - for it has framed the issue as a battle between religious and secular groups. In fact, it is as much an internal religious struggle, and across all faiths, with the battle being between fundamentalists and progressives within each one.

Freedom of speech means a healthy and transparent society, while the opposite is true: every tyrannical ruler or despotic regime seeks to restrict it. Surprisingly, it has a religious history, originating with the Bible and the Hebrew prophets whose mission was to protest against contemporary evils.

Isaiah attacks not only the monarchy for exceeding its authority (1.23) but also the corruption of the religious hierarchy (1.11-15). Amos railed against the malpractices of the business community who grew rich at the expense of weaker members of society (8. 4-6)

Moreover, some of the prophets went in for religious satire too: Isaiah mocks those who cut down a log of wood, use half for firewood and the other half to carve a god to be worshipped (44.14). Elijah advises followers of the pagan god Baal - who is not answering their prayers - to pray louder as he might be sitting on the toilet (I Kings 18.27).

Religious satire causes offence, but it is one person's right to express their view and another person's right to express that they are offended. Sadly, there are plenty of religious targets that are worth hitting - from paedophile priests to bloodthirsty imams to rogue rabbis.

It is true that religious satire can become merely a vehicle for ridicule, without any moral agenda. That is regrettable, upsetting people for no reason is unpleasant, but if there is nothing in it of substance, then it quickly falls flat, and just reflects badly on the person who uttered it. There are many jokes or cartoons that may show bad taste - but they are unfortunate side-effects of having freedom of expression, and should not be grounds for taking away that freedom.

Alongside the principle of free speech, there are also questions of practicality. Can we decide whom it is legitimate to criticise and whom not to criticise? There are faiths today which many would consider totally bizarre, such as Scientology, with its belief in space aliens who come to earth - or the Mormons with their gold tablets supposedly dug up in New York in the 1820s - which they hold sacred; should they be exempt from laughter? They would say so.

But if we exempt one, we have to exempt all, for blasphemy is in the ear of the hearer, and one person's sanctity is another person's idiocy; the cost of honouring all such views would be restricting free speech, and that is a cost too high. That still leaves those offended with several options as to how to react: argue back if they disagree, or sue if they think it libellous, or ignore if they think it spurious.

Religion cannot claim any special privilege or any unique exemption; it has to live with the possibility of being blasphemed, not just because of the principle of free speech, but in terms of its own self-respect.

What does it say about a faith if feels it cannot stand-up to satire or criticism - is its God of the universe so fragile that he needs protection? Can an entire faith system be brought crashing down by newspaper columns or cartoons? How insecure must those believers be if they think that centuries of tradition can be blown away in a gale of laughter.

A world without religious criticism - including what some consider blasphemy - would be a world that never progressed, and stagnated like still water that has grown putrid. That is not a religious vision and the right to speak out should be defended by all God-fearers.