Thursday, October 18, 2012

Freedom of religion

There is a really tricky balancing act that we all do to find the ideal spot between freedom of speech and protecting people.  Both things are admirable goals of course but both are usually presented as fundamental rights even though they cannot both be fully enacted at the same time.  As the saying goes, my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.  There was an interesting example of this today on the BBC website where they talked about a man in Turkey who is currently being charged for making derogatory comments about Islam.  The case seems kind of murky to me even though I normally come out swinging in defence of people who insult religion because he wasn't some new atheist standing up for himself but rather just an asshole.

"I am not sure if you have also realised it, but if there's a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, a thief or a fool, it's always an Islamist."

There isn't a lot to defend in that.  I don't hold with religious belief but this is roaring away from free speech towards hate speech at great speed and with some recklessness.  It seems very clear to me that this is the sort of thing that shouldn't be a crime but this guy isn't some martyr for freethinking - he just happens to be bigoted against people who do things I don't approve of.  

I end up talking up both sides at various points.  I was upset about Canada weakening its enforcement of hate speech but I thoroughly support Blasphemy Day where freethinkers everywhere speak up to support the right of everyone to insult, ignore, or be disdainful of religion.  It is critical that nothing be sacred in the eyes of the law or justice; we all need to be able to express our views on any subject or belief in an open manner without fear of prosecution.  Of course at some point that freedom crosses over from "Your belief is mistaken" into "We ought to go beat up that guy because he thinks something we don't approve of" and then the authorities do need to step in.

Pretty regularly there is a push for international anti blasphemy laws that thankfully haven't gotten anywhere.  The major problem with them is that they would end up having to actually decide what is blasphemous and what isn't and since what is sacred to one religion is blasphemous to another they will have a rough time coming to any consensus.  They are also going to have the problem of that if it ever came down to it there would be a large group of atheists pushing their Flying Spaghetti Monster (this link is full of comedy gold, by the way) religion that has a tenet of 'eating food that isn't spaghetti is blasphemous' mucking up the proceedings.  Presumably those pushing for such laws feel that their religion would get to set the rules and other religions would just quietly step aside; I deem this unlikely.  Religions themselves ought to be terrified of blasphemy laws because that is a very substantial step down the path of state mandated religion and when that happens you have to consider that it might not be *your* religion that gets mandated.

Much as the big mainstream religions would like to think of themselves as special and different we all know the difference between a religion and a cult is the number of members and nothing more.  It matters not at all how ludicrous or awful your belief system is, if you manage to attract enough followers you metamorphose into a real religion.

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