Freedom of Speech and the Right to Criticise Religion

April 4, 2009

Reactions to the UN’s Human Rights Council attempt to protect religion from "defamation" continue…  

The Economist (April 2) published   "Why freedom of speech must include the right to ‘defame’ religion" . Its final argument is that "few people have more to gain from the protection of free speech than sincere religious believers." This accurate view deserves expansion. Let’s take a closer look at the core language of this Human Rights Council resolution.

Resolution 10/22  "Combating defamation of religions" from the   10th session of the Human Rights Council (Geneva, 2–27 March 2009)

10.    Emphasizes that, as stipulated in international human rights law, including articles 19 and 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to freedom of expression, the exercise of which carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations only as provided for by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals and general welfare;

11.    Reaffirms that general comment No. 15 of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in which the Committee stipulated that the prohibition of the dissemination of all ideas based upon racial superiority or hatred is compatible with freedom of opinion and expression, is equally applicable to the question of incitement to religious hatred; 

12.    Strongly condemns all manifestations and acts of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and migrants and the stereotypes often applied to them, including on the basis of religion or belief, and urges all States to apply and, where required, reinforce existing laws when such xenophobic or intolerant acts, manifestations or expressions occur, in order to deny impunity for those who commit such acts;

13.    Urges all States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs;

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How could criminalizing religious blasphemy have anything to do with proper maintainance of basic human rights? Sorry, Human Rights Council, there is no human right to never have to hear someone disagree with your religious beliefs. There is no logical connection between rightly protecting people from hatred, racism and violence, and wrongly protecting people from hearing statements contradicting their religious beliefs. There cannot be any direct inference, since a proposition to the effect that "The god you worship does not exist" is a factual proposition about reality, not a normative proposition about the moral or political standing of a person.

When I reject or criticise your religious belief, I am stating the lack of congruence between your belief and reality. If you believe that the world is flat, my contradiction that the world is round has absolutely nothing to do with your moral or political standing. My statement that the world is round is not an incitement to hate you. My statement that your god does not exist is not an incitement to hate you. I defend your equal moral and political standing regardless of religious belief—can you grant my same equality too?

Yes, we are all aware that some people would destroy and kill over religion. The civilized answer is to punish destruction and murder, not to punish anyone’s beliefs about religion.

There is no logical step from "your religious belief is false" to "you lack equal rights". And the false claim that "people holding false views about gods deserve less than equal treatment" will not help bridge this logical gap. After all, civilized law (including   the UN Charter ) protects the basic human right of religious conscience, which includes the skeptic’s right to not have to believe anything. 

Do the Islamic nations voting for this resolution believe that "people holding false views about god deserve less than equal standing"? Perhaps. Such a belief could explain why they so eagerly embrace blasphemy laws. Would Muslims want the right to deny the truth of Christianity or any other religion? Presumably, since straightforward monotheism’s claim that only one god exists is simultaneously the claim that no other sort of god exists. The very act of proclaiming the Islamic faith is blasphemy against Christianity. (Some people suppose that religions really worship the same god, but the widespread unpopularity of that option means that they had better support the right to blaspheme too.) If you want the right to proclaim your faith, you would be wise to universally support freedom of religious expression. Otherwise, it appears that all you really want is the paranoid right to silence anyone who disagrees with your religious belief. The facade of "protecting human rights" is thus torn away—blasphemy laws can only reduce the number of protected human rights and does nothing to strengthen them.

Religious proponents of universal blasphemy laws practically contradict themselves: they reserve to themselves the right to proclaim their religious beliefs while denying that right to others. The way out of this contradiction is clear: universally protect free speech instead. There is no contradiction between protecting people from wrongful harm and ensuring that people can hear dissenting religious views.



#1 Merlyn Covert (Guest) on Tuesday April 07, 2009 at 8:37am

Hi John, Very well written. This answers a question brought up in our class last Thursday. Lyn Covert

#2 TPO (Guest) on Sunday April 12, 2009 at 7:22am

Well said John!

As an atheist, liberal and secular humanist, I find much merit in the original declaration; however, I find myself pretty damn appalled at the changes being proposed and supported my many in the UN.

This concerns me deeply as it should concern all people who value freedom of speech, freedom of the press, political democracy, a fair judicial process, religious liberty and basic human dignity.

Needless to say, the credibility of the U.N. will be defined by the outcome these proceedings and if the OIC eventually get their way, it will have no credibility at all.

This is no small matter in world affairs. Borders are becoming transparent, as eventually they must. Soon we may all be neighbors living under universal laws. The question is…will they be laws of freedom or laws of oppression.

#3 Whispers on Monday April 13, 2009 at 1:05pm

The need to hide one’s beliefs from outside criticism (which is the core need behind censorship of any sort) stems from a weakness in the faith of the person demanding censorship.  A person confident in his or her beliefs doesn’t need the protection of the state against the appearance of contrary beliefs. 

The imposition of constraints against religious “defamation” would serve as an aribtrary bar in the human pursuit of worthy and true ideas.  The proposed process of declaring some ideas “sacred” and thus beyond public reproach seems arbitrary, and more related to the political power of the people who would see their religious institutions threatened, than by any reason-based or rights-based argument.

#4 Don't defame (Guest) on Thursday April 16, 2009 at 8:43pm

I agree that religion needs to accept valid criticism but one shouldn’t have the right to “defame” religion.  According to

#5 Whispers on Thursday April 16, 2009 at 9:06pm

The problem with Don’t defame’s argument is that religions will interpret any public criticism of their beliefs as defamation.  See, for example, how many people thought that simply publishing a drawing of the prophet Muhammed = defamation.  And then there was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of a work of fiction.

And really, I don’t see how we can have honest debate about religion without allowing for defamation of character.  There is, indeed, a difference between defamation of character and slander.  If a person is a liar, and I call that person a liar, I am defaming his character.  I am not, however, slandering him, since he has deserved my negative commentary.

I don’t see why we should tolerate a scheme for public debate in which some people are above criticism.  And yet, that is the position the UN would like to allow religions to presume to have.

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