Is Kabul the Capital of Oklahoma?

March 16, 2009

My colleague, Derek Araujo, notes in his blog entry for March 12 that the Afghan Supreme Court just upheld a twenty-year sentence for blasphemy. This is a sad reminder of the suppression of free speech and critical thinking frequently done in the name of religion. Thank goodness nothing remotely resembling this outrage could happen in this country!

Well, at least if you exclude Oklahoma from the United States. (Come to think of it…) Some of you may have heard that after some Oklahoma legislators learned Richard Dawkins was going to be speaking at the University of Oklahoma, a resolution was introduced in the Oklahoma House of Representatives by Rep. Todd Thomsen condemning the visit and calling upon the university to disinvite him. One of the most ridiculous statements in the resolution was that the university lecture by Dawkins was inappropriate because his views "are not shared [by] a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma." That Thomsen could insert such a statement in his proposed resolution speaks volumes about his understanding of free speech and the role of a public university.

But this is just another instance of a moronic mossback making a public spectacle of himself, right? Maybe not. Apparently Thomsen and his allies are not going to let this matter rest. The Oklahoma legislature is rumored to be "investigating" the event, using as a pretext the expenditure of state funds in connection with the lecture. (Dawkins received no state money for the event, but indirectly state money supported the event since it was held at a public university.) It’s not clear what the investigation is supposed to discover. A plot by atheists to undermine the United States by corrupting its youth? Presumably that’s why Dawkins went to Oklahoma - a state known for its intellectual leadership. In reality, of course, the investigation is not a genuine effort to uncover illegal or inappropriate conduct. It is a transparent attempt to intimidate the faculty and students who arranged the Dawkins visit.

Even with the bullying tactics of Thomsen, this episode is more farce than substantive threat to free speech. By contrast, Islamic fundamentalism in countries such as Afghanistan is a scourge and a very real threat to fundamental liberties. Still, it is a sobering thought that while we have soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan to help preserve some small measure of freedom, there are still many religious fundamentalists in the U.S. who, if they had their way, would silence skeptics and insulate religious dogma from rational critique.

For more on the Oklahoma incident, see   Greg Lukianoff’s article .