Blasphemy in Pakistan, Blasphemy Here

March 30, 2011

The news from Pakistan regarding the valiant efforts of some to reform that country’s blasphemy laws continues to be grim. Which brings me to today’s topic.

The third International Blasphemy Rights Day (IBRD) will be observed six months from now, on September 30. CFI will be announcing shortly some events to be held in conjunction with IBRD.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been asked more than a few times whether IBRD, first celebrated in 2009, was a one-time thing. No, it’s not. Why should it be? As long as there are those who maintain that religious beliefs and practices deserve special protections and cannot be criticized like other beliefs or practices, then we need to campaign for the right to blaspheme.

Some have suggested that IBRD is the equivalent of a frat-boy prank. I disagree. Freedom of speech is important. And freedom of speech is no less important when it involves religious matters. As indicated at the beginning of this post, we have been reminded again just this week that some brave individuals are risking death in Pakistan because they have dared to suggest that Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws should be reformed. Calling attention to the courage of these individuals, and the courage of all who have suffered and continue to suffer for the right to criticize religion, is not a frivolous endeavor.

Oh, I recognize there are some who think that religious criticism is permissible, but only when it takes certain forms. You can write a scholarly treatise, but don’t dare make a quip. Philosophical arguments are fine, but cartoons are not. Others have suggested that we can defend the right to blaspheme, but only if we scrupulously avoid blaspheming ourselves.

Sorry, but I don’t accept the notion that speech about religion must be circumscribed in ways in which other forms of expression, such as political speech, are not. Nor do I accept the notion that blasphemy in and of itself is something to be shunned. I adhere to the sentiments expressed by CFI’s founder, Paul Kurtz, who in 2006 wrote: “We need... to affirm to right to blaspheme by exercising it. Would that we lived in a polite world of scholarly debate [but] it is clear that one cartoon may be worth a thousand syllogisms.”

Religious fundamentalists in Pakistan may yet succeed in assassinating and intimidating enough reformers to prevent changes to that country’s blasphemy laws. That would be tragic.

We in the Western democracies have more latitude to criticize religion. It’s a right that has been paid for in blood. But although legal constraints may have been removed, social constraints remain. And these constraints will persist as long as atheists refuse to defend blasphemy because of misplaced concerns about offending others. “Respectability” should not be purchased at the price of self-neutering.

As indicated, we’ll be announcing some IBRD events soon. In the meantime, any suggestions are welcome.