Just as Ireland votes to repeal its blasphemy laws, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of Austrian blasphemy laws. They’ve upheld the conviction of a woman who was fined for calling Muhammed a “paedophile”, a reference to his marriage to Aisha, which according to mainstream Islamic tradition occured when she was six, and was consummated when she was nine.
I presume that the underlying logic goes like this. In keeping with trendy modern thought, they analyse everything in terms of power structures. Muslims in Austria are mostly a relatively recent immigrant community and are non-White, therefore they are “oppressed”. The convicted woman is a member of the Austrian “Freedom Party”, who are opposed to immigration, are regarded as “far right”, and are mostly White. Therefore they are the “oppressors”. And it’s the job of a Human Rights court to support the oppressed against the oppressors, so that’s how they ruled.
The convoluted excuse they came up with is that Muhammed continued to be married to Aisha when she was an adult, and indeed had sexual relations with other women, and therefore was not “primarily” attracted to under-age girls, and therefore the term “paedophile” is an unjustified insult. (Never mind that the vast majority of people who rightly get called “paedophiles” also have sex with adults.)
The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.
Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.
From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”. Continue reading
I have a confession to make. Reading the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer, I am more persuaded by the majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts than by Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. In this I differ from many secular campaign groups who deplore the ruling and are worried about what it might lead to.
In brief, Missouri runs a program using old tyres to improve children’s playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church asked to benefit from this. Their bid was rejected because it came from a church, in line with Missouri’s rule that no taxpayers’ money can go to a church. The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that rejecting the bid simply because it came from a church violated the constitutional ban on laws “… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Sotomayor’s dissent, in contrast, focused on the other half of that clause, banning laws “respecting an establishment of religion”.
The two phrases together are commonly interpreted as erecting Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between churches and the government, preventing taxpayers money from going to churches and preventing the government from taxing churches. Continue reading
British Christians have been writing to the newspapers complaining that the resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows that liberal secularism has revealed itself to be intolerant. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”, said Farron himself. The resignation “should make us wary of those who pretend to be tolerant and liberal” (Telegraph), “… is evidence of wider intolerance in British society” (Christian Institute) and “… symbolises the decay of liberalism” (New Statesman), opine others.
When Christians are unhappy it is usually because they are waking up to the fact that society is increasingly unwilling to grant them the special privileges to which they are accustomed, and to which they think they are entitled. The special privilege being asked for here is not that they be allowed to advance their beliefs in the public arena. That is accepted and not under threat by any secularist or Western atheist, however much Christians try to pretend otherwise. Rather, the special privilege being asked for is to advance such views and to have them exempted from critical scrutiny. Continue reading
The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.
Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading
Baroness O’Neill, chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, has recently given a speech, hosted by the Theos think tank, on freedom of expression and religion of religion. There is much that is good in the speech. In particular I agree wholeheartedly with her view that:
There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended. Speech acts that incite hatred, or that intimidate, or that defraud, or that abuse, can be regulated without putting freedom of expression at the mercy of others. But if there were a right not to be offended, this would put everyone’s freedom of expression at the mercy of others.
Baroness O’Neill counsels:
What then should one do if one hears, reads or sees something that one considers offensive, perhaps deeply offensive? The basic thing is to remember is that unless the offending speech act was wrong in some further way (e.g. it was defamatory, or incited hatred, or was fraudulent), no right has been violated, and no remedy of the sort that respect for rights requires is needed.
But, there is one major area where I want to argue that Baroness O’Neil is misguided. And this is the fundamental matter of what we mean by “freedom of religion”. The Baroness says that: Continue reading
In the heightened tension of multiple shootings related to religion and free-speech there is sometimes a tendency to claim that vocal atheists can be just as “extreme” as the Islamists. In Craig Hicks, murderer of three innocent people who were Muslims, perhaps there is the proof?
The Guardian certainly thinks so. In an editorial published yesterday, The Guardian says that the Chapel Hill shooting was an “act of terrorism” and that Hicks’s target was “freedom itself”, in this case the freedom to be a Muslim.
We should and do unreservedly condemn the murders of Deah Barakat, of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the youngest only 19. If the act was in any way related to the atheistic views of Craig Hicks then we unreservedly condemn it. If the motive was unrelated to religion we again condemn it.
The Guardian thinks it knows Craig Hicks’s motives, but does it? Hicks has been described as “an angry, confrontational man who constantly harangued residents about where they parked their car and the noise level at the condominium complex where they lived”. Hicks was also an advocate of the right to carry guns, which on occasion he brandished to neighbours.
The families of those murdered regard this as a hate crime, directed at the victims because they were Muslim. They may be right. Hicks’s wife, though, has denied that the motive was religious. Mental health issues have been suggested. Many people are gunned down in gun-toting America each year. The fact that the victims were religious is not sufficient for concluding that the motive was religious. Continue reading
As I write this thousands of Muslims are marching through London to “Defend the Honour of the Holy Prophet” and denounce the “insulting depictions of our Holy Prophet” by Charlie Hebdo.
They have every right to do so, of course. They have every right to voice their views, even though they would deny that right to others, if they could. It is also entirely within their rights to regard this issue as a more urgent reason for taking to the streets than, for example, the activities of ISIS. Does burning people to death, beheading children, and selling girls as sex slaves — when done in the name of Islam by the Islamic State — not demean the honour of the Prophet of Islam?
The media are quick to label ISIS and their fellow Jihadi Islamists as extremists, which they certainly are. But the implication is that mainstream Islam is moderate. Let’s consider some basic principles of any “moderate” worldview in the West nowadays. Continue reading
I am the sort of person who would draw a Mohammed cartoon, if I could draw, which I can’t, and if I was good at satirical cartoons, which I’m not. Yes, we do understand that you find cartoons depicting Muhammed offensive. We understand that you value the reputation of Muhammed more than that of your own family, and that Western cartoons about your prophet are, to you, utterly disrespectful and blasphemous. We are not drawing cartoons just for the sake of being insulting, nor because we hate you. We draw cartoons because we regard doing so as important for a free society.
Over human history many ideologies have been totalitarian. The Christian religion used to burn people at the stake for heresy. The Soviet Communists sent people to the Gulag for any dissent from communist ideology. The Nazis murdered millions to further their fascist ideology.
All totalitarian regimes control what people can say, and in particular they repress any questioning of themselves and their control of society. The right to question authority is among the most fundamental rights in a free society. Even the right to vote is predicated on the right to discuss and argue about the merits and demerits of the government. Where people cannot question their rulers, society is not free. And that means, overwhelmingly, that economic prosperity is lower, technological advance is hampered, cultural flourishing is restricted, and quality of life is lower. Across the world these things correlate with political freedom and thus with freedom of speech.
The Islamic world, sadly, is different. Political freedom is not accepted. Rather, the greatest good is held to be unquestioning acceptance of Islam. Where Islam dominates, Islam is totalitarian, controlling what people can do and say. Continue reading
This was written for Scientia Salon, and partially repeats some of my previous posts.
In the all-time lists of Good Ideas the principle of religious freedom ranks high, preventing much strife and war and thus being responsible for saving more lives than penicillin and vaccination combined. 
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”, wrote Thomas Jefferson, who rated his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom as his finest accomplishment. 
Yet, despite the fact that the principle of religious freedom is now universally accepted in the civilised world,  there is much less agreement on how to interpret it. Indeed, my thesis here is that the principle is widely misunderstood.