Strategies for Fighting Blasphemy Laws in a Post-Tolerant World

The new decade was ushered in by a disturbing headline: “Ireland’s New Blasphemy Law Goes into Effect.” New blasphemy law? Don’t those belong in some earlier century? The unfortunate answer is no—blasphemy laws are making a comeback, and not just in Ireland.

Prior to 1978, no Englishman had been prosecuted for blasphemy in fifty-seven years; the last person to earn this distinction was John Gott, a fifty-six-year-old tailor who compared Jesus to a clown. His health was so broken by his sentence of nine months at hard labor that he died shortly after his release. Then in 1978, thirty years after Lord Denning had pronounced the blasphemy laws a “dead letter” in England and a decade after a 1697 blasphemy statute had been stricken from the books, an English Christian busybody brought a private, common-law blasphemy prosecution against a publication called the Gay News. The newspaper and its editor were both fined for publishing a poem suggesting that Jesus engaged in homosexual activity, and the editor received a nine-month suspended jail sentence. On appeal the jail sentence was stricken, but the conviction and fines were upheld.

The Tony Blair government reignited interest in blasphemy prosecution in 2005 by introducing the “Incitement to Religious Hatred Act.” This would have imposed a seven-year jail sentence for insulting another religion, even if there had been no intention to stir up “religious hatred.” The bill was watered down before becoming law, but the stirring of the pot led to the next major English blasphemy case, this time against the BBC’s broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera. This raucous satire featured, among other things, Jerry Springer sitting at the right hand of God, accompanied by a choir singing “Jerry Eleison” rather than “Kyrie Eleison.” The BBC received some 45,000 complaints, many resulting from an orchestrated campaign even before it aired. The court dismissed the case, largely on the grounds that the show had already enjoyed a long run on the stage before its broadcast on the BBC. However, this reasoning simply taught blasphemy opponents that they need to respond more quickly.

When Britain’s humanists then asked Parliament to repeal the common-law offense of blasphemy, the Anglican Church and others objected. As a result, the politicians did nothing, which means that more new blasphemy prosecutions may result.

A similar effort to repeal blasphemy laws in the Netherlands was also defeated last year. Irish authorities, after witnessing this drama, decided to flesh out the terms of a provision in Ireland’s 1937 constitution declaring blasphemy illegal by defining the offense. An Irish court had ruled in 1999 that the constitution couldn’t be enforced unless a statute delineated the elements of the crime precisely. Rather than just letting things slide, or moving to amend the constitution, the Irish legislature gave prosecutors the tools they need to attack blasphemers in the future.

In Russia, the rekindled love affair between church and state has led to renewed emphasis on blasphemy prosecution. When a museum director in 2003 assembled an exhibition of artifacts depicting criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, a group of men broke in and defaced them. Charges against the vandals were dropped for “lack of evidence,” even though they were apprehended inside the museum. Instead, the museum director was fined $3,600 for “incitement to religious hatred” after the court declared the exhibition to be blasphemous.

The biggest splash among recent blasphemy controversies is the case of the 2005 Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. To its immense credit, the Danish government resisted enormous diplomatic and economic pressure by not only refusing to prosecute the newspaper or the cartoonists, but by refusing to apologize or do anything other than stoutly maintain the right of freedom of expression for its citizens. Danish exports to the Middle East were cut in half by the resulting boycott, three Danish embassies were destroyed by terrorists, and over 100 people died in riots around the Muslim world. In Belarus, by contrast, an editor who reprinted the cartoons was sentenced to three years in jail.

On the other side of the world, the Australian state of Victoria enacted a new “multicultural” blasphemy law in 2001 and proceeded to enforce it in 2003 by bringing a case against two Protestant ministers. Undercover operatives at their sermons overheard them comparing Islam unfavorably with Christianity, thus committing blasphemy against Islam. At their trial, one of the defendants sought to read into the record verses of the Koran that are demeaning to women. The judge refused to allow this, because doing so would constitute “vilification” of Islam. A lower court verdict against the ministers was later vacated on appeal, but the statute remains on the books.

Here in the United States we’ve been lucky so far. Although fifteen states have blasphemy statutes, the Supreme Court effectively nullified them in a 1951 case involving the film The Miracle, in which the Court held that “If there is any fixed star in our constitution…it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

Trouble is, there may not be any “fixed stars” in the Constitution. Until 2008 we thought states could regulate handgun possession; a 5-4 Supreme Court decision exploded that star. Until this January we thought that corporate contributions to political campaigns could be banned, as they have been for the past century; another 5-4 Supreme Court decision exploded that star as well. The current Court has been overwhelmingly pro-religion in its recent decisions; it wouldn’t be much of a shock to see it reverse the 1951 precedent and reopen the blasphemy floodgates.

Indeed, the Obama Administration is now advocating punishment for those who criticize religion. As part of its Muslim appeasement strategy, our UN diplomats last fall worked closely with their Egyptian counterparts to push through a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council urging member states to take “effective measures” to “address and combat” the free expression of “negative religious stereotyping.”

Administration apologists are quick to point out that in their view the language is designed to protect individuals, not belief systems, and that they have successfully resisted the UN resolution condemning defamation of religion. So under the new regime, it’s okay to say, “Islam promotes murdering non-Muslims,” but it’s not okay to say, “devout Muslims promote murdering non-Muslims.” A fine distinction, indeed.

Pakistan is a leader in the field of blasphemy prosecution. America’s ally in the war against terrorism sentences its citizens to death for blasphemy on a routine basis, and has been doing so ever since General Zia al-Haq seized power in 1978. Most of the victims are members of Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority, but sometimes Muslims who express discordant views are targeted as well.

In 1998 the Roman Catholic bishop of the Pakistani diocese of Faisalabad, John Joseph, grew deeply depressed over the fact that no lawyer could be found who was willing to defend an accused Christian blasphemer. He decided to dramatize what the blasphemy laws were doing to his flock by killing himself—despite the fact that suicide is a grave sin in the eyes of his church. Minor reforms in the law were approved in the following years but prosecutions continued relentlessly, especially against Christians who made the mistake of irritating a Muslim neighbor for reasons having nothing to do with religion. Pakistan’s God experts have whipped up a frenzied siege mentality over perceived threats to Islam: produce a burnt page of the Koran, accuse your Christian neighbor of blasphemy, and an angry crowd will materialize from thin air. More than 800 people have been sentenced under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; new cases are being brought at a rate of about one a week.

Last year fifty Muslim clerics stormed a courtroom where a Christian couple was on trial for the blasphemy of touching a Koran with unwashed hands. A prosecutor informed the wife that even if she were acquitted, he personally would kill her.

Pakistan’s police are not entirely disingenuous in claiming that they arrest blasphemers for their own protection. At least twenty-two alleged blasphemers have been lynched, and no one involved in these crimes has ever been punished. When a Hindu factory worker in Lahore was beaten to death by three fellow workers in 2008, the killers were arrested—not for murder, but for “failure to inform the police that blasphemy was underway.”

Pakistan’s government has attempted in recent years to remove or soften the blasphemy law, but the legislature flatly refuses to offend the clergy by doing so. Official executions are rarely if ever carried out, but zealots often murder convicted blasphemers after their release. Nine people—including four women and a child—were killed in anti-Christian riots in Gojra last August after accusations that some of them had desecrated the Koran. And private enforcement of blasphemy laws may yet result in the death of Salman Rushdie. Even though the government of Iran initially imposed the death sentence on the author of The Satanic Verses and later announced it was abandoning efforts to carry it out, a group of Pakistani businessmen in 2007 posted a reward of $140,000 for beheading Rushdie. Pakistan’s legislature then chimed in with a unanimous resolution condemning the queen of England for awarding Rushdie a knighthood.

Another U.S. ally, the government of Afghanistan, is following Pakistan’s model closely. In 2002 the Chief Justice charged a cabinet member with blasphemy for expressing doubts about Islamic law’s treatment of women. Under U.S. pressure, the charges were dropped—but only after the cabinet member resigned. In 2007 the U.S. military itself was condemned for blasphemy when it air-dropped soccer balls for the children of Khost province. Blasphemous soccer balls? These particular items featured the flags of the thirty-two nations participating in the 2006 World Cup, including Saudi Arabia. That squiggle in the middle of the Saudi flag is actually a verse from the Koran, the kicking of which is considered blasphemy.

The following year a twenty-three-year-old student was condemned to death for the blasphemy of forwarding to friends an internet article asking why women shouldn’t be allowed to have four husbands if men are allowed to have four wives. The Afghan Senate then voted unanimously to congratulate the court for defending Islam. Under more U.S. pressure, the Senate withdrew the resolution but the Supreme Court affirmed a twenty-year prison sentence. And of course all this is before the Obama Administration completes its master plan of bringing the Taliban back into the government.

Is this where the West is headed? Before you roll your eyes, remember where we’ve been. With rare exceptions, the Pagan world of Greece and Rome was highly tolerant of alternative beliefs, even of outright atheism. The Jews put a strict rule in the book of Leviticus: “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him.” They meant it, too; the Gospels say the crime Jesus was accused of was blasphemy. Though Jesus wasn’t stoned to death, the Acts of the Apostles says that is how the first Christian martyr, Stephen, met his fate. Jewish obsession with blasphemy resulted in an alteration of the Bible itself. Job 1:5 mentions the children of Job cursing God. Some scribes didn’t want to run the risk of copying such blasphemy, and so decided to change the word to “blessing” God instead—some Bibles read that way even today.

Once the Christians seized power in Rome, blasphemy laws became a primary tool for exterminating the thousand-year tradition of Pagan tolerance and diversity. Pagan Gods were literally demonized and their worship became punishable by death. When the Inquisition got rolling in the Middle Ages, blasphemy wasn’t the primary target, but it certainly fell within the field of fire. Venice even established a specific court to handle blasphemy cases exclusively, whose judgments could not be appealed. Interestingly, the Venice court reporter declined to record exactly what words the defendants had uttered, lest he become a defendant himself. The law in fourteenth-century France deviated from the simple death penalty prescribed in Leviticus, with a cascade of increasing punishments for serial blasphemers: imprisonment and time in the pillory, working up through the slitting and then removal of the lips, culminating with removal of the tongue after the fifth offence. More rigorous Spain reached tongue removal after only the third offence. The Massachusetts Puritans, who sought wisdom through Scripture alone, applied the Leviticus death penalty to four blasphemers in 1659.

One category of blasphemers that has been around for a long time is that of gamblers, some of whom are wont to express their frustration with an unresponsive God. In sixteenth-century Florence, an unhappy gambler named Antonio Rinaldeschi flung horse manure at a statue of the Virgin Mary. Miraculously, one piece that stuck appeared to take the shape of a rose, thereby becoming an object of veneration for years afterward. Rinaldeschi was executed anyway.

For non-gambler humanists, the most interesting blasphemy cases are those brought against the English Deists of the eighteenth century. Writers such as Matthew Tindal, Thomas Woolston, and Peter Annet attacked the validity of miracles, the inconsistencies of the Bible, and the moral authority of the hierarchy. The Anglican Church responded with a series of blasphemy prosecutions, many of them successful. Though no defendants were executed, Woolston—an ordained minister, whose thesis was that miracle stories should be interpreted as allegories rather than historical facts—was unable to pay his fine and died in jail. The most curious feature of English blasphemy law at this time was that a blasphemous work lost its copyright protection; booksellers loved this rule, since it freed them to sell pirated editions with impunity, thus disseminating blasphemy far more widely than would have been the case otherwise.

Blasphemy prosecution fell off after that, until its recent revival as described above. David Nash, in his 2007 book Blasphemy in the Christian World, concludes that we are indeed moving toward what he dubs “the post-tolerant society,” a world where blasphemy laws will make a remarkable comeback. If indeed the pendulum is swinging that way, then we need a strategy to help get back to the mid-twentieth-century ideal of near-total free expression. I say near-total because there are certain types of expression, such as individual libel, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or KKK nooses, which should be punishable by law. But not many.

Plan A is to sit back and wait for the God experts to attack on a field of their choosing. There is an art to making new law through the courts; you first try to pick off the most egregious cases, which make even their defenders squirm. If I were masterminding the other side, I would focus on something like the 2005 South Park episode in which a statue of the Virgin Mary squirts menstrual blood onto the pope. Just mounting a legal challenge, whether or not it succeeds, inflicts cost and fear on the other side. If the pendulum’s momentum continues and the blasphemy enforcers pick up a win or two, then a chill will settle across the land, and magazines like this one will have to start agonizing over every word.

The group Atheist Ireland took a more proactive approach than that by attempting to entice a prosecution they were comfortable to defend. The same day the new law took effect (January 1) they published a list of twenty-five arguably blasphemous statements, and dared the authorities to prosecute. Instead, their campaign received widespread attention on the Internet, and in March the London Guardian reported that Ireland’s justice minister had decided to hold a referendum this fall on removing the blasphemy law from the Constitution.

Another approach to protesting religiously-based violations of free speech would succeed by exploiting a weakness in the “multicultural blasphemy” model. Blasphemy laws work best when there is a single doctrine to defend. But each separate religion can’t help but implicitly criticize all the others; if the law purports to protect all of them, it ought to be possible to push matters to the logical conclusion of actually protecting none of them.

Under the current multicultural Irish blasphemy statute, there are three elements to the offense: (1) the material must be grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by a religion; (2) it must actually cause outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion; and (3) there must be an intent to cause such outrage.

How do you feel about being tortured? Personally, I’m against it. Maybe I’m just thin-skinned, but if someone on the subway were to lean over and say, “I think you should be burned—not quickly, but in a manner staged to last for a long time, so your unspeakable suffering just goes on and on,” I would be offended. Outraged, in fact, over a suggestion that is so grossly abusive and insulting.

“If you live your life and don’t confess your sins to God almighty through the authority of Christ and his blood, I’m going to say this very plainly, you’re going straight to hell with a nonstop ticket.” Thus spoke Pastor John Hagee to a vast assembly in 2006. Hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore,” said the pope the following year, luridly describing it as “eternal damnation—the Inferno.” The Catholic catechism teaches that hell is deserved for “a willful turning away from God”—the very definition of nontheism.

Those are just two examples of preachers threatening humanist types with torture for our beliefs; with little effort, it would be possible to turn up thousands more. It wouldn’t take Clarence Darrow to characterize this kind of talk as grossly abusive, insulting, actually causing outrage, and intending every particle of the outrage it causes.

The harder part is establishing that a worldview like humanism is a religion, and that the abuse is directed against matters humanists hold sacred. Humanists are normally rather proud to think of themselves as the people who don’t have any religion. My mindset, though, is that of a practicing lawyer. If there is a right to be had, then my client is—without a doubt—entitled to it. If the brave new post-tolerant, multicultural world protects people’s feelings from being hurt by silencing minority opinions about the supernatural, then my client’s feelings should be protected as well.

Look back at humanism’s intellectual foundation and you don’t find an aggressive “there is no God” stance as much as you find “Nature is God, and should be revered.” That’s certainly what Spinoza was all about. He found God in the orderly working of the universe, and bitterly resented being called an atheist. So did Tom Paine, by my lights America’s greatest religious thinker: “When we behold the mighty universe that surrounds us, and dart our contemplation into the eternity of space, filled with innumerable orbs revolving in eternal harmony, how paltry must the tales of the Old and New Testaments, profanely called the word of God, appear to thoughtful man! …Do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, or any impostor invent; but the Scripture called the Creation.” Even today, Richard Dawkins can sound downright spiritual in waxing about the beauty and wonder of natural selection.

In 1933 a distinguished collection of humanists assembled the “Humanist Manifesto,” which dwells at length on what it calls “religious humanism,” a statement of values not involving a supernatural deity. The third and current version of the manifesto omits the term “religious,” but doesn’t detract from the sincerity of the original signers, and still speaks in reverent terms of “nature as self-existing” in the tradition of Spinoza, Paine, and the authors of 1933.

What do humanists hold sacred? Our lives—as far as we know, we each only have one—and the chance to experience that one life to the fullest through human relationships, learning, and the dignity of living justly. When Hagee and the pope say that having such a worldview is so evil that we deserve to be tortured, is that better or worse than comparing Jesus to a clown? They condemn us not because we have committed sinful acts, like coveting our neighbors’ wives, but simply for maintaining our treasured ideals. It is in this vein that a straight-faced case can be made that humanism constitutes a religion, deserving of precisely the same legal protection that any other religion is given.

This legal strategy has actually been tried before and it worked. In 1884 Joseph Symes, a former Methodist minister who had converted to freethought, emigrated from England to Australia and began insulting every religious institution he could. At his blasphemy trial, Symes flummoxed the prosecution by arguing that his Secular Association was a religious denomina­tion, and thus entitled to the same legal rights as any other religion. If other denominations were free to criticize each other, why couldn’t he do the same? Symes was convicted but given only a token fine. He persevered in his blasphemy thereafter without missing a beat, and, despite continued whining from Christian organizations, the authorities chose never to tangle with him again.

Citizens under the current Irish blasphemy law can’t initiate prosecutions as they can in England; they can only complain and try to persuade the prosecutors to launch a case. My proposal, therefore, is for humanists living under such laws to collect ammunition about the hate speech being spewed upon them from pulpits and over the airwaves, and then present a well-documented demand to protect, under such law, the most maligned set of believers in the country—those who contend that nature created itself, and that reverence and awe are properly reserved for the wonders we discover around us through our senses. In the lead up to the announced referendum, putting fire and brimstone theists on notice that they could find themselves on the receiving end of a blasphemy prosecution could help to demonstrate to the Irish electorate precisely why criminalizing free expression is such a bad idea. And it could furrow the brows of potential prosecutors, in Ireland and elsewhere, to learn that enforcing blasphemy laws, which protect ideas from criticism by individuals rather than individuals from oppressive dogmas, can stir up more of a hornet’s nest than they ever imagined.

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