Friday, December 10, 2010

The right to criticize religion

A lot of Americans are outraged when people criticize Christianity. Kathy Griffin has taken a huge amount of heat for her comments, as has Bill Maher. But most of those same Americans who are oh-so-upset by these criticisms also begrudgingly say that, indeed, in our country, these two, and everyone else, has the legal right to say what they say about religion, including to insult adherents. In the USA, we can shun those we disagree with, we can encourage TV shows not to book them, we can encourage people to not buy their books or go to their movies, and we can respond verbally however we want, short of threats of physical harm -- but Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher and others aren't under any threat of arrest in the USA for their comments about Christianity.

(Full disclosure: I adore Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher)

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, is a satirical musical play that will be staged this month at American Stage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. It's about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. It features characters of famous Scientologists, including John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kristie Alley, and most of the dialogue comes from the writings of Hubbard and church literature. Sure to offend some and delight others. Editorials will be written. There may even be protests. Regardless, it's completely legal to write, produce and talk about this play in the USA (although the Church of Scientology will probably sue for copyright infringement - their favorite way to shut down criticism of their church).

Sadly, the freedom to criticize -- even to insult -- religion is not something that is found worldwide. In fact, many countries want to stop all criticism of religion. These countries have pushed a UN Human Rights Council draft resolution on “Combating defamation of religions” that would, if adopted by the UN General Assembly, encourage governments around the world to create (if they don't have such already) and enforce blasphemy laws, which outlaw any criticism of a country's dominant religion. In the name of preventing religious discrimination, the resolution would add legitimacy to individual country laws that insulate religious orthodoxy from all criticism -- and imprison those who dare to challenge that orthodoxy.

Dan Shapiro, a research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, said this in a commentary for Troy Media:

The resolution claims, disingenuously, that it aims to combat discrimination based on religion. Of course, we should combat actual religious discrimination. For example, if you don’t get a job because you are Muslim or a Jew, that is unjustifiable discrimination. But this doesn’t mean that Islam or Judaism should be protected from criticism and debate.

In an Op Ed piece in The New York Times, Paula Schriefer of Freedom House says:

Because no one can agree on what constitutes blasphemy, laws that attempt to ban it are themselves vague, highly prone to arbitrary enforcement and are used to stifle everything from political opposition to religious inquiry. Particularly when applied in countries with weak democratic safeguards — e.g., strong executives, subservient judiciaries, corrupt law enforcement — blasphemy laws do nothing to achieve their supposed goals of promoting religious tolerance and harmony and instead are disproportionally used to suppress the freedom of religious minorities or members of the majority religion that hold views considered unorthodox.

While UN General Assembly resolutions are utterly unbinding -- they have no legal standing whatsoever and most are ignored by the majority of governments -- they are purposeful, deliberate statements by a group of people representing their governments. They often don't even represent the views of UN staff . But they do represent the views of the delegates that voted for them, as well as the governments they represent. So I'm not angry at the UN, per se -- rather, I'm angry at the member countries that voted for this reprehensible resolution.

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as declared by -- guess who? -- the UN General Assembly. And on this day, I celebrate the global human right of freedom of thought and freedom of speech -- including to think and say disrespectful things about religion. Or Atheists, for that matter. I look forward to the day this right is recognized all over the world.

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