Defending and Protecting Atheism Worldwide
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When I was asked to speak on the topic of “Defending and Protecting Atheism Worldwide,” I was immediately struck by the enormity of the subject. Think about it. Think of the social, political and cultural obstacles we have to overcome. Think about all of the work we have ahead of us.
One of the things I tell American audiences, in discussing these challenges, is that when you walk around Washington DC it is striking how every conceivable organization and interest group is represented there. There are over 30,000 registered lobbyists in our nation’s capitol. And just about every religious group has an office there. They represent the interests of churches, and mosques and temples; and they spend millions of dollars to make sure that these interests are protected and that their agenda becomes law. This is duplicated in every state capital throughout America.
Religious groups have huge, effective political and cultural mechanisms for shaping public opinion and mobilizing their followers. When I mention the term “religious fundamentalist,” you probably think of some uneducated, unsophisticated snake-handler foaming at the mouth and spewing out phrases from the Bible; but in the United States, Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists have become sophisticated political operatives. They control the Republican Party. They have television and radio networks, and even extremists like Pat Robertson and James Dobson have a high profile in the secular media. The American Family Association boasts that it floods Congressional representatives with 50,000 letters, faxes and telephone calls within 24-hours – and that goes a long way in determining which legislation gets passed and who gets appointed to the judiciary. They are, in effect, a political machine that no politician can ignore.
I tell Atheists that if WE want to have that sort of presence, WE have to borrow a chapter from the religious right’s “How To” manual. WE have start electing and influencing politicians, which is why I set up the GODLESS AMERICANS POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE. In terms of becoming more effective, we have to become more politically savvy, we have to do with our ideas what Pat Robertson and Dobson have done for theirs. We have to become “players” in the political process.
I can’t stand here and tell you to do the same. That has to be your decision. I can tell you that throughout the world, we would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunities that democracy offers. If you want to change the culture, if you want to influence the course of politics, some of it you have to do it as an insider. This doesn’t mean that we neglect the other things we’re organized for. And if we’re realists, we have to accept the idea that for the immediate future, at least, we will remain – in part – as “outsiders,” as a minority.
We like to talk about how secularism is spreading, how Atheists are “coming out of the closet” – and all of this is true – but there are countervailing forces at work here that we have to acknowledge. The point is that despite globalization and the fact that especially in the West we think of ourselves as modernists and cosmopolitans – citizens of the world advancing an Enlightenment agenda – religious fundamentalism is on the rise. There are many reasons for this. But the point remains that spreading the “good news,” the positive and humane and enlightened messages of Atheism and secularism is going to remain in our lifetimes a hard-fought, uphill struggle.
So that brings me back the original question: HOW do we defend and advance the cause of Atheism and the total, absolute separation of government and religion. Secularism and this separation remain the expression of Atheism in the public square. Religious belief should remain a matter of personal choice, and religious people – as members of a free society – must be free to believe in whatever deity or deities they choose to worship. They must be free to congregate. They must be free to practice their religion so long as this does not violate “neutral” civil laws. But religious belief must not be elevated to the status of a “special right” with special privileges, which is what is happening now in the United States. We have a growing list of laws, which empower religious groups and individuals with these “special rights,” and American Atheists has been fighting this legislation at the state and federal level for over a decade.
And the flip side of this is true. Just as the religious must be free to express their opinions, no matter how odious or erroneous they may be, Atheists must also be free to criticize religion. We must be free to express our opinions in the public square, no matter how “offensive,” or provocative, or “blasphemous” the religious may consider them to be.
And there’s the word I’m looking for – BLASPHEMY!
In his historic “Commentary on the Law,” the 18th century jurist William Blackstone declared that Blasphemy was “denying the providence of God, contumelious reproaches of our Savior Christ, profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures, or exposing it to contempt or ridicule.”
You notice that this definition is phrased to protect the Christian faith; and certainly in the West, Blasphemy statutes have been invoked to do just that. Mention blasphemy to the typical American, many of whom have a poor understanding of our First Amendment to our federal Constitution, and you are likely to be told that it is an obsolete practice. That it no longer exists. But in the rest of world, blasphemy statutes are alive and well.
With the surge of fundamentalist religions across the globe, there is a growing chorus of voices demanding limits on free expression, and penalties for those who “insult” or “defame” some religion, and on those who may “offend” religious believers by questioning the truth, the value and the historicity of these beliefs.
One of the biggest offenders here, of course, is Islam, and let me remind you of just one example of this, which is all but forgotten. It is the case of author Salman Rushdie. You may recall that Mr. Rushdie is a fiction writer, and it was his 1988 novel THE SATANIC VERSES that landed him squarely in the middle of the international culture wars raging at that time. The book was said to depict Mohammed in an unfavorable light. When Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi supported a move by two Moslems in the Parliament to ban the novel demonstrations by Islamic groups broke out and spread throughout the sub-Continent and into Southern Asia, and even to Great Britain. In London, the director general of the Islamic Cultural Center branded THE SATANIC VERSES as “the most offensive, filthy and abusive book ever written by a hostile enemy of Islam.” In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeni and his cadre of authoritarian Clerical Fascists saw blood and opportunity, and issued a “fatwa” or death sentence. Muslim groups throughout the world demanded not only the ultimate penalty for Mr. Rushdie, but declared that the novel should be banned as “blasphemous.” This was bad enough. But the real threat to civil liberties was coming, not just from the frenzied crowds of mostly young bearded men in distant Arab lands, but from the timidity of western governments and other institutions, and even the connivance of religious figures.
Canadian officials found a way to comply with Khomeni’s bullying by simply impounding printed copies of Rushdie’s novel at ports of entry. In France, Cardinal Decourtray buried the sectarian hatchet and emerged as an ecumenical sympathizer and charged that, “once again, believers have been offended in their faith.” The Soviet Ambassador to Great Britain seemed to agree. So much for “official Atheism” or the belief that the USSR was, somehow, a paragon in guaranteeing non-believers a robust, substantive and meaningful right to criticism of religion. Ambassador Leonid Zamyatin chose not to attack the clerical fascists but instead to criticize Mr. Rushdie and those defending him, saying that the publication of the book “clearly shows the need for respect for religious feelings and traditions…” In Rome, the official Vatican newspaper declared in bold type: “The very attachment to our own faith induces us to deplore that which is irreverent and blasphemous in the book’s content.”
And then there was the American reaction. We have a Conservative columnist and former political operative named Pat Buchanan who aggressively defends the religious right. He accused Rushdie of “writing a defamatory novel, a blasphemous assault on the faith of hundreds of millions … an act of moral vandalism by an artistic delinquent.”
Despite Rushdie’s credentials as a progressive intellectual, who is an Atheist who spoke out on behalf of the emancipation of women, freedom of expression and the virtues of secular culture, Mr. Rushdie soon found himself wanting for sympathy and support, even within many quarters the American and European liberal elite. The silence was deafening.
If you go back and look at the newspaper coverage, one of the things that stands out is how quiet college campuses were. Also revealing were decisions by major bookstore chains not to display or sell copies of the Rushdie novel. One bookstore that did openly and defiantly sell the book was firebombed, as were the offices of a small weekly newspaper that had vocally spoken out on behalf of the embattled author. But the chorus of westerners, including many religious leaders who condemned Rushdie or urged that the book be censored continued to grow. The Archbishop of Canterbury declared his conditional sympathies for the riotous Muslim fanatics demonstrating across Britain, condemning the book but urging restraint on behalf of the offended Islamists.
To be fair, some groups did courageously step forth to defend Mr. Rushdie and condemn the “fatwa.” But yet, the Rushdie incidence brought forth the emergence of a new rationale for resurrecting what were once considered obsolete statutes against blasphemy. And it is one that threatens Atheists today, one that woos public sensibilities and political elites under the seemingly innocent notion of “tolerance.” The rationale is that the state must intervene to “protect” religious and other groups from “insulting” or demeaning remarks. It has gone from a “crime against the almighty” into a politically correct notion aimed at preventing so-called “hate speech.” Mocking religion, either in passing jest or with hostile intent, becomes both a thought crime and an act of aggression. The fact that believers may be “insulted” or “offended” is cause to condemn the perpetrator or critic, while ignoring deeper truths about the falsity, absurdity or even harm caused by the religion in question.
Christian and Jewish leaders didn’t defend Mr. Rushdie because defending Any religion is preferable to allowing criticism of any religion. They circled the wagons, to use an American old-western phrase. Can’t we learn from that? Had Rushdie written a story making fun of a political figure, you would not find opponents of that same politician insisting that the book be banned, and the author be vilified. Rushdie had attacked religion. The lesson is clear. In the age of encroaching secularism, religionists will set aside their doctrinal differences, and demand protections from the state under the rubric of “hate laws” and other related statutes.
Now, lest you think that the Rushdie case is somehow irrelevant in the new millennium, consider that as we meet here today, Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci is actually on trial in Italy for making remarks in a new book that were supposedly “unequivocally offensive to Islam and Muslims,” something prohibited in the state criminal code. Ms. Fallaci was also sued in 2004 by the head of the Italian Muslim Union presumably for – and this is a quote – “lying, offending, and defaming Muslims around the world.” And this is all made possible by Italian law forbidding “outrages against religion.”
Fortunately, there are voices speaking out, if not in defense of what Ms. Fallaci has written about Islam, at least in defense of her right to voice her opinions. The International Herald Tribune editorialized on June 9 of this year: “Far from everyone will agree with Fallaci or with the way she expresses her opinions. But the right to make unpopular or intemperate statements is a hallmark of a free society.” The editors added that the issues at stake in the Fallaci case “go beyond the fate of one writer.” “Even in these volatile times,” said the Tribune, “Western judges and politicians must do all they can to make it clear that freedom of expression is nonnegotiable.”
You don’t have to go very far in news archives or on the Internet to see evidence that calls for laws against “blasphemy” are shockingly widespread. In June, the town of Staphorst in Holland approved a law against swearing, citing the Biblical passage of Exodus 29:7, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The New York Times reported on June 27, that Even Britain is considering a law against “incitement of religious hatred” to go with a law against incitement of racial hatred. And here in France they report that “public criticism of racial or religious groups is forbidden in pursuit of its vision of a homogenous, secular nation free of sectarian divisions.”
But back home in my country, the United States, a more serious bill was introduced in the NY State Legislature that: “Creates the crime of ridicule of religious belief or practices which is a Class B misdemeanor; provides that a person is guilty of the crime when in a public place he/she holds up the deity or the religious beliefs of any religious class of people to ridicule or hatred or presents religious beliefs in an obscene, lewd, profane or lascivious manner.”
Fortunately, this proposal hasn’t even made it out of committee. But take note of something very significant.
The wording of this legislation seems directed not so much at the (imaginary) god or gods who may be offended, but rather talks about “ridicule” and “hatred” of religious believers. In other words, the crime isn’t against “God” – it’s about protecting the sensibilities and sensitivities of believers. And this is what is so dangerous, and so seductive about the modern-day efforts to protect and “not offend” religious groups and believers. Free speech that is one of the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, is rendered conditional when religious practices or groups or feelings are involved. I can call the President of the United States all sorts of offensive names. I can see humorous and even biting satire in the mass media That’s considered part of the blow-by-blow of modern politics. But make fun of, say, pedophile priests or Mel Gibson’s bloody movie THE PASSION OF CHRIST, and groups like the misnamed Catholic league for Civil Rights howl in indignation.
There are more examples I can cite besides the cases of Salman Rushdie and Oriana Fallaci. Taslima Nasrin comes to mind, as does that of Dr. Younis Shaikh who served time in a Pakistani prison under the charge of blasphemy. And in May of this year, the international journalism group known as “Reporters Without Borders” cited the alarming climate in a number of countries where writers were being taken to courts for making profane or “blasphemous” remarks. And in India, over 640 people have been charged with blasphemy since 1988.
In Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair seems determined to make so-called “religious hatred” into a crime. Our comrades from Britain can probably enlighten us further about the ongoing threat to civil liberties posed by the government’s “Commission for Equality and Human Rights,” a title that reporter Nick Cohen of the Observer newspaper, accurately described as so “liberal and cuddly.” He cautioned, though, in a recent opinion piece against blasphemy statutes: “It’s only when you get to the details you find that the commission will fight all those who have prejudices against ‘gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age, religion and belief.’ “
Now, don’t get me wrong here. Discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, age and other factors is wrong, no doubt about it. But punishing those who happen to have an anti-religious or Atheistic opinions amounts to creating the offense of a “thought crime.” This is dangerous enough, but why should we suspend free expression simply to protect the sensibilities of ANY group, especially the religious?
There is a difference between challenging ideas and attacking people. Calling groups of people “dirty, filthy, evil and words like that” is hate speech, although I don’t think it should be criminalized. And neither the Atheist nor the theist should engage in personal attacks. What the theist wants protection from is criticism of their ideas. This is a protection that no one is entitled to. No ideas are sacrosanct. ALL ideas must be open to free and public scrutiny and challenge, even those of Atheism.
It is worth noting that the idea of insulating religious groups from criticism comes amidst the two ideas being echoed over and over again in both sectarian and secular media, even in the legislative halls.
The first is the notion that religion is “under attack” or that believers are being “oppressed” by the government or other civic institutions. In the United States, the religious right points to any court decision that strikes down coercive religious exercises or displays involving the state. For instance, if believers cannot hold a public prayer over the announcement system during a high school athletic contest, this is cited as evidence that religious rights are being curtailed. If a public school does not allow creationism or some other religious account of human origins into the classroom, groups protest that this is both “unfair” and “discriminatory” against their point of view.
The second notion is the claim that there is a category of so-called “religious rights” that require special protection by the law. American Atheists has been fighting this type of “special rights” legislation for years, and it has been an uphill battle. We have a number of laws at the state level, known as the “Religious Liberty Protection” or “Religious Freedom Restoration” acts which require government to use an exceptionally high legal standard before “infringing” on religious rights or exercises. It is not a protection for the common citizen, like our Bill of Rights. It doesn’t protect private businesses. It doesn’t even protect the government! It is exclusively for the legal insulation of churches, mosques, temples and other religious groups. In striking down one version of this legislation, United States Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens said that the law in question provided religionists with a legal instrument “which no Atheist could use.” Clearly, this is discrimination in favor of religion.
So, we have the chorus of shrill voices who insist that religion is “under attack,” that religious institutions are in desperate need of special protections and privileges, and that the power of government must be used to preserve and expand the range of religious exercise.
Logic dictates the next step – “protecting” religious groups and sensibilities from any and all criticism, ridicule, and questioning. And why not, especially if we accept the proposition that there ARE special “religious rights”. Speaking out against religion, no matter how rarified and academic the remarks are, is increasingly a risky enterprise.
I don’t want to over-state the case. No, at least in the United States, we are not on the verge of instituting widespread national or state blasphemy laws… not yet,--- but if some had their way…
And religious fundamentalism is coming to your country, if it isn’t there already. The changing geo-political landscape, globalization, population trends, and the sheer movement of people is fueling not just the rise of militant Islam, but also a confrontation of world views. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we truly have experienced what Samuel Huntington rightfully described as a “Clash of Civilizations.” Religious groups have rushed into the power vacuum created by the collapse of oligarchic states and “failed nations.” Despite the veneer of globalization and the spread of certain Western ideas, religious institutions and ideologies are playing more of a role in international politics than we would have imagined two decades ago.
So what do we do about all of this?
Attorney Eddie Tabash, a member of American Atheists and a man who openly ran for the US Congress as an Atheist – recently posted an essay on our web site that asked: “To bash or not to bash?”
“There is no rational basis for providing religious dogmas with its own special exemption from harsh criticism,” he wrote. “Religion is so entrenched in our society that its proponents have been able to foist off onto popular culture the notion that religion always deserves kid glove treatment.”
He goes on: “If we allow religionists to censor the words and arguments we use in our struggle to educate society in favor of secularism, we are essentially letting the fox guard the henhouse. Our society will never be receptive to a secular message so long as popular culture considers criticism of religion to be out-of-bounds…”
How do we do this?
First and foremost, let’s be honest and straightforward about who we are. I am an Atheist. I head an Atheist organization, and I am proud of the term Atheist. One of the achievements I can point to is all of the work we have done, especially in the past decade, to bring Atheism into the American political culture.
You know, one of the most important books I’ve read was titled “Active Faith,” and it was written by Ralph Reed, who served for many years as the Director of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in America. And one of the things Reed spoke of, over and over again, as he organized religious conservatives into a powerful political machine, was how fundamentalists/evangelicals had come out of their self-imposed closets, and began to gain political power.
Well, we need to come out of OUR closets, and start thinking about direct political participation, and we need to do this openly and proudly. I can tell you that in America, the Atheists – and again, I use this term to include all the various “flavors” of nonbelievers – delight in things like arguing with Christians, holding debates, communicating with each other on the internet discussion groups, one-upping the religious on lofty historical or intellectual matters and socializing. What I suggest, though, is that we do a little less of this sort of thing and a little more political organizing. We need to start thinking about winning elections, not just winning debates!
Now, maybe not all of you are Atheists, or you may use a different word for your Atheism. But however you describe yourself, I think the lesson here is to be open and proud of who you are.
Three years ago, American Atheists organized an unprecedented event, the GODLESS AMERICANS MARCH ON WASHINGTON or GAMOW. Over 3,000 of us came to Washington, DC for this daylong event; and we opened up the podium to representatives of many different organizations, including some who didn’t always agree with their fellow nonbelievers. We put aside the bickering; and we hopefully saw the future value in working together on the basis of mutual respect. One of the most important results coming out of the GAMOW was the need for Atheists and Freethinkers and Secular Humanists and any other nonbeliever groups and individuals – whatever you call yourselves – to not attack fellow nonbelievers. Bury the hatchet. Stick to political issues, not personalities. Accept the fact that, yes, we do and we will have differences… different approaches, different “styles,” different organizational cultures. But we have far more in common, and we should consider working together when and where possible on an ad hoc basis and in a way that focuses on specific issues and goals.
Another valuable resource to come out of the GAMOW was the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, which is encouraging and supporting Atheists to run for public office, and support candidates who pay attention to OUR agenda whether it’s at the local school board, or the state legislature, or in Washington, DC.
Finally, I want to convey to all of you the importance of speaking out unambiguously on behalf of freedom of expression. Atheists have always been advocates of freedom of sppech because without freedom of speech, we have no chance whatsoever of getting our message out to the wider society. Without free expression, we have no opportunity to engage the religious, challenge their message, their agenda, the assumptions of their beliefs. Without free expression, we cannot propose alternatives; we cannot defend and praise he best which our respective societies embody. We have to defend freedom of expression – no exceptions!
Let me close by echoing a very famous quote. It goes like this…
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It is commonly attributed to Voltaire, but most scholars agree that it was the invention of C.S. Tallentyre, who assembled a volume of the French philosopher’s letters.
Freedom of speech must be defended by political action as well as academic discussion and this will help us promote and defend Atheism worldwide.