"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Beware of blasphemy laws

Over the past week or so there has been a rash of stories from diverse countries involving the non-crime of blasphemy.
Some of these are extremely worrying and serious, if to be expected, like the arrest of four atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, putatively at the behest of a mob of Islamic fundamentalists. Others like the conviction of Turkish pianist Fazil Say for tweeting against Islam, and the backing by Russia of a harsher anti-blasphemy law following the Pussy Riot protest may have political rather than religious motivations behind them.
But regardless, this trend towards using the law to defend religious sensibilities is one that needs monitoring and combating wherever it manifests itself. Blasphemy is an insidious concept that seeks to protect ideas from criticism under the cloak of protecting the feelings of the believers that cherish them. Sometimes this is overt as the law may actually be worded as “offending religious sensibilities” rather than blasphemy per se so framing it as a crime against persons rather than a deity or a religion, but is really a way to prevent the claims and consequences of those religions from being scrutinised.
The idea that religion is a special case, and therefore should be respected whatever, is of course not new. Even when blasphemy isn’t actually illegal in a society it is often socially unacceptable to criticise or ridicule religious beliefs or practices and those who break the taboo are often defamed as shrill, strident or divisive for doing so. You only have to see the invective that people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens can attract to realise how precious some aspects of society can be about religious conviction.
The problem with this is that although a polite toleration of religious, and indeed political, thought may be fair enough around the dinner table to preserve an equitable atmosphere, once out in the wider marketplace of ideas the inability to criticise religion’s assumptions about what is the right way to order a society can quickly stifle debate and give religion’s more egregious consequences a free pass. It can also be used as a cover for supressing political dissent, which I suspect is the real reason Vladimir Putin is so in favour of such laws.
It is a fact that many of the world’s pressing political and social justice issues are framed in a religious context; from gender equality to planned parenthood, education for middle eastern girls to FGM and Burqas, cast discrimination in India, stem cell research, science education, even climate change and the environment, the religious of all stripes have a stake in the agenda. Regardless of where one stands personally on these issues it cannot be healthy if one side of the debate is stifled by laws that prevent the religious basis of argument to be challenged. If a politician or other opinion maker is motivated by her opinion that the world should be so because Allah or Yahweh decrees it, we should all be free to challenge the premise. If not we are living in a theocracy despite what our countries’ constitutions may suggest
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating that respecting an individual’s right to a belief does not entail respecting the belief itself. However people can often be offended (or at any rate claim offence) when their beliefs are even mildly criticised, which is what makes blasphemy laws dangerous as religion is particularly sensitive in this respect. This is not to say that religion should be excluded from social debate but it should not occupy a privileged position supported by laws (or conventions) that protect it.

In response to the arrest of the atheist bloggers in Bangladesh I have written to their High Commissioner in the UK as follows
Dear Sir, I am writing to protest the arrest of Asif Mohiuddin, Rasel Parvez, Mushiur Rahman Biplob, and Subrata Adhikhari Shuvo on charges of blasphemy against Islam. No civilised country can hold its head high in the international community while denying freedom of expression to its citizens and unreasonably protecting religious or political ideas from criticism or dissent. I urge you to put pressure within your government to ensure these atheist bloggers are not only released but assured safety from the ignorant baying mobs that will surely pursue them. Rest assured that the greater worldwide secular movements will continue to point at Bangladesh and shame your government if this vile blasphemy law continues to be used to supress the perfectly reasonable opinion that there are no gods. Not only does the existence of such a law demean your country, your government and your people, it also demeans the religion of Islam which is obviously so insecure in its own beliefs that it cannot stand dissent or critique. Suppression of free speech on the internet is in any event a futile exercise as there will always be people, like me, to take up the cause for secularism and the right to criticise religion from within those countries that are sufficiently mature to have abandoned such medieval notions as blasphemy. So once again I call on your country to release and protect Asif Mohiuddin, Rasel Parvez, Mushiur Rahman Biplob, and Subrata Adhikhari Shuvo. The world is watching.. Yours Sincerely
I have yet to receive a reply or an acknowledgment of this letter, which is disappointing, but allowing this sort of thing to go unremarked is to perpetuate the idea that blasphemy is a real crime that can merit a civil punishment. Secularists all over the world are also penning similar missives to their respective ambassadors so I can only hope some good will come from this
Although we have come to expect Islamic countries to incorporate blasphemy in their legal system it is worth remembering that it was only in 2008 that laws for this “offense” were repealed in the UK and we need to watch out for well-meaning but misguided people who would see them back.


  1. We are presented here with a genuine philosophical problem, one which inherently requires for its full discussion that we describe something which some minds might find altogether shocking and distasteful -- but this is a discussion from which we can not cower, for we shall not censor ourselves in the pursuit of the greater truth simply because some might find distress in the particulars. And so, we now envision for a moment a meeting in the desert between Jesus Christ and Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam. Imagine that in this meeting, Jesus falls to his knees before Mohammad, and Jesus proclaims fealty to the holiness of Mohammad, and then Jesus joyously performs oral sex on Mohammad, to the point of bringing Mohammad to orgasm in his mouth, culminating in Jesus Christ willingly and happily swallowing Mohammad's semen. This vision, though surely shocking, is not intended simply to shock for the sake of shock, but to raise a serious theological question, one which can not be fully explicated without discussion of this idea or something like unto it.

    According to Jesus in the Bible, to sin in one's mind is the same as sinning in reality. Matthew 5:27-30 recites:
    Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

    But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
    And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
    And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
    From Islam, we similarly have the words of Mohammad, admonishing:

    The fornication of the heart is to desire evil.
    But if it is at all a sin to imagine Jesus taking happiness in the moment of licking and sucking Mohammad's erection to an explosive orgasm (a proposition necessary to discuss this philosophical point), then surely by reading this -- and thereby inviting the irrevocable instillation of this image into his (your) own mind -- the reader (you) who would condemn this image thereby sins. And this sin is certain and irrevocable -- simply passing your eyes over the phrase "Jesus happily licked his lips as he tried to swallow every spurting drop of Mohammad's sperm" inevitably and indelibly causes the forces within your mind to generate an image matching the concepts, an image of the mouth of Jesus willingly sliding back and forth over the spit-slickened cock of Mohammad, and of Mohammad's hot semen spurting into Jesus's mouth and Jesus gulping it down like a baby supping milk from its mother's breast. As you can not unring the bell; some things, once seen (even only in the mind's eye), can never be forgotten. Surely one cannot easily dismiss the image of one's savior taking pleasure in fellating the Prophet.


  2. (...continued)

    Naturally, it may be begged that the reader bears the responsibility for choosing to read a passage titled "Warning: Reading This May Condemn Your Soul To Eternal Hell"!! Reading this essay was a choice; allowing the vision of Jesus nimbly using his lips and tongue to orally pleasure the full, erect length of Mohammad's penis to be forever seared upon ones thoughts was a choice, the reader's choice (your choice), possibly even the reader's destiny (your destiny, if our Creator knew in creating the world that your moment of reading this would come). And so the reader deserves the eternal damnation which accompanies the reading of these words.

    And consider the possibility that the next time you masturbate or have sex, whichever form of stimulation may come first, you might well come to think of Jesus sucking a cock (possibly, if you've got one, of Jesus sucking your cock). Because you have read the suggestion of these lines, this image may spring unbidden to your mind even the next time you become sexually aroused, by whatever forces work this upon you. The power of suggestion effectively demands it, makes it impossible for you to do otherwise, for in your truest self, the self which would be subject to judgment, you have become desirous of seeing Jesus sucking a cock (or, again if you have one, of having Jesus lick and suck your cock). And if such desire merits punishment so shall you be punished.

    According to the many worlds hypothesis, there must be some alternate Universe out there where exactly such a blowjob has been bestowed. Or we might exist in the sort of reality once hypothesized by Robert Heinlein, where out manufacture of a mythical Universe wrenches it into a reality. And the novelization of Jesus enjoying homosexual activity is hardly newly introduced in this philosophical problem -- there exists a common subgenre of fan fiction is called "slash" fiction. And, surprise, it has nothing to do with horror stories, but is instead focused on the imagineering of romantic -- and oftimes explicitly sexual -- relationships between the characters.

    There are, naturally, an out, a route of escape from this eternal condemnation. Most prominently is if the whole idea of sin and divine judgement is mythic. But, if such account is true, and the only release is cutting away the part that sins, then it seems that the only liberation from damnation for those who have read this far is lobotomization; the erasure of whatever parts of your brain would store such a memory.

  3. (...continued)

    Another problem arising from this formulation is that of allowance. To be specific, the question may be raised, why is it at all possible to speak and write so disrespectfully of religious icons without some intervention on the part of any purported deity? This may seem a trivial objection, a theodicy problem easily answered by reference to the convoluted ways attributed to such deity, but a critical difference lies herein. For this is not merely a proposition that some unattended "evil" exists (in this instance, the generation of a permanent image in the reader's mind of Jesus slurping the milk of Mohammed's stiffened man-bone, which the reader might consider an evil). This is, instead, a proposition of an act which is at the same time damning under the conventional theological model, and incapable of evasion -- it represents not an exercise of a choice to be damned by the reader, but an exercise of our inherent psychological state which overrides free will, leaves it laying bruised and battered by the roadside, powerless to prevent our brains from forming images which are of the type our brains will generate in response to the stimuli of descriptive words.

    In other words, if the theistic idea of sinning in the mind is true, then the deity described in such accounts has laid an inescapable trap for its followers. It has given them over to be eternally damned by a reflex which lies outside of human control. And that is an evil which crushes any notion of free will. And further, it seems equally damning to question why any deity would allow such a sentence to be put to words. Why is it even possible for me, even as a philosopher arguing a point which requires this assertion, to write the phrase, "Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, gleefully sucked on Mohammad's hard cock until Mohammad ejaculated so much that his hot man-juice sloshed down Jesus' throat, even as a little bit spilled out of Jesus' mouth and ran down Jesus' beard."

    It is a problem for the ages.

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