Nothing Should Be Immune from Criticism

Ronald A. Lindsay

Apart from the right to life, freedom of expression is the most fundamental human right.

History has proven that free expression has immense instrumental value. It is difficult to imagine how we would have been able to secure the other rights we hold dear—the right to freedom of conscience, the right to vote, the right to be free from slavery, the right to due process, the right of women to equal treatment, and so forth—absent public criticism of traditions, dogmas, and pseudoscientific beliefs that worked to keep in place unjustifiable restrictions on our liberty and autonomy. Moreover, free expression is essential for determining the truth of any claim, whether in science, history, philosophy—or religion. One cannot undertake an adequate, objective examination of claims absent freedom of expression. Finally, freedom of expression has intrinsic value. The dignity of the individual requires the freedom to express oneself as an individual. If one is compelled to mouth only those words that are sanctioned by those in authority, then one’s status is indistinguishable from a puppet made of flesh.

Recognition of the importance of free expression was one of the principal motivations behind the Center for Inquiry’s decision to help launch what is now International Blasphemy Rights Day (IBRD) in 2009*. Freedom of political speech is still restricted in many countries with authoritarian governments, but criticism of religion is even more widely restricted, being prohibited under some circumstances even in some countries that have democratic governments, including Greece, Germany, and Canada. There is no such thing as “partial” freedom of speech, any more than there is the status of being “partially” pregnant. If speech is to be truly free, no claim, no belief should be immune from criticism. The special status granted to religious beliefs by many countries is indefensible.

At the time of the launch of IBRD in 2009, one of the primary threats to freedom of speech with respect to religious beliefs was the ongoing effort by a number of countries, principally predominantly Muslim countries, to have various bodies of the United Nations condemn “defamation of religion.” That particular effort has waned somewhat, and, in 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on religious intolerance that made no reference to “defamation of religion.” Unfortunately, the use of legal mechanisms in many countries to suppress criticism of religion has, if anything, increased in the last few years, whether the laws invoked are explicitly blasphemy laws or some ill-disguised clone, such as laws that prohibit “hostility” toward religious beliefs or believers.

Those who favor the punishment of expression critical of religious beliefs will sometimes refer to the right of believers not to be offended. But there is no such right. Obviously, as humanists we respect the worth and dignity of all persons, but that presupposes that we treat others as our equals and not condescend to them as though they were children who cannot accept criticism of their beliefs. Moreover, it is immediately obvious that if such a right were to be recognized, it would effectively prevent any critical examination of religious beliefs—which, of course, is the real goal of those who advocate for the spurious right not to be offended. Framing laws in terms of protecting religious sensibilities cannot obscure the fact that both the intent and effect of these laws is to protect majoritarian religious beliefs and punish dissent. To quote Robert Ingersoll, “The cry of blasphemy means only that the arguments of the blasphemer cannot be answered.”

Sadly, even those who may not favor punishment of speech critical of religion will sometimes condemn criticism of religion, especially if it takes the form of satire. And, of late, if the satire is directed against Islam or Muhammad, the dread specter of “racism” is invoked. For example, in an especially despicable essay, the writer Jacob Canfield heaped criticism on the just-murdered editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo on the ground that their cartoons ridiculing some aspects of Islam were “virulently racist.” They were racist because, well, because in some of the cartoons Muhammad had a big nose and, you know, the editors were white.

There is, of course, such a thing as satire that’s in bad taste, and certainly some satire could be racist. But the notion that exaggerating the facial features of a well-known figure is “virulently racist” if the cartoonist has lighter skin than the subject of the cartoon has far-reaching and absurd implications, including the implication that no white cartoonist should ever draw a cartoon of President Barack Obama with big ears (as some do).

The reality is that those Muslims who object to satire targeting Islam or Muhammad don’t care if the cartoonists are white, yellow, brown, or black. Furthermore, it’s not just satire to which they object. They don’t want any criticism of Muhammad or Islam, whether it takes the form of an academic treatise, a film, or a cartoon, regardless of the tact or refinement of the author. Raif Badawi continues to languish in a Saudi prison not because he is a white racist who drew an unflattering cartoon of Muhammad but because he dared to sponsor a website that provided a forum for a free exchange of ideas, including criticism of Islam.

The charge of racism against those who critique Islam is just an updated, politically correct version of the cry of blasphemy—a fashionable fig leaf for those who want to mask their role as censors.

In the pages of this journal, we routinely publish criticisms of all beliefs, including from time to time criticism of some beliefs held by humanists. Typically, this criticism takes the form of essays and scholarly works. However, we have occasionally published cartoons, and this issue of Free Inquiry is one of those occasions. Although cartoons are no substitute for scholarly analysis, they are a recognized and respected vehicle for making a point—sometimes much more effectively than a lengthy essay. As Paul Kurtz observed, when commenting on Free Inquiry’s 2006 republication of four of the controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons, “It is clear that one cartoon may be worth a thousand syllogisms.”

Our view is that no topic is off limits. In addition, certain topics invite scrutiny because they relate to claims that are put before the public and that the public is urged to accept. In free countries, political topics are openly debated and political figures are openly lampooned. Religions make claims that are as important as political assertions; these claims should be similarly subject to scrutiny and open debate, and religious leaders are similarly appropriate subjects for satire.

We are told by Mormons that the Book of Mormon contains divine revelations and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. These are important claims that demand attention and critical examination and are appropriate subjects for satire, as the award-winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon demonstrates. We are told by Muslims that the Qur’an contains divine revelations and that Muhammad was a prophet. These are important claims that demand attention and critical examination and are appropriate subjects for satire. This journal—at least—is not going to be intimidated or cowed into silence about any claim, political or religious, or about any leader, political or religious, whether the attempt to silence us is based on overt threats or rhetoric derived from the canons of identity politics.

And while I’m at it, L. Ron Hubbard was a fraud and Scientology is a scam.

Happy International Blasphemy Rights Day!

*The 2009 initiative was named simply “Blasphemy Day.” By 2010, the name had been expanded to International Blasphemy Rights Day, reflecting the global nature of the problem and the imperative that not only blasphemous utterances but the very right to blaspheme demanded vigorous defense.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.