Just as I was composing this post about Nick Cohen’s book (‘You Can’t Read this Book‘), which addresses the psychology of religiously-motivated censorship, I read about Stephen Fry reportedly being investigated by Irish police under blasphemy laws. Since the existence of such law, in 2017(!), would be as retarded as Fry’s understanding of theology, I was initially a bit skeptical. Unfortunately it’s true. According to Independent.ie, the complainant, one member of the public, believed that Fry’s remarks were criminal under the Defamation Act 2009. The Act has an entire section (36) on blasphemy, and it’s extremely subjective in its wording. Hard to believe, isn’t it, that such a backward piece of legislation exists in Ireland and in the United Kingdom?
Onto Nick Cohen’s Book: There are three sections, dealing with religion, money and the state, and there is a fourth section suggesting solutions that are more abstract than practical. Here I’ll cover the first and add some of my own thoughts. Not because of the religious angle, per se, but because it’s where we find the most lucid descriptions of how the supposition of our collective liberalism and tolerance is pretty difficult to justify sometimes.
It seems fitting to quote the extract from the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:
‘Be it enacted by the General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities‘.
Here Jefferson demanded no less than the right of anyone to express their religion in the public sphere and the right of anyone to criticise a religion. It does not imply that expressions of religion should be banned from the public arena, or that one should keep his/her religious beliefs private – legislating that would be state censorship, essentially, for what is religion but a system of ideas?
Jefferson is essentially trusting in the individuals’ ability to reason for themselves, to defend their opinions and beliefs through argument, and to follow their consciences. Christianity is no less a valid basis for morality than what the secular world ultimately bases its ideals on, if most of us believe in the principles of fundamental rights, human dignity and the sanctity of life. We have the intellect to resolve the more challenging questions of applying these principles in the real world.
This freedom is important, because human rights violations, oppression and injustice do indeed happen, they should be exposed and they should be openly discussed. Sometimes they aren’t: Overall Cohen’s book is about how our desire to openly discuss the issues is often outweighed by the fear of retribution, the fear of being sued, the fear of how it would impact our careers, the fear of something consequential. He made the case for this far better than I ever could.
Cohen argued that mainstream ‘liberals’, maybe for fear of causing outrage among religious zealots, cannot be objective and consistent in criticising oppressive ideology, and there are real-world examples provided of established liberals turning on those who criticise the oppressors – the Salman Rushdie drama being just one case in point. This is perhaps why we see only outrage against trivial instances of ‘oppression’ within our Western culture, instead of solidarity with victims of real oppression in other nations where Islam is dominant. And this is only a facet of the underlying problem – ultimately the same kind of fear prevented employees of global banks warning us of the impending economic crash of 2008, and forces the press to consider the risks of being sued when holding those with financial power to account.