Sunday, 1 November 2015
Blasphemy laws versus the inalienable right to cause religious offense.
Should religions and their founders be uniquely protected against criticism and ridicule, in a way that political and philosophical systems are not? And if so, what would happen if the Nazi Party started marketing itself as a religion? Would that put Nazism and Der Fuhrer beyond criticism?
Alternatively, should religions have to take their chance in the free marketplace of ideas, as do secular belief systems?
Here's a thought-provoking article by philosopher Roger Scruton:
"To people like me, educated in post-war Britain, free speech has been a firm premise of the British way of life. As John Stuart Mill expressed the point:
"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
That famous statement is not the last word on the question, but it is the first word and was, during my youth, the received opinion of all educated people. The law, we believed, would protect the heretics, the dissidents and the doubters against any punishments devised to intimidate or silence them, for the very reason that truth and argument are sacred, and must be protected from those who seek to suppress them.
Moreover, public opinion was entirely on the side of the law, ready to shame those who assumed the right to silence their opponents, whatever the matter under discussion, and however extreme or absurd the views expressed.
All that is now changing. Under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, it is an offence to stir up hatred towards religious and racial groups. "Stirring up hatred" is an expression both loaded and undefined. Do I stir up hatred towards a religious group by criticising its beliefs in outspoken terms?..."
Ed Miliband promised last April that a future Labour government would make Islamophobia into an aggravated criminal offence, and meanwhile the consequences for a civil servant, a policeman or a teacher of being accused of this fault are serious in the extreme."
This takes us back to what John Stuart Mill had in mind. It is not falsehood that causes the greatest offence, but truth. You can endure insults and abuse when you know them to be false. But if the remarks that offend you are true, their truth becomes a dagger in the soul - you cry "lies!" at the top of your voice, and know that you must silence the one who utters them..."
Fortunately, in contrast to some of the more intellectually-challenged religions, Buddhism has no need of special protection from criticism, as it is firmly grounded in philosophy and science.