Saturday, January 2, 2010

Is freedom of religion necessary?

If standard human rights documents include freedom of expression, peaceable assembly, and the non-interference in the market of ideas and opinions, why do religions always get a whole other right to themselves?

I've always thought of this as a case of simple redundancy, but in the right (or wrong) hands it can be a lot more than that. Spun the right way, it means freedom of expression in the religious sense is protected more than in any other sense. Instead of my freedom of expression vs yours, it's my freedom of expression versus your freedom of religion and expression, and that of your organization.


Watch your mouth, Ireland!

I'm having a hard time straightening this thing out in my mind, and therefore deciding what to lay down about it. Short story: Ireland's national government has passed a law, in effect as of yesterday, Jan 1 2010, which criminalizes blasphemy. It carries a twenty five thousand pound fine, and is defined as the publication or utterance (utterance!) of any material that outrages a "substantial number" of members of any given religion.

Atheist media and pundits around the world are expressing incredulity, outrage, and laughing at the law. Atheist Ireland seems to be openly defying the law, publishing a list of 24 blasphemous quotes less than an hour after the it came into effect. That's cool, but their outward attitude and simplistic stance (freedom only) against the law may prove ineffective. I don't find it very funny, and believe there are some conceivable grounds, even. Ireland has a rich history of sectarian violence and terrorism associated with religious difference. On the surface, it stands to reason that if they give up a little freedom of expression in order to stop people pissing each other off in this arena, maybe that stuff will be slowed. While there's a scrap of logic there, is is quickly and roundly outweighed by evidence, examples, and logic pointing in the other direction.

Let's start with arguments for the new law being unjust, as that will be the easy part. Primarily I'm going with discrimination and inequality for those who do not hold anything sacred. Though the law treats everyone who does pretty equally, it leaves atheists, agnostics, humanists, and whatever else Irish atheists want to call themselves without any protection. This amounts to the state intervening in a conflict between two or more ideas by handing one (or one category) the win. If you're allowed to tell me my atheism is crazy and stupid, because it's not "sacred", why can't I tell you your bible is crazy and stupid? There are a bunch of arguments for this case, but that's my favorite one and they're all being covered to a gross extent all over the internet, so balls to that.

What I believe many opposing public people are missing, is the case for this law being completely ineffective, and possibly counterproductive. Religious violence stems from the entitlement of the pious, the societal idea that while it's great to scrutinize and assess ideas in the open marketplace, religions and their merits should be left out, because that's the nice thing to do. The wording of this legislation solidifies this, and even more frightening, gives religious groups a clear incentive to express "outrage". If the vagueness and flexibility of the law makes everything they get really, really mad about illegal why should anyone believe it will prevent them from getting really, really mad? So, if successfully enforced, it carries the promise of lots more expressed anger from organized religious groups, but can it even be successfully enforced? Are they going to start filtering the web, television, radio, and print media coming in from other countries still practicing freedom of expression in this area? How much outrage makes something illegal? How many people is "a substantial number"? It's a real mess.

In any case, I'll be watching this law and Atheist Ireland's campaign to have it repealed with great interest.