INTRODUCTION to REASON AGAINST BLASPHEMY
Isaac Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, Salman Rushdie and countless others have been branded blasphemers at one time or another. Some have been labeled such for their heretical points of view while others have been unjustly attacked and persecuted for what is essentially a ‘victimless crime’.
Literary virtuoso Salman Rushdie, whom I had the pleasure of sitting down with back in 2005, is quite familiar with the intolerant aspects of religion. Perhaps the most famous blasphemy case in living memory, Rushdie was accused of blasphemous slander for his irreligious work The Satanic Verses, and was the unhappy recipient of a fatwā issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time.
Even though Salman Rushdie had the bad fortune to be sentenced to death for nothing more than a difference of opinion, despite numerous attempts made on his life, he is alive in well today. However, his Japanese editor and book publisher, Hitoshi Igarashi, who lived in far off Tokyo, Japan, was gruesomely stabbed to death in 1991 by religious radicals seeking revenge on anyone who aided Rushdie in publishing his works. This appalling act of murder for nothing more than perceived “libel” in the name of blasphemy is a grave reminder that the undeniable fact of the matter is that blasphemy is a cruel and barbaric practice which has no place in the civilized world.
Still, blasphemy is a hot topic issue in our ever growing multicultural world. Many religious nations are now seeking to enact “Defamation of Religion” laws which would seek to make criticism of religion, all religions, a punishable offence.
Perhaps this desire to shield religion from opposing views arises, in part, due to the vanishing geographical boundaries which once separated peoples, cultures, and customs. Strong borders also allowed for the segregation of tribes, villages, and towns where the belief systems, rarely, if ever, came into contact with one another. In today’s information saturated world, we have technology such as smart phones, the Internet, and global news media which provide us with easy access to a sea of ever expanding knowledge. This has subsequently caused the regional boundaries to become blurred, and in many cases, it has forced countries to adapt to the rapid influx of new ideas and beliefs. Many of which, no doubt, have challenged the firmly established worldviews of the old world.
As the cross-cultural assimilation continues, one comes to realize it is near impossible to shelter oneself from the unlimited sea of information and ideas that are washing over us in waves. Both old and new worldviews have begun to rub up together, and in some cases, have crashed head on, like the sea frothing at the rocky shores of some distant seaside bluff. As such, this cross-cultural friction has led to one of two consequences. It has led to either an increase in the breakdown of cultural norms, where the old worldview is acclimated into the new (and vise versa), or else a defensive recoil occurs in which the old worldview tries to preserve itself by erecting even stricter laws and regulations to try and limit the cross-cultural influence.
Whereas the former breeds liberalism, the latter breeds conservatism, and it is in the conservative element that we find a weariness of the outside world and a preoccupation with “defamation” and “libel” regarding beliefs which are considered “sacred” or “divine.”
Blasphemy has been used (and continues to be used) as a tool to maintain the religious opinions against prevailing opposition and change. Making blasphemy a punishable offense goes one step further by allowing persecutors to actively seek to quell religious dissenters, apostates, and impede the growth of irreligious secularism and the heretical attitudes which are so easily fostered therein. It seems that wherever blasphemy arises as an issue of contention, we can be sure that we are not dealing so much with an issue of finding any real “offense” at criticism, but rather, we are witnessing resistance to change.
Wherever religion outrages reason to the point of due criticism, there has always been the religious self-reflexive defense to invoke blasphemy as a means to quell independent thinking and the freedom of speech, which stands in direct opposition to the stronghold of unimpeachable orthodoxy. But like Thomas Jefferson imbued, criticism is necessary if we are to properly evaluate the substance and worth of ideas, and therefore no idea is beyond reproach.
Needless to say, those who have lived sheltered lives in the safety zones of religious communities with closed off borders are not well equipped to handle derisive criticism coming at them from all sides. We cannot be too quick to judge the person of pious faith when their first reaction is toward anger and outrage when the foundations of their piety are taken to with sledge hammers of unyielding reproach. In many cases, they simply have not had enough experience with the free exchange of ideas to develop the thick skin required to be able to let the unimportant criticisms slide. Unable to respond to their critics’ barbed comments and cutting condemnation makes any mutual understanding difficult to come by. Subsequently, feeling criticism of their faith to be akin to abuse, the demand to shut down the discourse out of fear of further abuse arises, and blasphemy laws and defamation of religion laws are thus born out of such frustration. Resentment toward being on the receiving end of the criticism, indistinguishable from abuse in their mind, leads to outrage, and this goes a long way to explain why those who have a personal investment in preserving their religious beliefs and sheltering them from criticism often do not seem capable of reasoning dispassionately and leaving their emotions out of it.
Granted, modern blasphemy laws are a little more complicated than simply a desire to control other’s opinions and the outburst of infantile temper tantrums,1 but as far as the notion of blasphemy itself goes, namely the desire to safeguard what is deemed sacred as an inviolable truth, one cannot help find a morsel of truth in Oscar Wilde’s comment that, “Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.” Religious opinions have survived, in part, by unjustly persecuting those who have opposed religion, and consequently, would be deemed blasphemers.
Some contend that erecting universal blasphemy laws will seek to ensure greater tolerance among differing viewpoints, but if recent events are any indicator, the opposite seems to be true. Instead of greater tolerance, with every blasphemy law comes more outrage, violence, and narrow mindedness.
As recently as 2009, the Republic of Ireland introduced a new blasphemy law which would seek to protect religions against defamation and libel. But as is common with such laws, it has only lead to more unease, as it has set a president by which other religious run states call for the persecution of religious dissidents, i.e. apostates and freethinkers. One only look at the events in Pakistan and Bangladesh where Internet bloggers are being murdered and imprisoned for supposed “crimes” of blasphemy.
If the religious want greater respect, then they must earn it by respecting the rights of others first and foremost. Indeed, erecting blasphemy laws is not a valid method for spreading greater understanding and tolerance. One does not gain tolerance by telling people how to think and what to say. We can only have true tolerance and equality by allowing for the rights and opinions of others to be expressed equally, regardless of whether or not such opinions offend.
Caving into the demands of those who would make blasphemy a punishable offense is also the call to give up one’s freedom of speech perchance their opinions might offend. It is no surprise then that the concept of blasphemy is in direct opposition to the freedom of speech.
Islamic apologists have adopted the term “blasphemy” to describe any and all criticism of Islam. This has proved problematic. In an op-ed article in the National Post, Faisal Saeed al-Mutar and Jackson Doughart point out the incompatibility of the concept of blasphemy with the concept of the freedom of speech, when they relate:
“The earnest employment of the term blasphemy, and its advancement by Islam’s apologists as a tenable concept, is a clear enemy of open and secular society. Free expression, which constitutes the bedrock of the West’s process of deliberating controversial questions of value, cannot be balanced or reconciled with the idea of sacred and unchallengeable beliefs, since it contradicts the first principle of free speech: that even the most profane dissent must be protected.”
Blasphemy, as it is used today by most religious apologists, is nothing more than the tool of fear-mongers who wish to silence their opponents and anyone that does not share their particular brand of faith. Their message is clear: think twice before questioning our faith—our religion—because if you should be found in contempt, your punishment will be severe. It is the call for silence and unquestioning compliance to the will of religious authoritarians. It is to shackle your lips and censor your mind. This very line of reasoning prompted the late great journalist and intellectual author Christopher Hitchens to assert:
“I refuse to be told what to think or how, let alone what to say or write by anybody, but most certainly not by people who claim the authority of fabricated works of primeval myth and fiction and want me to believe these are divine. That I won’t have.”
Although he was known for his controversial views on religion, Hitchens’ sentiment was held with equal conviction by the great Freethinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century as well. Defying the imposition of theocrats abusing the rights of man was one of the main goals of the Freethought movement. The Great Agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll outlined further the notion behind the necessity to resist those who would seek to control or oppress the opinions of man, stating:
“Notwithstanding the fact that infidels in all ages have battled for the rights of man, and in have at all times been the fearless advocates of liberty and justice, we are constantly charged by the Church with tearing down without building again. The Church should by this time know that it is utterly impossible to rob men of their opinions. The history of religious persecution fully established the fact that the mind necessarily resists and defies every attempt to control it by violence.”
Throughout the ages the lesson has always been the same, if you do not agree with religion, you are to bite your tongue. If religion disagrees with you, it will cut off your tongue and condemn you as an infidel and a blasphemer.
Likewise, Robert G. Ingersoll observed the same danger with regard to blasphemy, when he warned, “Blasphemy is a padlock which hypocrisy tries to put on the lips of all honest men.”
Needless to say, in a world without religion there would be no such thing as blasphemy. In fact, the very notion of offending religious sensibilities can only be erected under the umbrella of religious faith. Outside of religion, however, blasphemy is by and large a meaningless concept.
This is why I feel publishing this volume is of timely importance. We must turn now toward the timeworn lessons of the Golden Age of Freethought. The war for Freethought has already been waged and won, but there are still religious organizations which would seek to bring our basic freedoms and liberties back under their control. Echoing the sentiment of Christopher Hitchens, I hope you’ll join me when I say, this we will not have.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we must reflect on the implications of imposing blasphemy laws and stripping men and women of their opinions. This is why I have found it necessary to reproduce the blasphemy cases of G.W. Foote and C.B. Reynolds as defended by Robert G. Ingersoll. Each case, separated by only a year, represents great victories in the arena of free speech and the freedom of expression.
G.W. Foote was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for the crime of “libel against religion” and I think the reader will find that his punishment was unjust. In fact, so did most civilized people of his day. Annie Besant, a friend of Foote’s, who three years prior faced similar charges of blasphemy for her Freethought work alongside Charles Bradlaugh, went on to write that “A struggle has begun, which promises to be one of the fiercest that this century has seen, between the bigots and persecutors on the one hand and the supporters of free speech on the other.”
She was not wrong.
Foote was the last person in England to ever serve a prison sentence for the crime of blasphemy, in part, for the outrage his sentence invoked in the minds of the English people. The law, even in 1886, was already considered archaic and stood in opposition to the freedom of the press. The fact that Foote’s prosecutor, Mr. Justice North, was a staunch Catholic and nursed an undeniable bias, meant that Foote had his work cut out for him. Needless to say, Justice North, who embodies the parody of a comic book villain, was incapable of hearing reason. As a consequence, Foote was tried and convicted for the crimes of blasphemy. After the trial, Justice North had to flee through a secret corridor out the back of the courthouse to escape the riots sparked by the public outrage of Foote’s sentencing. Sticking to the shadows and sneaking out the back of the courthouse like a common villain, Justice North proved that he was as much as a coward as he was contemptible. Able to sentence a free man to prison for voicing his honest opinion, but unable to look anyone in the eyes and stand by his judgment, it is to Foote’s credit that upon receiving his sentence from Mr. Justice North, he remained courteous and said, “My Lord, I thank you; it is worthy of your creed.”
Foote’s memoir of the trial, including an account of the trial proceedings and his subsequent prison internment, Prisoner for Blasphemy is required reading for anyone interested in the history of blasphemy laws and how this affects our rights as Freethinkers and as people.
In 2008, under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, England abolished its blasphemy laws. Likewise, in March, 2011, the UN Human Rights Council shifted from protecting beliefs (both religious and political) to the protection of believers (the individual) when amending the February 1989 resolution. This minor emendation takes us in the right direction of protecting people’s rights while limiting further the oppressive reach of religious theocrats by stripping them of their most favored weapon, blasphemy. I think Foote would have been disappointed that it took so long, but wherever and whenever reason wins out over age old superstition, we can honestly say, better late than never.
After Foote was released from prison in 1887, he went back to publishing the Freethinker. In 1890 Foote succeeded Bradlaugh as president of the National Secular Society, a position he’d proudly maintain for twenty-five years. The Freethinker is still published today. It is the longest running Freethought publication in existence.
At nearly the same time Foote was being released from prison, across the Atlantic, America was facing a similar crisis. C.B. Reynolds was a Freethinker who was known for passing out Freethought pamphlets revealing the contradictions and absurdities of the varieties of Christian religion. But for Puritan founded America, this was too much to bare, and Mr. Reynolds soon found himself faced with accusations of blasphemy, and a court hearing to determine his guilt. Lucky for Reynolds it was the Golden Age of Freethought. Enter war hero Col. Robert G. Ingersoll.
Civil War veteran, education reformer, and Freethought proponent Robert G. Ingersoll came to C.B. Reynolds aid, not because of any affiliation with Reynolds, but because the cause was just. After all, in a free country with a constitution guaranteeing the freedom of speech, no man should be punished for voicing his opinion freely. Robert G. Ingersoll’s defense makes it quite clear why blasphemy is an erroneous and outmoded concept. With his closing defense speech, Ingersoll forever did away with the notion that blasphemy could ever be tried under American law and forever insured that the freedom of speech was indeed more sacred than any religious ideal.
If Ingersoll’s brilliant defense of C.B. Reynolds and the victory for freedom of speech wasn’t enough, I have included Ingersoll’s lectures on “Blasphemy” and “Individuality,” as they relate to the topic, and show us a better alternative to the outmoded blasphemy laws of old.
As with my prior anthology Seasons of Freethought, I have updated the language and terminology for modern readership. It is never an easy choice to do so, as I feel that in some small way it betrays the beauty of the language as originally written. But language is ever changing, like the ebb and flow of the tides, and there comes a time when the old verses are too dissimilar from our current form of the language that it becomes distracting and, occasionally, causes minor difficulties in understanding. As my desire in reproducing these volumes is to present them to a new generation of readers, I have had little choice but to update the language. I think readers will find that the updated lexicon, along with modern grammatical forms, and with the utilization of the standardized English which is currently in vogue, makes the reading a much more smooth and enjoyable experience.
Archaic spellings, such as connexion for connection, have been updated according to the Oxford Dictionary of English corpus. Un– prefixes have been change to im– prefixes wherever necessary. Two word forms, such as some day and some where, etc., have been contracted to the single word forms of someday and somewhere. Unique or archaic spellings have been left intact where there is no acceptable alternative. Where a modern alternative to a word is found acceptable, the modern word form has been selected over the alternative, e.g. victress has been replaced by victrix and gaol has been replaced by jail.
Most of the changes are merely cosmetic and do not change the meaning or content in any significant way. The choice to use modern American spellings over the old British or old American spellings is twofold. First, it allows modern readers to read with ease and enjoy the content without being confused as to the meaning of old spellings or terminology which might disrupt reading flow. Secondly, the simplified American spellings cut down page count significantly, making anthologies and collections, such as the one you hold in your hands now, cheaper to produce and thus less costly.
Beyond these rather mundane technical enhancements, I have tried to stay as true to the source material as possible while updating it for a modern readership. Most assuredly, I am pleased to present a new generation of Freethinkers, Skeptics, and Atheists with an accessible and affordable collection of works by two of the greatest defenders of Freethought and free speech who ever lived.