A Blasphemous Question: Is Religion Anti-Freedom?
October 6, 2009 by Paul McKeever
to the September 30th, 2009 Meeting of the Durham Region Freethinkers
Today is the fourth anniversary of the publication of the famous 12 cartoons which many Muslims regarded as blasphemous. In response to the publication of those cartoons, many Muslims acted out violently, destroying property and even attempting to murder one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard (who created the famous bomb-in-a-turban cartoon). It is my understanding that, for this reason, International Blasphemy Day was scheduled for this day.
In March of this year, a non-binding resolution was passed by the U.N. [United Nations Organization] General Assembly which calls upon the world to make legal measures to require respect for religion, tolerance for religious beliefs and practices; laws to prohibit the “stereotyping” of “sacred persons” and religions. In particular, it called upon all states to “take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs”, and it proposes that freedom of speech should be limited so as to protect the reputations of others in respect of religious beliefs. My understanding is that the non-binding resolution adopted by the U.N. foreshadows what several theocratic states hope will become a resolution binding upon all U.N. member states.
Given the nature of this anniversary, and given the efforts of some in the U.N. to restrict your freedom of expression in relation to religion, I would like to speak to you tonight about free speech. In particular, I would like to discuss what the concept “free speech” properly refers to in a free country, and to do so by explaining the purpose it serves. And, given that the U.N. resolution in question concerns alleged “defamation” of religion, I would like to address the nature of defamation as it relates to free speech.
I submit to you that the concept “free speech” cannot be understood properly without knowing the purpose it serves in a human being’s life. Therefore, to know that purpose, one must have a valid definition of the concept “human being”. To that end, we must identify the essential characteristic of a human being; the characteristic that separates human beings from all other organisms.
I submit to you that the defining feature of a human being is not physical, but mental. We are essentially distinguished from the rest of life on earth not by the fact that we have opposable thumbs, but by the fact that we can communicate with one another via symbols. With nothing but sounds or characters, we can communicate to one another virtually any concept. My dog may love me; he may know how to get me to take him for a walk; but he could not write MacBeth even had he the fingers and dexterity to do it. Nor could he solve a simple mathematical problem. In short, human beings are distinguished from the rest of the animal world by our capacity to reason.
Unlike other animals, human beings must reason if they are to survive. They must discover how to make tools, how to produce heat, how to build a shelter, et cetera. In other words: they must determine how to create or otherwise obtain the values that make their survival and happiness possible. And they cannot make those discoveries unless they first make one fundamental decision: the decision to use their rational faculty. The decision to think.
But thinking is not enough. Action is necessary too. A man stranded on an island will die of thirst if he does not, in very short order, determine how to obtain water and food. However, even if he thinks up a workable plan, he will die if he does not act upon the plan.
Thought and action. Those are two things a human being must engage in if any human being is to obtain the values necessary for their survival and happiness. And, to the extent that a person both thinks, and acts upon his own thoughts, his survival and happiness are within his own control. If he chooses not to think, his survival depends upon chance or upon the thinking of others. Similarly, if he chooses not to act, or is prevented from acting, his survival depends upon chance or upon the productive actions of others. In other words, if he either does not think, or does not act, he becomes a dependant.
There are three ways to make a person a dependent. The first is to discourage him from thinking independently and rationally; to make him incompetent to solve the problems the must be solved if he is to obtain the values upon which his life and happiness depends. The second is to take advantage of his trust, and to provide him with falsehoods upon which he will rely, to his own detriment. The third is to coerce him with physical force.
Religion takes advantage of all three techniques.
It starts by discouraging independent, rational thought. Religion tells human beings that they cannot achieve happiness by independent thought. It tells human beings that they must defer the judgment of their own minds, and accept as true that which is asserted in a holy book or by religious leaders. It tells human beings to accept as true not only those arbitrary religious claims that cannot be supported by physical evidence (such as the existence of an all-knowing god), but also those claims which are demonstrably false (such as the claim that there is a conscious entity who pre-existed the existence of anything). In short, religion tells human beings that faith trumps reason and the independent judgment of ones own mind.
Having discouraged independent thought and encouraged unearned trust in the alleged word of an alleged god, religion proceeds to take advantage of that trust. It provides the irrational faithful with a mixture of true, arbitrary, and false beliefs; beliefs not only about the nature of existence, but also about ethics: beliefs about what one must and must not do; about how one must treat one’s fellow man, and why. It often asserts a relatively good afterlife available only to those who zealously accept and follow even the arbitrary and demonstrably false claims. Arguably without exception, religions tell individuals that an all-powerful god exists who commands that one must put the relief of other persons’ needs ahead of ones own happiness. Indeed, many religions add the notion that happiness can be achieved only by making oneself ones brother’s keeper, and by doing without material values. And, even worse, some argue that one has done nothing virtuous if, by sacrificing for others, one experienced some happiness.
Poverty, suffering, sacrifice, death: these are what religion holds up as the good. Pleasure, the production and retention of values, and the rational pursuit of ones own happiness: these are religion’s cardinal sins. Accordingly, religion discourages the actions necessary to produce the values upon which ones own survival and happiness depend. It thereby makes one dependent upon others for ones own survival. It undermines an individual’s competency to provide for his own survival and happiness.
For those who, in the face of religion, refuse to defer; who refuse to replace reason with faith; for those who choose to think independently, and who demand evidence; for those who reject the notion that their own happiness is a sin, and that their only reason for living is to sacrifice themselves; for all such people, religion resorts to technique number three: coercion. In democratic countries, the religions and their adherents can regularly be found to call upon governments to punish those who violate their god’s laws. It calls for the imprisonment or expropriation of those who provide or depict human sexual pleasure; for the imprisonment or expropriation of those who consume, or make it possible to consume, substances that ease our anxieties; for the fine or imprisonment of those who dare to open their retail stores on an alleged holy day, like Christmas, or Easter (or until as recently as 1992 in the province of Ontario, on any Sunday). In theocratic countries, popular support is unnecessary and the full merger of faith and force is complete, crushing reason and personal happiness under its sandal.
In these three ways:
• discouraging independent, rational thought and encouraging faith;
• communicating arbitrary and false claims upon which the faithful will rely; and
• using coercive physical force to prevent people from acting productively upon their own rational thoughts.
religion leaves individuals dependent upon chance and upon the whims of others.
Freedom, properly defined, is control, by ones own mind, over the disposition of ones own values. By “ones own values”, I refer not only to the material things one owns, but also to the actions of ones own body. The role of government, in a free society, is to ensure that you are not deprived of control; to ensure that no person uses dishonesty or force to obviate the need to obtain your consent; to ensure that you are not deprived of the ability to act upon your own rational thoughts; to ensure that you are not prevented from being able to live as an independent, free thinking adult.
When used to deprive someone of control over his life, liberty, or property, the role of physical force is to render the victim’s mind irrelevant. Coercive physical force targets the mind.
When used to deprive someone of control over his life, liberty, or property, the role of false or arbitrary claims is to cause even the most rational mind to err. False and arbitrary claims target the facts of reality.
Control – hence freedom – necessarily implies consent. Agreement procured with false or arbitrary claims is essentially equivalent to agreement procured at the point of a gun: agreement, in such cases, is not consent. In respect of attempts to deprive someone of control over his life, liberty or property, the effect of false or arbitrary claims is the same as the effect of coercive physical force: to obviate consent.
It is for this reason that government rightly imposes and enforces laws against fraud. The defrauder falsely claims to have control over a value that, in reality, he lacks; he misrepresents the facts of reality so that his victim will draw an erroneous conclusion that would not, otherwise, have been drawn. He thereby causes his victim to agree to transfer control of something (typically property) to the fraudster without ever receiving control of the promised value in exchange. The law rightly responds to the making of such false claims by forcing the fraudster to compensate his victim or otherwise pay for the loss his false claims allowed him to cause.
For the same reason, government rightly imposes and enforces laws against defamation. The defamer falsely claims another person to lack a value (e.g., skill in his trade), or to have a disvalue (e.g., an history of criminal conduct); he misrepresents the facts of reality so that others will draw an erroneous conclusion about his intended victim. He thereby may deprive the victim of those values – whether material (e.g., lucrative contracts from clients) or spiritual (e.g., the admiration of another person) – that the victim has or would otherwise have obtained. When such losses occur as a result of a defamation, the law rightly punishes the making of such false claims by forcing the defamer to compensate his victim or otherwise pay for the loss his words allowed him to cause.
“Freedom of speech” – a law prohibiting government from punishing the expression of ideas, beliefs, et cetera – would be an oxymoron were it to imply that government cannot outlaw speech calculated to obviate consent and thereby to deprive a person of control over their own life, liberty or property. Ask yourself: how would “freedom of speech” be the result of a “freedom of speech” law preventing the government from taking any action against a person who, by means of fraud, obtains copyright in an author’s work so as to prevent the printing and distribution of the work; so as to prevent the author’s words from reaching any audience?
Individual freedom – control over ones own life, liberty and property – is the very thing that constitutional laws guaranteeing freedom of speech are intended to defend. It is the only thing a law guaranteeing free speech logically can defend. That redundancy is why, in the final analysis of the concept “freedom of speech”, the words “of speech” are non-essential and, ultimately, dispensable.
Freedom of speech laws rightly prevent governments from outlawing speech that does not deprive an individual of control over his own life, liberty or property; that does not deny anyone his freedom.
And so, let us consider the claim that “defamation” of religion should be outlawed. I submit that it is not possible to defame religion for one reason: truth is a defence. It is true that religion requires one to accept false or arbitrary claims on faith. It is true that accepting false or arbitrary claims undermines ones ability to produce the values upon which ones own survival and happiness depend. It is, for that reason, true that religion is, in that sense, anti-freedom; that it stands in opposition to the rational and productive thought and action upon which ones own happiness depends. And, were our governments to resort to force to prevent us from saying so, our governments would, in effect, be outlawing reason, rational action, and personal happiness. It would be facilitating religions efforts to make us all mindless, dependent, miserable, suffering slaves.
I therefore conclude that we need no law prohibiting the defamation of religion. No law can prohibit the impossible.