Sunday, 15 February 2009

Free to agree

Johann Hari, a journalist on the London Independent, has stirred fierce controversy by defending the right to free speech and the right to criticise religions.

There were riots in Calcutta after an Indian newspaper reprinted his article, and the editor and publisher were arrested. Johann himself has received death threats and been condemned by religious fundamentalists for not showing "respect".

His opponents argue that religious ideas are unique and can't be discussed freely. Challenging any of their beliefs is "offensive", "abusive" and "prejudiced". He must keep his mouth shut and not interfere.

And what was he criticising? The stoning of adulterous women, the hanging of gay people and girls being forcibly married to their grandfathers. Practices so disgusting that any civilised person would want to end them.

But oh no, apparently he's not entitled to get angry over such barbarities because religion is a special case. If your god tells you to hang gay people, so be it. You have the right to do anything you like in the name of religion and nobody can stop you.

This claim to religious immunity is extremely dangerous. If it really takes hold and enough people support it, the long-standing tradition of free speech will be seriously threatened. Instead of being able to speak our minds, we will have to watch every word we utter, in case some religious fanatic objects and cuts our tongue out.

There is nothing "unique" about religious beliefs, nothing that sets them apart from any other kind of beliefs. They're merely ideas, to be accepted or rejected, proved or disproved, like ideas in general. And we're all entitled to do the assessing and have our own opinions.

To say we aren't is to subscribe to a very sinister political creed, the one that among other things caused World War Two. Its name is fascism.


  1. I guess it depends 'where' he made his point. Not everyone share's our views on free speech. If in England, I guess he can say whatever he likes and bugger the consequences. Interesting though that even there, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders was banned entry into the UK for exercising his 'free speech'. I mean even if we don't like what he has to say, he has a right to say it.

  2. Baino - His article was in the London Independent. But even in the UK there's a sizeable number of religious fundamentalists who believe in religious immunity and object to criticism.

    I agree Geert Wilders should have been allowed in to debate his views with his opponents. I don't quite know what the government is so scared of.

  3. The thing is there is no free speech when it comes to criticising any religion. The consequences of doing so in different countries vary on a wide spectrum from civilized (!) punishment such as ex-communication from church or your neighbours not talking to you anymore, to extremes like your life being threatened and all the way to being stoned to death, I guess.

    I hope no harm comes to this young man from the fanatic psychos.

    It's this reason that I don't follow organised crime, sorry I meant organised religion.

    God, if it exists the way they say it does, all knowing and all so perfect, would NOT order its followers to hang gay people or burn witches. Simply wouldn't order murdering masses of people or taking a simple life. That's my God in my utopia, one that is disgusted by the acts of those who harm others in any way imaginable or unimaginable.

    Free speech does not exist in every medium or country, even those that boast about freedom to all and all.

    You know what they say "there", we are all free and equal but I am freer than you, so shut up and listen.

    Debating is good. Thanks Nick for the thoughts.

  4. Oh, I see the army of the Invisible Cosmic Housekeeper keeps attracting new recruits, Nick. the only difference being that of uniforms.
    What strikes me forcibly about all of these cults is that, without exception, they are ballistically (sp?) anti-women and often paedophiliac as an added bonus.
    Fascism gets ever closer. You are so right!

  5. GayƩ - If someone's religious beliefs are strong and secure, they shouldn't be worried by criticism, their beliefs can withstand it. But then condemning criticism is really about power, not religion.

    www - Many religions have very oppressive practices that the rest of us are entitled to object to. As you say, many are thoroughly misogynistic. Mind you, misogyny is hardly confined to churches!

  6. Don't get me wrong here. I'm not in any way anti-religion. If you believe strongly in a supreme being, cosmic force, whatever, why not? As long as you aren't harming other people, forcing your views onto me, or not allowing my scepticism. Many people get great comfort and support from religion in this turbulent world. Personally I'm very attracted to the Buddhist philosophy (though not some of the things that are done in its name).

  7. That Geert Wilders issue is strange indeed - if you listen to him speak for more than half a minute you realise he's a loon - banning him from entering the country was surely a huge overreaction.

  8. Conor - Indeed, if his craziness is so apparent, why not let him speak and let people have the obvious reaction, to laugh him off?

  9. It's hard to publish anything these days without someone taking offense. I've even had my own fair share of loons lambasting me on my blog. I hope I don't get deported or have death threats!

  10. Quicky - You're right, people are so quick to take offence nowadays. Just be thankful as you say that you're not liable to such extreme penalties for opening your mouth!

  11. I totally agree with you Nick, and could never defend any of these behaviours, happening in the name of religion or otherwise, that you have mentioned. However I think we need to accept others should be able to critise us from their perspective too. Sadly a level playing field is a rareity.

  12. Suburbia - I agree, the right to criticise should be mutual not one-way. I'm happy to be challenged on my own views, which I'm sure are sometimes completely mistaken and irrational and in urgent need of correction!

  13. If we succumb to the erosion of free speech we are indeed on the road to a society in which I, for one, do not wish to live.

  14. Muddy - Absolutely, free speech is a vital part of a democratic society. Without it, governments become more and more oppressive.