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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A victory in the United Nations

For the first time in years now, the United Nations General Assembly has broken with what had become something of a tradition - passing an annual resolution condemning so-called "defamation of religion".

It is one thing for the UN to condemn actions to provoke inter-religious hatred. No one wants to see the world's societies riven with hatred, though it is worth remembering that much of the hatred comes from religious conservatives who refuse to tolerate sexual freedom (especially that of women), female emancipation, and any expressions of erotic love outside of heterosexual monogamy. Even in Western societies we see this in the emotive opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. It's another thing to become so focused on this issue that important kinds of speech are stigmatised and even prohibited. There is a public interest in scrutiny of religion, and it should be a fair target for criticism, denunciation, or satire.

At any rate, we should always err, if err we must, on the side of freedom of speech. Whatever lines are drawn in the area should allow bold speech that might offend - and this includes various forms of anti-religious criticism and satire. Such a liberal attitude to speech might permit some ugly speech, but the long-term effect would be to reinforce a valuable lesson: ideologically opposed groups of whatever kind - religious, political, or philosophical - must make their own way, enduring criticism, and even satire, from their opponents, without asking the state to interfere.

(For further elaboration of these sentiments, you can see my chapter on free speech in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. This is a theme of the book, and I discuss some of the important case law in detail.)


KR said...

What's funny is that a true ban on the defamation of religion would have to involve restrictions on religious expression, what with criticism of other religions being a fundamental component of many religions. Sacred texts often contain hostile declarations regarding competing spiritual doctrines, and these statements influence the attitudes and behavior of devoted readers.

But in all likelihood, the sort of ban that would actually be implemented would apply exclusively to 'defamation' by non-religious people, thus serving to persecute them.


Russell Blackford said...

I certainly agree with your first para.

In all honesty, though, I think a lot of the anxiety is probably about "defamation of Islam" by Christians.

Darrick Lim said...

Would it be considered Islamophobia to observe that Islam is, to my knowledge, the only major religion that has state-sanctioned anti-defamation/blasphemy tendencies that are often expressed violently, even murderously?

KR said...

>>In all honesty, though, I think a lot of the anxiety is probably about "defamation of Islam" by Christians.<<

Ah. Well, I defer. :-)