Ireland has recently enacted a law banning “blasphemy,” which has in turn attracted plenty of justified criticism:
Secular campaigners in the Irish Republic defied a strict new blasphemy law which came into force today by publishing a series of anti-religious quotations online and promising to fight the legislation in court.
The new law, which was passed in July, means that blasphemy in Ireland is now a crime punishable with a fine of up to €25,000 (£22,000).
It defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted”….
But Atheist Ireland, a group that claims to represent the rights of atheists, responded to the new law by publishing 25 anti-religious quotations on its website, from figures including Richard Dawkins, Björk, Frank Zappa and the former Observer editor and Irish ex-minister Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Michael Nugent, the group’s chair, said that it would challenge the law through the courts if it were charged with blasphemy.
Nugent said: “This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentives religious outrage, and because Islamic states led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.
There are many strong objections to the new Irish law, including the ones noted by the Atheist Ireland leader quoted above. I want to criticize the implicit assumption that it is somehow more justifiable to forbid criticism of religion than of secular political or moral views. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I don’t see why it is more objectionable to criticize Christianity or Judaism as opposed to conservatism or Kantianism. One possible answer is that many people are deeply attached to their religious views and are more likely to be offended by harsh criticism than believers in secular ideologies. But that is far from universally true. Some people care deeply about their secular political and moral commitments, as well, and may be just as offended by criticism as religious believers. Think of the reaction of strongly committed environmentalists to harsh criticism of recycling, for example. An alternative defense is that criticisms of religion are particularly likely to be inaccurate or based on unfair prejudices. But there are certainly many examples of inaccurate and unfair attacks on secular ideologies. Just look at the public debate over almost any contentious political issue.
Perhaps the most common argument for treating religion differently is the long history of persecution based on religion. But there is also a long history of persecution targeting advocates of dissenting secular political ideologies. In the last 100 years, it is likely that more people have been killed or imprisoned because of secular political beliefs than because of religious ones. Think of all the people repressed for such reasons under communist, Nazi, and fascist dictatorships. It’s also worth noting that in many countries, there is a long history of persecution of atheists. Arguing for atheism often involves “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by [a] religion.” For example, atheists often forcefully argue that God doesn’t exist, which can certainly be perceived as “insulting in relation” to a “matter” held “sacred” by most of the world’s major religions. Even if anti-blasphemy laws don’t impose a complete ban on pro-atheist speech, they surely have a chilling effect on it. Ironically, the effort to protect religion from persecution has the effect of facilitating prosecution of a group that has been persecuted at least as much as any religion. Note also the asymmetry in allowing unlimited criticism of atheism by religious believers, while the atheists have to carefully calibrate their responses lest they say something that runs afoul of the anti-blasphemy law.
Obviously, the law could potentially be amended to forbid all speech that is “grossly abusive or insulting” to any moral or political views, whether religious in nature or not. However, no liberal society would even consider that approach, since it would have the effect of chilling public debate across the board.
UPDATE: I have made a few changes to the post to eliminate awkward phrasing.