Monday, July 19, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 07

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

Today: Proposition 7:

We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce [6]. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.


What are we supposed to do if international law comes to include a law against blasphemy?

Let us imagine that the international community becomes so heavily dominated by the religious that they decide to pass laws against blasphemy. They make it illegal to "insult" or "attack" any religious beliefs - construing statements such as "your prophet was just a man" and "Your scriptures are substantially fiction and no God had input in their creation," as attacks on their religion.

According to this principle, we would not be able to affirm any right to freedom of expression that violated international law. We would also have to condemn anybody who made those types of statements. We would be calling for the respect and the enforcement of those laws.

Which, of course, is an absurd position to take.

If our rights are determined by what has or has not been made illegal, then we have no rights. When we start to use the law to determine what is just and unjust, then there can never be anything as an unjust law. Even a law calling for the execution of whole populations becomes just if we make the right to life subject to "limitations only as prescribed as international law."

If we were to argue that international law would never permit such mass exterminations, I would have to ask, "Why not?"

The guidance provided in this principle is to look to international law to determine whether international law should contain a prohibition or an endorsement of those executions. When we ask the question, "should such an endorsement be written into international law," Principle 7 gives us nothing to go on.

The fact is, it does not matter what international law has to say on the matter, blasphemy laws and legal prohibitions on criticizing religion are immoral. If international should ever come to contain laws against blasphemy, then international law itself has become unjust and unworthy of the respect all decent people. If international law should embody prohibitions on the criticism of religion, then it has adopted laws that no government should enforce.

I have defended the proper scope of the freedom of expression in discussing the first proposition. Each person has a right to freedom of expression. This freedom of expression is not a right to immunity from criticism or condemnation for what one expresses. It is only a right to immunity from violence or threats of violence - including state violence in the form of censorship.

It is absolutely absurd to interpret the right to freedom of expression - as some, mostly religious people want to interpret it - as a call for a prohibition on expressions of the form, "You are wrong. Not only are you wrong, no decent person would ever hold such a view. That, too, is an expression - and it is a form of expression that each of us has a right to make.

Imagine the neo-Nazi telling us that his right to freedom of expression implies a prohibition on anybody else condemning the Holocaust. "We have a right to our views, and that means none of you may say anything that would belittle or denigrate those who hold that the holocaust was a great idea and a job that we definitely need to finish."

Yet, these are the implications of adopting the proposition that a right to freedom of expression implies a right to immunity from criticism.

If the advocates of "the right to freedom of expression implies a right to immunity from criticism" should get their view written into international law, their position would still be wrong, and those who held it would still be deserving of condemnation.

They can make criticism and condemnation illegal, but they cannot make it immoral.

Previous Episodes:

Proposition 1: We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

Proposition 2: We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.

Proposition 3: We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.

Proposition 4: We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.

Proposition 5: We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.

Proposition 6: We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.

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