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Earlier today, Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reaffirmed the US stance in opposition to bans on religious defamation:
“Some people propose that to protect religious freedom, we must ban speech that is critical or offensive. We do not agree. The United States joins with all nations coming together to condemn hateful speech. But we do not support the banning of that speech.”
Now, I have never particularly been an admirer of Clinton. Her initial support of the Iraq War was enough to demonstrate that she was either gullible or dishonest – and quite possibly both. Furthermore, her campaign platform during the 2008 primaries was a bit too hawkish for my taste, as demonstrated by her insistence that “all options were on the table” with Iran – a nation which poses no threat to anyone. But on certain occasions she says precisely what needs to be said – succinctly, intelligently, and from a genuine liberal perspective. Today was one of those occasions.
I find the notion of freedom of religion to be somewhat quaint, albeit in a rather perverted way. Certainly, people should be free to believe whatever they desire. If a person wishes to believe in a giant monkey who breathes fire and lives behind the sun, that is undoubtedly their right. I won’t interfere. But in a culture that professes the utmost admiration to the principles of rationality and scientific inquiry, it is not necessarily a right we should be emphasizing, let alone expending energy to defend. Instead, we should voraciously and vociferously defend our right to the freedom of expression, which includes the right to question everything and anything, exercising the uniquely human traits of critical thinking and logical analysis.
The right to criticize religion is an irrevocable aspect of the right to free speech. The United States claims in principle to support this right, and it was reassuring to hear Sec. Clinton reaffirm the Obama administration’s support of that today. There is a very real movement towards theocracy in our country, or at least a growing coalition of elected officials who claim to be divinely inspired. Whether their religious beliefs are but a ploy to be elected is irrelevant; once in office, they will generally do whatever it takes to stay there.
In our society, it is generally acceptable to critique Islam but not Christianity. The exception to this rule is, of course, when Muslims threaten to retaliate violently, as the South Park debacle earlier this year amply demonstrated. In fact, it is interesting to note that in an article about the freedom to criticize religion, Islam is the only religion that is mentioned by name. Perhaps the very prospect of defaming fanatical Christians – such as those blowing up abortion clinics and forcing the teaching of “creationism” in our schools – was a bit too controversial for Yahoo!’s rather bland spectrum of acceptable topics.
In most Islamic cultures critiquing Islam is not merely taboo, but a mortal sin. In Saudi Arabia, the crime for apostasy is public beheading, which seems likely to discourage most people from overtly questioning Islam in any form. From a purely humanitarian point of view, it is readily apparent that opposition to religion is a necessary component in the struggle for universal recognition of basic human rights. The 25 million residents of Saudi Arabia are literal slaves to a 1,400-year-old belief system that began when an illiterate pedophile stumbled into a cave and began hallucinating. The situation is hardly better in Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan or a handful of other Islamic nations. And if the fundamentalist Christians in the United States had their way, we too would be subjected to the yoke of outrageous, millennia-old superstitions.
So while Clinton’s affirmation of US support of the right to criticize religion is positive, it is not enough. In the continual struggle for global human rights, ongoing aggressive criticism of religion in all its forms is not merely optional, but pivotal.