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Why Blasphemy Laws Are Not About Religion

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According to a recent Pew Research Center report, there is an increase of intolerance toward the religious globally. "The share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose from 31% in the year ending in mid-2009 to 37% in the year ending in mid-2010," concludes the report.

The intolerance recorded included both "governmental restrictions" and "social hostility," ranging from banned minarets on mosques in Switzerland to violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria or even restricted religious attire in U.S. prisons and restricted zoning permits for churches.

There are likely as many ideas for how to respond to intolerance of religion as there are religions. Education is one useful tool for combating intolerance, but there are solutions that will never be good for religion or society.

One option that ranks near the top of my list of terrible ideas is that of the blasphemy law.

After the online film "Innocence of Muslims" mocked the Prophet Muhammad and led to violent and deadly protests internationally, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) renewed its call at the United Nations for blasphemy laws and an end to the "defamation of religion." The United States rightly opposes the blasphemy ban for now, arguing that free speech and religion are "inseparable."

Blasphemy laws are like crows decked in the feathers of another bird; they are said to protect religion, but that disguise belies the reality, which is to protect power. The result is not safeguarded religion, but the quashing of the marginalized voice (religious and non-religious). No belief system or position of power should be above criticism.

That is the heart of freedom, even if it is not always pleasant.

Whether you are Pussy Riot locked away in a Russian prison for a "punk prayer" that criticizes President Vladimir Putin's close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, Sanal Edamaruku in exile from India for exposing a fake miracle, 14-year old Rimsha Masih, arrested after being accused of burning the Quran, or even George Kalman, whose attempt to incorporate his "I Choose Hell Productions, LLC" was initially rejected by the Pennsylvania Department of State due to an archaic blasphemy law, the sad reality is that religious protectionism without freedom of expression is always a tool for power.

This is not to say that religion is opposed to pluralism. It is religious dogma in part, not necessarily religion in general, that poses the biggest problem for the freedoms of religion and speech. Consider, for example, the results of a recent study (2012) by Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom and Gizem Arikan at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and published in the British Journal of Political Science (see summary at Epiphenom), which shows that there is a complicated connection between religious behavior, religious belief and support for democracy.

When one's religious orientation emphasizes behavior, more specifically, that of "belonging to a religious group and participating in group activities," there is an increase in "both interest in politics and confidence in institutions." However, "religious participation doesn't seem to increase support for democratic procedures," but it also does not "dampen it."

"Overall, strong religious networks contribute to increased trust in institutions and thereby more support for democracy."

For those that fell into the category of strong "religious belief," however, there was a noted "rejection of self-expression, in favour of 'survival values' (a hotch-potch of insecurity, desire for hierarchical authority, and intolerance)." The results of the HUJI study (as is the case for many previous studies) indicate that having stronger religious belief than behavior results in less democracy. Infuse a religiously dogmatic position into the law and inculcate that position in society and you have a potential mess.

It should not be surprising that the Pew study on global religious intolerance also discovered, after comparing the index of governmental restrictions with that of social hostilities, an interesting correlation. It was "rare for countries that score high on one index [governmental restriction or social hostilities] to be low on the other." In fact, "some government restrictions have a stronger association with social hostilities than others. Government policies or actions that clearly favor one religion over others have the strongest association with social hostilities involving religion."

This is the real end of blasphemy laws. The favoritism of a specific religion and its beliefs by the government will ultimately result in a practice of intolerance and loss of freedom. This is not to say that determining the limitations of religious freedom and free speech is a simple task, as not all expressions of religion and speech are permitted. Obviously, yelling fire in a crowded building or executing witches (based on Exodus 22:18 in the KJV) are both expressions that are forbidden by U.S. law and elsewhere. I'm guessing that Abraham himself would have difficulty getting a permit to build an altar for the purpose of sacrificing his son.

Suggested blasphemy laws becomes even less realistic or desirable when one considers the drastic shifts occurring in the social makeup of the United States. As another new survey by the Pew Research Center (Oct. 9) shows, there is a significant rise in Americans (1 in 5) who identify themselves in the category of having no-religious affiliations ("nones").

"The religiously unaffiliated are comprised of three distinct subgroups. About three-in-ten of the unaffiliated describe their religion as either atheist (12%) or agnostic (17%), while about seven-in-ten describe their religion as 'nothing in particular' (71%)."

Likewise, a new Gallup poll (Oct. 10) "finds a majority of Americans, 52%, saying the government should not favor any set of values in society, while 44% believe it should promote traditional values. From 1993 through 2004, the majority of Americans consistently favored the government's promoting of traditional values, but views have since been more mixed."

Given shifts like these, the government needs to not only protect the freedom of religion, but it now needs to consider protecting freedom from religion. For example, can the non-religious, especially atheists, agnostics or skeptics ever have true representation in government when states like Texas restrict public office only to theists?

Changes in society's makeup are inevitable and no doubt will be difficult and uncomfortable for some. They should be learning opportunities, though some will see change as a war on religion, which is often confused with, as Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show, "not always getting everything you want."

But when there are differences between religions and between the religious and non-religious, there are bad approaches and good approaches. Blasphemy laws may appeal to figures like GOP candidate for the Arkansas House of Representatives, Charlie Fuqua, who advocates in his book, "God's Law: The Only Political Solution" (2012), for the expelling of Muslims from the United States, the death penalty for disobedient children, and the sterilization of their parents, but they ultimately are inhumane and unfriendly toward democracy.

I'd rather see something like what occurred recently at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. After an arsonist, allegedly in response to the attacks on United States embassies, set fire to the mosque in Perrysburg, Ohio, the response was not more violence or laws, but for the community, which included many religious leaders, to come together to show support for those who were targeted.

If you want to change society for the better, and convince others of the power of your beliefs, or even rationality of the absence of them, do not hallow them through law. Demonstrate it by promoting civil conversation and show it by how you live and support your neighbors.

In other words, just be a decent human being.