World Religions Conference, 7 May, 2015, Airdrie.

Religious Freedom and Freedom of Speech

(notes for a talk)

I’m very happy to participate in this panel tonight and very grateful to the Ahmadiyya community for organizing tonight’s event.

Before I start, I would like to offer two caveats.

First, during my talk, I’ll mention specific instances of religious speech, mostly by recognized religious leaders that some of you may find problematic. I don’t believe, and certain don’t intend, that these examples are representative of religious believers as a whole.

Second, I am by training and occupation, a philosopher. Philosophers often hold and support positions that the majority of people do not agree with. And for that reason, many of us support freedom of speech, at least to avoid our own persecution. Things may be different in religious communities, so you’ll have to judge for yourself how relevant my comments are.

And I’m going to make some assumptions.

First, all Canadians should have equal rights, but this doesn’t necessarily mean equal treatment. In some cases, fairness may require treating differing groups of Canadians differently. Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Aboriginals, and francophones all want equal rights – but that equates to very different treatment in some cases.

Second, as a functioning democracy, we ought to respect majority will, but not at the expense of minority rights.

Third, each citizen should enjoy maximum freedom consistent with the same freedom for others.

This last assumption implies that people should be able to join and practice the religion of their choice, so long as that practice does not unduly intrude on the rights of others.

It also implies that people should be able to express themselves, vocally or in print. There are at least two arguments for free speech.

The first says that individuals and societies are happier if everyone can speak freely, since no-one has all the truth and we can learn from others – even if they’re wrong.

The second argument for free speech argues that we have certain rights that the government has zero or limited authority to restrict.

And religious believers may have another reason to defend free speech, since an authentic freedom of religion requires adherents to teach, explain, and defend their religion from outside interference.

But religious believers should also defend free speech, not just for themselves, but for internal critics, such as Malala Yousufzai, who, by her outspoken advocacy of female education rights, has famously incurred the wrath of the Taliban in Pakistan.

For the same reason, religious believers ought to also defend the free speech rights of external critics such as Richard Dawkins, who has been an extremely vocal opponent of religious belief. But he might, by his very criticism, actually improve some forms of religion.

So if theists, who typically believe strongly in the sacred nature of religious doctrine, also have good reasons to defend freedom of speech, where exactly lies the conflict?

It lies precisely in this conundrum: that many people are deeply aggrieved when other people use religious speech in ways they do not approve of – precisely because it seems to conflict with their religious beliefs.

Take for example the anti-Muslim cartoon contest held just last Sunday in Texas, where two men were shot to death after they opened fire at the event.

It may be hyperbole to equate free speech with terrorism, but it surely bespeaks the degree of indignation that some people feel when confronted with some forms of speech.

But the mere fact that I don’t like someone else doing something is, all by itself, no reason whatsoever to ban that person from acting as he or she does. I may not like the fact that that my neighbor drives a pink truck or watches hockey on TV or spends his vacation in Saskatchewan. But my dislike, no matter how intense, is not a sufficient reason to limit his freedom.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “…it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

President Ahmenijad of Iran seems to think that the best response to religious speech you don’t like is not violence or prohibition, but more free speech. But this is decidedly a minority view.

So what are our options? At the one extreme, a libertarian might want to make all speech, including libel, slander, incitement to murder and treason, hate speech, and child pornography legal and acceptable.

At the other extreme, totalitarian dictators may want to control all speech, but short of cutting out our tongues, they simply can’t. All they can do is make free speech more costly via some form of punishment, and then only after the fact.

Assuming most people will find these two extremes unacceptable, we must then find a principled way to limit some – but not all – religious speech. And there are several principles we might employ here; I’ll only have time to discuss a few.

1.Respect for Beliefs

First, there’s the claim that, because living in truly multicultural communities requires that we not merely tolerate others but respect them, we must not only respect the right of others to hold beliefs, but respect the beliefs themselves.

But this demand, while compelling in the abstract, is notoriously difficult to uphold in the particular. How can I reasonably respect the belief that atheists have no morality whatsoever when I know it to be false – no matter how sincere Billy Graham’s religious convictions are?

  1. Blasphemy

One might also restrict religious speech on the grounds that it’s blasphemous. This was the crime for which Socrates was sentenced to death 2300 years ago and it still remains on the books in scores of countries today, and many of them are Muslim. But even Canada has an anti-blasphemy law dating back to the 19th century, when legislators could perhaps assume that everyone shared the same Christian values and that it was the government’s job to dictate morality to the masses. But protesters against these laws have several arguments at their disposal.

First, it is deeply problematic to require nominally secular governments to uphold any religious doctrine.

Second, religious practitioners can’t even agree amongst themselves what counts as blasphemy.

Third, enforcing blasphemy laws unequally against religious minorities amounts to religious persecution, pure and simple. Fair-minded religious believers should condemn this.

Fourth, suppose the government takes goes the other way and enforces the law fairly. It therefore decides to punish all instances of blasphemy against any religion, no matter how tiny it is or how bizarre its beliefs. We might find ourselves all of convicted of blasphemy. So no matter how it goes, religious believers should oppose any blasphemy laws.

  1. Offence

What if the speech is offensive? In 1992 singer Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of John Paul II to protest the rampant child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. And many viewers were deeply offended.

But whose offence should we actually care about? After all, some gay activists are offended by what Christian fundamentalists say. And some Christian fundamentalists are equally offended by what the gays say.

In recent years, many US Christian activists have decried the War on Christmas, and specifically condemned as offensive cards that don’t contain the words “Merry Christmas.” Should we care? I suggest we just ignore them. Given that some people are just too willing to take offense at any slight, no matter how small, we should abandon the criterion of offence.

  1. Libel and Slander

What, then, if the speech is factually untrue? This complaint lies at the heart of laws prohibiting libel and slander, and might therefore be useful.

So an evangelical politician who alleges that the 99.9% of biologists are uttering satanic lies would doubtless be convicted.

And the Pope’s claim that atheism is to blame for Nazism surely flies in the face of Germany’s strongly Catholic population, Hitler’s own assertions, and Nazi claims themselves.

But how do we rule on claims that earthly beings have no non-controversial way to determine? How exactly do we find out whom God hates, if anyone? The problem here, as with many forms of religious speech, is that we have no settled way of determining the truth.

  1. Incitement to Immorality

What then if the speech encourages actions, such as genocide, which are widely and reasonably regarded as immoral?

This noted rabbi has proposed annihilating the Palestinian people.

He’s joined by noted philosopher William Lane Craig, who has mounted very serious defenses of Old Testament instances of genocide. This in turn has earned him a rebuke from Richard Dawkins who has refused to debate Craig unless Craig unequivocally renounces genocide.

Finally, the esteemed Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne has suggested that Hitler was merely providing Jews with a learning opportunity, which prompted one of his fellow panelists to respond in kind.

So banning immoral religious speech might be effective, but some people might be surprised at who is caught by this net.

  1. Hate Speech

 The most hopeful avenue for prohibiting certain forms of religious speech is that, as hate speech, these utterances incite hatred against members of a specific group. And this is deeply incompatible with democratic ideals protecting individuals from hatred and violence.

It’s therefore striking that senior and highly influential religious leaders can describe other humans as sub-human or akin to pestilence. If these sentiments were voiced about Muslims or women or blacks, rather than atheists, these individuals would have lost their jobs before the end of the day.

But, still, one might object, no one takes these religious leaders seriously, so atheists shouldn’t be so quick to fear the worst. Describing people as worthless doesn’t always lead to their persecution, after all.

  1. Incitement to Murder

But one form of hate speech stands out and that is incitement to murder. This, it seems, is unproblematically immoral and illegal. But why exactly is the religious nature of this form of hate speech a concern?

Consider the case of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, who along with the Washington Post and the New York Times, published US military secrets. Subsequently, many opinion leaders in the US called for his death.

OK, perhaps Sarah Palin is not a credible source. But one Political Science professor at the University of Calgary has voiced similar sentiments, and he hasn’t been charged with any crime so far as I know. Nor have the other commentators who agree with him.

So why should religious zealots who call for others’ deaths be condemned? Should we judge religious hate speech by a higher standard than the one we employ for garden-variety secular hate speech? Or should we make exceptions for religious institutions as we do in many other situations?

I think religious adherents cannot have it both ways. Either they will have to concede that their own free speech should be limited as others is, or they will have to endure the attacks of critics – just like politicians, advertisers, professional athletes, philosophers, and the rest of us do. Bishop Henry used his free speech to criticize homosexuality – and then complained when he was criticized for hate speech.

The text of this talk is posted on my blog. Simply Google my name if you wish to check my references.

Thank to the audience, the other panelists, our moderator and to the Ahmadiyya community for graciously hosting this event.

Following the talk, there was a Q & A session wherein audience members wrote down questions on cards which were then forwarded to the moderator, who could then judge which ones  were relevant. One gentleman, armed with a cross emblazoned binder filled with notes, stood and demanded to be heard. He claimed that passages from the Koran commanding Muslims to tolerate non-believers and to not punish blasphemers cited by the Islamic speaker had been superseded by later passages commanding bloody punishment. Salman, the Muslim speaker, argued that he did not agree with the principle of supersedence. The Christian speaker interjected that passages in the Bible could be used equally well to justify violence against others.

Afterwards, the angered audience member dismissed all these comments as “bullshit and lies”. I just walked away.

Several points came to mind:

  1. The difficulty of actually being tolerant, courteous, and understanding to someone with whom you strongly disagree. Easy to affirm in principle but much harder to practice when your own core beliefs are  being attacked. Again, I respect the Ahmadiyyas for their ability at respectful dialogue.
  2. The pitfalls of cherry-picking passages from the Koran or Bible to either support your own prejudices or to skewer someone else. There are so many apparent internal contradictions in the Bible  that trip up neophytes. and there is still no consensus between theologians about how to interpret those passages.
  3. If your religion requires you to strive your utmost to follow God’s will, your first duty is to determine exactly what it is that God wants you to do. And if God doesn’t speak to you personally ( and how exactly would you know it was him and not a deceptive Satan?), your only recourse is to rely on the revelation given to someone else. And typically people rely on those revelations written in some holy book. This leads to the perhaps impossible task of knowing the best interpretation of some passage in the Bible or Koran, the writer’s intent, its historical accuracy, whether translations are reliable, and if so which ones are best, the passage’s modern-day relevance, and so on. Or you just offload the work to someone else, without perhaps knowing if that theologian’s opinions are reliable – and therein lies the seeds of factionalism. (By way of contrast, it’s merely a historical question if Socrates actually said what he’s reported to have said in Platonic dialogues. The real philosophical question is whether those reported  claims are themselves credible all by themselves.)
  4. The epistemic problem of evil. If it is crucial – as billions of people believe, and many of them are willing to die for that belief – that we follow God’s plan and if that plan is written down in some holy book, why would an all-loving and all-powerful God not indicate clearly which book (and also which prophets) to follow? If God wants all people to be saved, and if our salvation depends on our belief in him, then why would he not reveal himself to all peoples, rather than to just a select few? Why exactly should a 16 year old girl living in India in the 17th century, raised by Hindu parents, and who has never heard of Jesus Christ, be condemned to an eternal hell for not possessing a belief  that was impossible for her to even consider? If God wants us to live in peace, then why would he allow religion to become such a divisive social force? If God knows that we rely  on reason, why are so many religious doctrines only defensible as articles of faith? Why must theologians construct such convoluted arguments to defend morally repugnant doctrines and  the existence of  a god who appears to some observers as non-existent? If God isn’t hiding himself from us, then why exactly is atheism a reasonable belief?




Billy Graham:

Blasphemy laws by nation:

Paul Broun:

Pope Benedict:

Adolf Hitler:

Manis Friedman:

William Lane Craig: :

Richard Swinburne and Peter Atkins: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 64

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor:

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor:

Greg Craven:

Rabbi Daniel Lapin:

Bishop Richard Williamson:

Sarah Palin:

Tom Flanagan et al:

Bishop Henry:

Bishop Henry:

Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782)


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