Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Idolatry of Anti-Blasphemy

Criticism is essential to religion

A prominent global controversy recently has been the proposal of various anti-blasphemy laws, including a proposed anti-blasphemy resolution at the United Nations.

One of the western states farthest along in the introduction of an anti-blasphemy law is Ireland, where an anti-blasphemy law is set to take effect in October.

The law will impose hefty fines on anyone who "publishes or utters matter that is (intentionally meant to be) grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion."

Unsurprisingly, the law has a vociferous critic in Richard Dawkins.

"It is a wretched, backward, uncivilized regression to the Middle Ages," Dawkins said.

And while Dawkins -- who himself in the name of his quest to "enlighten" humanity by helping to wipe out religion would lead humanity back into the Dark Ages -- is so often so wrong about matters entailing religion, this is one time he is right about it.

Anti-blasphemy laws -- even in places like Ireland, where violence has traditionally surrounded religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants -- place the intellectual and philosophical development of religious thought in peril by threatening to outlaw criticism.

In Ireland, the anti-blasphemy law -- which Justice Minister Dermot Ahern insists merely clarifies anti-blasphemy provisions in the Irish Constitution -- is quite clearly aimed at attempting to quell tensions between Catholics and Protestants by giving the government a means to punish those who stir up tensions between the two.

But as a club with which critics of either religions -- or Christianity in general -- could be threatened with, this law not only clearly plays to the hypothetical and often-imagined "right not to be offended", but also to an imagined right to not have to think about their religion.

Few things could be more devastating to any religion, especially Christianity. CS Lewis once wrote that being a Christian is hard intellectual work. One has to continually be able to reconcile their religious beliefs against real-world realities, or risk falling into dogmatism.

Ireland's anti-blasphemy law imperils the hard intellectual work of the proper-thinking Christian, and serves to encourage the kind of intellectual sloth that gives rise to dogmatism in the first place.

This is the peril of the idolatry of anti-blasphemy.

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