Time to repeal Canada's blasphemy law

There is no God. All religions are false. The Bible is a fanciful document, written by people not inspired by any god. The Old Testament god is a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the Qur'an vilifies non-believers on almost every page. Jesus probably never existed, and even the historicity of Mohammed is questionable.

Did I just go on a crime spree? Because Canada's Criminal Code threatens two years in prison for "blasphemous libel." On the other hand, there's no offence for "expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject." However, my assertions above are not backed up by argument, some of my language could be seen as indecent, and I'm an atheist who thinks religions are generally harmful as well as false. So I don't know that I would qualify under the "good faith" exemption.

But I probably don't need to worry because there's been no prosecution under Canada's blasphemy law since 1936. The law is effectively a dead letter. Or is it? In 1980, an Anglican vicar initiated a private prosecution over Monty Python's film Life of Brian, which was playing at a theatre in Sault Ste. Marie. Crown prosecutors actually laid a charge before Ontario's Attorney General intervened to put a quick end to things.

If a case ever did come to court, blasphemy expert Jeremy Patrick said in a 2008 Toronto Star article that a court would likely strike it down. But he also warned:

"[O]bscure, little-known statutes like the blasphemy offence can also serve as a dangerous extension of police or prosecutorial discretion, creating a greater opportunity for threats of enforcement that lead to self-censorship by cautious publishers. … Of more practical concern, however, is that the existence of the crime of blasphemy in Canadian law could make it harder for the Canadian government to criticize repressive blasphemy prosecutions in countries where free speech is given short shrift."

The latter is especially a concern for Canada's Centre for Inquiry, an atheist group that, after the Charlie Hedbo killings in France, urged the Canadian government to repeal our blasphemy law. Since 2013, the group has been working with the government's Office of Religious Freedom to address cases of people jailed for criticizing religion, including the horrific case of liberal blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, who for the crime of "insulting Islam" was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes -- 50 a week spanning 20 weeks. Although Badawi has been reprieved from further floggings after his first 50 lashes in January, his case was recently referred back to court, with a judge citing new evidence of "apostasy" against him. He now faces possible beheading.

Badawi's case is far from the only one. A Christian woman named Asia Bibi faces execution in Pakistan after allegedly ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed, even though it's more likely a frame-up over a drinking water dispute. Indian skeptic and writer Sanal Edamaruku lives in exile in Finland because he still faces prosecution in India for blasphemy against the Catholic religion. His crime occurred in 2012 when he investigated the "miracle" of a statue of Jesus dripping water and blood from its toe, only to discover the real source of the drip: an overflowing drainpipe in the wall behind the statue, emanating from a toilet.

I wrote two years ago about the 47 countries, including many western democracies, that have engaged in persecution of non-believers, usually for blaspheming the state's official or majority religion. But most "blasphemy" is uttered by those of one religion against another religion, or within a religion by "heretics" who believe in a different interpretation of the faith than the "true believers." For example, Badawi is a liberal Muslim, not an atheist.

What are the arguments for repealing blasphemy laws? First, it's important to distinguish blasphemy from bigotry, as the two are often confused. Blasphemy is criticism of a god or religious doctrine, belief, practice, or leader. Bigotry is prejudice against people based on an immutable or shared-group characteristic, such as colour, race, origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or religion. As the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws (ICABL) states: "We defend people's right to discuss, criticize and ridicule ideas and beliefs, even when this offends other people. Humans have rights, beliefs do not."

The Centre for Inquiry is a key founding partner in this new international coalition and its campaign to "End Blasphemy Laws." The goals of the ICABL are to raise public awareness of blasphemy laws around the world, advocate on behalf of prosecuted victims, and lobby governments to repeal or abolish the laws. The ICABL describes various harms of blasphemy laws, which I'll summarize below.

Blasphemy laws violate freedom of expression

Blasphemy laws prohibit or limit free expression simply for asking questions or offering criticism of religion, or satirizing religion. But churches and religious groups should be open to hearing criticism, just like any other group in our society. As ICABL says: "Intellectual and cultural advance relies on the free exchange of ideas. Protecting any ideas from criticism does them no favour: it allows them to survive unchanged without being adapted and improved."

Indeed, one of our key freedoms is the ability to use the tools of reason and science to question traditional institutions and ideologies, including religion. It's essential to preserving human rights and freedoms, which many fundamentalists and right-wing people ceaselessly try to destroy.

Religion needs to be criticized

In practice, prohibiting "insult" can mean silencing pretty much any critique of religion, its institutions, and its leaders. That can deter much-needed criticism (or even reporting by victims) of bad behaviour often associated with a religion, such as priests' abuse of children, corporal punishments like stoning or beheading, oppression of women, persecution of religious minorities, and many other examples.

The ICABL says: "Shielding religion from criticism cannot be regarded as a social good. … In some cases, criticism helps religious thinkers improve theology. In more substantive cases, criticism is essential to shedding light on immoral or unlawful practices carried out in the name of religion."

Blasphemy laws are intrinsically bad law

Blasphemy laws are internally inconsistent and subjective. For example, a law against offending believers or insulting religion in general could stop people from expressing their own religious views, because believers of other religions may find them offensive. Even when a country's law protects only one religion, different sects within that religion will interpret scriptures in various ways and may decide that other groups are being "blasphemous." For example, Muslims from the Sunni sect frequently accuse the Shia sect of blasphemy and vice versa.

When blasphemy cases go to court in some jurisdictions, such as Pakistan, accusers often don't have to explain what happened because repeating the blasphemy would itself be blasphemous. Courts may then convict the accused without even hearing the details of the accusations. Similarly, people have sometimes been accused of blasphemy just for questioning blasphemy laws or calling for their repeal.

The confused and subjective nature of blasphemy laws makes them prone to abuse. The ICABL says these laws are being used to "target a variety of supposed 'blasphemy,' from actual criticism or satire of religion, to merely stating alternative religious views, stating atheism, or in some cases, the accusation is entirely malicious, based on rumours or planted evidence."

Indeed, it's all too easy to make an accusation of blasphemy or "insult" against religion, including against anyone you oppose or want to exact revenge upon. Asia Bibi is a case in point.

Blasphemy laws legitimize violence and persecution against minorities

The interactive map on the ICABL home page shows that the harshest punishments for blasphemy -- death or imprisonment -- are meted out by mostly Middle Eastern countries, but also by Russia, India, and several African and European countries.

Beyond these "official" punishments however, blasphemy laws create an atmosphere of legitimacy and impunity for people to persecute anyone who "offends" their religious sensibilities. Such offence may arise from things the person says or does, but too often the offence is their mere existence, or comes from false rumours. Indeed, countries that prosecute blasphemy tend to suffer disproportionately from community and mob violence, vigilantism against individuals, and the silencing and persecution of minorities. The ICABL gives many examples of each.

Passive blasphemy laws reinforce active blasphemy laws

As is the case in Canada, a blasphemy law might be considered to be a "dead letter" and no longer enforced, while some countries have a moratorium against enforcing the law. But such laws are still a concern and should be repealed because they can be re-activated. For example, some French Muslims used an ancient local blasphemy law to sue Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2014 for one of its covers, and a Muslim university professor in Ireland took advantage of the country's never-used blasphemy law to threaten a suit against Irish journalists if they dared to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the wake of the massacre.

Even when a blasphemy law is not used or unenforceable, it supports the notion that criticism or satire of religion is wrong, and can encourage people to advocate for reviving the law or creating new laws.

Inactive laws in one country can also lend legitimacy to harsh blasphemy laws in other countries. For example, Ireland's 2009 blasphemy law has seen no prosecutions, but the ICABL notes that Indonesia cited it to justify the continued enforcement of its own blasphemy law. At the United Nations, Islamic countries have pointed to the hypocrisy of western nations having their own blasphemy laws on the books, while complaining about blasphemy laws in Muslim countries.

Conclusion

There may be little political will to repeal "dead letter" blasphemy laws, but the ICABL hopes that by bringing public attention to the harms and injustice of blasphemy laws, enough public desire and local pressure can be brought to bear against governments to persuade them to take action.

We must defend and exercise the right to blasphemy, not criminalize it, or silence ourselves out of fear. One small start would be to repeal Canada's blasphemy law as an unconstitutional anachronism.

Joyce Arthur is a writer and women's rights activist who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. She became an atheist and critic of religion after a 10-year journey exploring the origin and history of Christianity and religion in general.

Photo: David Becker/flickr

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