Why Christians Should Support The Right To Blaspheme
It's International Blasphemy Day on Friday. Initiated by the New York-based Center for Inquiry in 2009 in the wake of the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy, it's designed to press home the need for everyone to be able to say what they like about religion without fear of being punished for it.
Forget for a moment that it was started by an atheist organisation. Forget that blasphemy and mockery directed against the God in whom we believe hurts and stings. This is something all Christians should support, for three reasons.
1. Blasphemy laws kill people
In Pakistan they're used to settle disputes between neighbours – a Muslim can accuse a Christian of blasphemy on spurious grounds and see him jailed and in fear of his life. Asia Bibi is still in jail facing the death penalty. In other Muslim countries Christians live in fear because of what a careless word or a false accusation might lead to. In Bangladesh, people who've identified themselves as atheists have been murdered. Blasphemy is punishable by death in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, too.
There's something profoundly disturbing about the idea that God should require the services of an executioner to protect His honour. When Christians stand up against blasphemy laws, we aren't denying God's glory, we are affirming it: we're saying he is untouchable by human ignorance, scorn or abuse.
2. Blasphemy laws compromise religious freedom
Some Christians are keen to oppose blasphemy laws in Muslim countries because they're used against Christians, but want to retain legal sanctions against blaspheming the Christian faith in their own country. There are laws against blasphemy in at least 14 member states of the EU. The UK abolished the offence in 2008, but Northern Ireland retained it. Six US states still have blasphemy laws; the Massachusetts one threatens prison and a fine for anyone who "willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, His creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures".
That law's a dead letter, though it still exists. But this is the point: if we defend the blasphemy law in a Christian country but not in a Muslim one, we're playing the world's game. We aren't actually saying anything different about how faith works or about the God in whom we believe. We're still saying he needs defending by law. And once we concede the principle that it's up to the state to decide which religion should be defended and which doesn't, we have stripped away one of the key protections of our own faith. Because the best defence of liberty for some is liberty for all.
3. We can witness to a better way
No idea, no argument and no religion should be beyond criticism. That's how it is tested and refined, and how it becomes stronger. Sometimes criticism is hostile and abusive. And yes, it hurts when sacred things are sneered at by people who don't understand them and don't value them. But the question is how we respond to these attacks. It shouldn't be by trying to stop them. Instead, we should answer with grace, patience and wisdom. We shouldn't try to stifle them through using the law. And while we can be robust in rebutting serious criticism, we should never respond with resentment or bitterness.
God does not need us to be angry on his behalf. All too often, that's just a sign of our our insecurity. Instead, he needs us to witness to his loving grace.
We need to be confident enough not to care about blasphemy. God can look after himself.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods