The Answer To the Problems of Free Speech is Always More Free Speech

From the Independent:

A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas; it is not surrounded by an electric fence none of us can pass.

That’s why I wrote: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”

An Indian newspaper called The Statesman – one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country – thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was “prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet” and I should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings”. I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth – especially in a democracy of a billion people riven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

I did not write a sectarian attack on any particular religion of the kind that could lead to a rerun of India’s hellish anti-Muslim or anti-Sikh pogroms, but rather a principled critique of all religions who try to forcibly silence their critics. The right to free speech I am defending protects Muslims as much as everyone else. I passionately support their right to say anything they want – as long as I too have the right to respond.


  1. The sad thing is these assholes who assemble in outrage and commit murder to protect their religion are gaining considerable power through intimidation. I don’t trust most governments to do a good job protecting me from them, so I feel the need to watch what I say. I suspect most editors feel the same and will think twice before criticizing the Muslim religion. So they are winning through fear.

  2. Is this no different than the ravenous ranting by the Rethugs over the indiscrete peccadillo of Slick Willy. Working themselves into a rapturous rage of indignation that a single drop of jizzum passed between two consenting adults.
    Since we are in the initial stage of recovery following the ‘Third Great Awakening’ it is not yet fully apparent the damaged rendered at hands of the neo-feudal theocrats.
    If our species successfully evolves beyond organized religion we might actually survive on this planet.

  3. If Mohammed was all that great, he wouldn’t need street fanatics to defend his “honor”, would he? What kind of honor does a man have who rapes a nine year old girl? We’re not without sin either. The founding fathers couldn’t get elected these days because they were deists, not Christians.

  4. hmm… sometimes if you read the newspaper these days it seems that religious fanatacism is growing and threatens to engulf the world. I’m not that worried tho,the general trend over the last few hundred years has been a huge decline in religious belief and levels of fundamentalism. As long as education continues to expand I can only assume religion will continue to decline. Also, i dont think theres much point arguing with or gainsaying religious people directly, as their arguement is ridiculous, and any oppositiion is taken with great offence and seems to fuel their fervour. The important thing is to ensure free speech and make the facts available to anybody who is interested. The majority of religious people have been indoctrinated since birth, but I would hazard that the majority of athiests have figured it out for themselves after similarly being indoctrinated from birth into some religion or another, and once you figure out something like that for yourself you cant go back, just as nobody rekindles their belief in santa claus.
    So, hopefully this current spate of fanatism is just a death throe, and reflects falling overall levels of religiosness. Hopefully 300 years from now there will be a similar drop in religiousness as there was from 300 years ago to today.
    Of course, we must continue to defend free speech, freedom of thought, and promote education.

  5. mr. purple said “As long as education continues to expand I can only assume religion will continue to decline.”

    The only problem with this is that education is NOT expanding. It’s contracting, especially in the US. Ever listened to a Kansas school board meeting? Also, I’ve been asked several times by my students to recount my personal involvement in the Civil War. They’re not trying to be funny–they really think I was alive at the same time the Civil War was happening! BTW, I’m 40.

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