Religious tolerance: a string of words that has been thrown around for centuries, used and abused to justify the continuous subscription to supposed higher powers and the entire van of crazy that comes along with it. My interest in this subject stems from recent news of the U.N. General Assembly re-affirming a resolution condemning religious defamation last December 21, 2010, for the sixth year in a row now, despite dwindling support. I’ve unsuccessfully scoured the internet for a copy of the resolution, but I did find the resolution that was adopted in March 2009. Although the revised 2010 resolution presents notable differences, the general gist of the resolution still holds the same. A summary regarding the recent convention can be read here.
Sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in response to incidents such as artists drawing Mohammed and activists burning copies of the Qur’an, the resolution can be used to justify the implementation of so-called “blasphemy laws” or laws which criminalize activities deemed “offensive” by a religion. The OIC rationalizes this by alleging that believers of Islam have fallen victim to racial profiling and expresses “deep concern… that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”
I do condemn hate speech (and more so, hate crimes) as much as the next guy hates the Ku Klux Klan, however, banning and criminalizing them is an all-together different story because it impedes an individual’s right to freedom of speech. Eileen Donahoe, US ambassador, explains, “We cannot agree that prohibiting speech is the way to promote tolerance, because we continue to see the ‘defamation of religions’ concept used to justify censorship, criminalization, and in some cases, violent assaults and deaths of political, racial and religious minorities around the world.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to argue that lynching fundamentalists should be legalized. However, I’m here to examine the extent of religious tolerance people are entitled to, and whether or not this entitlement is well-deserved. In other words, is religion that important to be protected at the expense of freedom of speech?
A common assumption most people (including religious moderates and atheists) live by is religion should be treated with utmost respect and reverence. Religion is not open to scrutiny and the slightest offense against it is met with fervent agitation at the least. This is exactly the mindset that the OIC and various other religious groups exploited in gaining favor for the resolution. It is also this mindset that would willingly sacrifice the values of freedom of speech and freethinking for the sake of the preservation of a religion’s undeserved infallibility.
An interesting case to examine would be that of James Nixon, a twelve-year-old public school student back in 2004, who won the right in court to go to school in a shirt that said, “Homosexuality is a sin. Islam is a lie. Abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white.” The ruling was based on the principle of “freedom of religion”. Now, while I would have reluctantly conceded to the ruling had it been based on the principle of freedom of speech, there is something that simply doesn’t sit well with me because if we were to take the principle of ‘religious defamation’ seriously, then the ruling is flawed because someone of the Islam faith could have taken offense from the shirt’s message as well. However, a gay man would practically have nothing against this case. I think the problem with protecting religion is that it’s virtually impossible to do so without offending someone else’s religion. When the state propagates a principle such as this, it is not only contradictory, it also unconstitutional because we are stifling free speech.
What I’m trying to get across is simple: all religious tolerance really means is, “accepting or permitting others’ religious beliefs and practices which disagree with one’s own.” (Wikipedia, 2011) Basically, all this really means is that your boss can’t fire you because of your beliefs and I can’t refuse to sit beside you in an airplane, but I can disagree with you and I am free to do whatever I want even if it contradicts what you believe in and even if (and especially when it) offends you. Religious tolerance does not also legally entail “religious privileges” such as Saturdays or Sundays off. To illustrate, I found this interesting response in a thread on Yahoo! Answers,
“McDonald’s has the right to schedule you on Sundays. I don’t know of any place left that still has enforced Blue Laws. Think about how many people work on Sundays… retail employees, restaurants, anything in the entertainment industry (movies, theme parks, casinos, etc.), gas stations, athletes and so on. It’s obviously not illegal to schedule people on Sundays.
You have the right to take Sundays off. (It’s called “quitting your job”.)
If you decline to work on Sundays, McDonalds can terminate you. Realistically they can fire you for whatever reason they want, but refusing to work the required schedule is more than enough reason.
If your church and youth group activities are that important to you, you need to look for alternative employment that doesn’t ask you to work on Sundays.”
Contrary to what we’ve been taught in Catholic school, responsible freedom (and how we ought not to hurt anyone with we say and do) is, excuse the french, bullshit, especially when it stifles free speech and more so when it puts the lives of those who dare pierce the veil of religious infallibility in danger, like say, when teachers are in danger of being mobbed and lynched because they named a teddy bear Muhammad.
The good news, at least, is that support for the resolution has been steadily declining over the years, with the resolution passing with merely 79 votes to 67 (with 40 abstentions), a significantly low margin of difference of 12-votes compared to previous years. These figures were preceded by a 57-vote margin in 2006 and 2007 that dropped to 33 in 2008 and to 19 in 2009; impressive for the first decade of the century. And it is with this that I end this entry with a simple greeting: Happy 2011 and I hope the rest of the century folds out quite nicely for you!