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On March 29th the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion and Belief, NY, and the NGO Committee on Human Rights, NY, sponsored a meeting to discuss the topic of blasphemy. The presenters were Austin Dacey from the International Humanist and Ethical Union and Pamela Takiff of Human Rights First.

Austin DaceyDr. Dacey summarized the analysis from his new book The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights, while Ms. Takiff drew from her recent report for Human Right First, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamations of Religions”. The two presenters combined their recent work to take a two pronged approach to the topic of blasphemy, first as a theoretical construct and second a description of how it is practiced in many countries today. 

Dacey, a philosopher by training, discussed the progression of the concept of blasphemy in Western thought as well as its future. He outlined three stages of the concept. First, the focus on Godhead as the victim of blasphemy. Second, community as the victim of blasphemy, as it undermined the religious foundation on which the law rested. Third, the current focus of blasphemy on the individual. In this respect it has shifted to a secular wrong, as it is not concerned with the truth of the religion it blasphemes, but the sensibilities of the individual. Here the tension that exists around blasphemy becomes one of free speech versus faith, or freedom versus equality.

Dacey then argued that this dichotomous tension is inappropriate. We ought to instead focus on conscience versus conscience. The discussion of blasphemy must be seen as a debate over what is sacred. Blasphemy then becomes a contribution to dialog as it challenges what we should consider sacred or itself is often an expression of the sacred. In this debate of consciences, Dacey made it clear that the non-religious voice is just as valuable as the religious. To this end, Dacey commended the work of the IHEU.

Pamela Takiff discussed a variety of abuses of blasphemy laws and patterns that emerged. As discussed by Dacey, blasphemy laws often result in the enforcement of one interpretation of the sacred at the expense of minorities or the less powerful. Ambiguous blasphemy laws therefore have been abused by both governments and individual citizens. One religion’s blasphemy is often another’s sacred act. Examples listed by Takiff included persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Indonesia, the assassination of Pakistani political officials seeking reform, and internet mobs responding to statements made on Facebook and Twitter.

Takiff also discussed the progress made. UN Resolution 16/18 adopted March 2011 by the UN Human Rights council ceases to provide cover for national  blasphemy laws. Instead it promotes individuals over ideas and recognizes efforts by leaders and communities. In addition, it calls for a greater focus on promoting tolerance. The Istanbul Process, whose second meeting is currently being planned, seeks to collect best practices concerning these issues. 

During Q & A, several new topics were discussed. Dacey and Takiff debated the possibility for cultural reform from the top. Skepticism of the capacity of international non-governmental organizations to change culture was tempered by appreciation for the value of attempts to focus on legal frameworks, best practices that do exist and the promotion of grass root efforts.

Matt Cherry of the IHEU also discussed the possible parallel between the growth in blasphemy and religious debate after the rise of the printing press and the growth of the internet and the resulting debate in social networking and other sites. Dacey agreed that such a ‘messy’ unregulated process may be what is needed to create cultural shifts and a dialog of consciences.

–Paul Chiariello

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