My Keynote Speech at the Rationalist International Conference, 2016 – Estonia: Formal and Informal Blasphemy

My Keynote Speech at the Rationalist International Conference, 2016 – Estonia: Formal and Informal Blasphemy

Firstly, I’d like to thank my friend Sanal Edamaruku and the Rationalist International Association for inviting me to come here to beautiful Estonia and give this talk today.

For those of you who don’t know who I am, and I imagine that is probably most of you, I am, for lack of a better description, an atheist author. I have authored six polemical, anti-religious books and published numerous essays against the Christian religion, Islam, Buddhism, and religion in general. I am also the founder and chairperson of Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists and we are a small organization campaigning for the abolition of blasphemy laws. We started our petition roughly two years ago and were lucky enough to receive the support of some large names such as Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Roseanne Barr. We have over 15,000 signatures, but, needless to say, we need many more.  At present we are attempting to raise funds to retain an international lawyer so that we can move beyond our petition and add more constructive arms to our organization. Anyway, that’s more or less who I am and what I do.

My talk today is on formal and informal blasphemy. Now, what exactly do I mean by formal and informal blasphemy? To give you just a little background, for my Master’s Degree in Religion I wrote a socio-historical paper on two of Thomas Paine’s most infamous and controversial works: The Rights of Man and the Age of Reason. In that paper I examined the reactions to those works through the lens of the sociological theory of deviance.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with these works, the Rights of Man attacked the aristocracy and advocated the benefits of a meritocracy at a time when it was believed religiously that the aristocracy were specially selected by God to rule over the unwashed masses.

And the Age of Reason was a deist polemic against the Christian religion. The former pamphlet, or part two of the Rights of Man led to the trial and conviction of Paine in absentia for seditious libel against the Crown and he was sentenced to death in England. It was a good thing for Paine that he was in France at the time, and I would strongly urge those interested to read Paine’s cheeky reply to the prosecutor in England.

The Age of Reason was so controversial for its time that many of Paine’s former allies turned against him, and it even inspired his friend Benjamin Franklin to beg him to forgo publishing any more copies of it and to, here I quote Franklin, “burn this piece before it is seen by any other person”. Thankfully, Paine did not heed his friend’s advice. It is within the body of Paine’s blasphemous works, and within the similar works of his sisters and brothers of the Enlightenment, that our modern notion of Human Rights was first established. Yet for their time, many of these works were regarded as grossly deviant.

Sociologists conceptualize deviance in terms of being both formal and informal in nature.  Anderson and Taylor (2013) describe the difference between formal andinformal deviance in the following words:

Formal deviance is behaviour that breaks laws or official rules. Crime is an example.  [Being a Justin Bieber fan is not…unfortunately]. There are formal sanctions against formal deviance, such as imprisonment and fines’.

‘Informal deviance, on the other hand, is behaviour that merely violates customary norms (Schur 1984). Although such deviance may not be specified in law, it is judged to be deviant by those who uphold the society’s norms’.

Once again, informal deviance is behaviour that is judged to be deviant by those who uphold society’s norms! This is crucial point to which I shall return throughout this talk.

So then, what do I mean by formal and informal blasphemy?

Formal Blasphemy describes blasphemous expressions that break laws or official rules. Blasphemy laws, religious insult laws and, to a large extent, hate speech laws, are examples. There are formal sanctions against formal blasphemy, such as the death penalty, imprisonment and fines’.

One of the most recent examples of formal blasphemy is the case in Kuwait in which the Kuwaiti academic and human rights activist Sheikha al-Jassem was formally charged with blasphemy for merely advocating the separation of religion and politics, and who, most blasphemously, suggested that the Qur’an should not supersede the Kuwaiti constitution.

Historian Dr David Nash has discussed the recent renaissance of blasphemy laws, and in his book, he writes:

‘Blasphemy—the attacking, wounding, and damaging of religious belief—has in so short a space of time suddenly returned to become an extremely combustible partof modern life’.

There are far too many examples of the renaissance of formal blasphemy in recent years – Raif Badawi, Hamza Kashkari, Asia Bibi, and many, many others, but as other speakers will be covering some of these cases, I’ll leave this issue here.

However, I would like to say:

To combat formal blasphemy laws, religious insult laws and hate speech laws, which are official rules that formalize and legally sanction the egregious infringement of the fundamental freedoms of thought, conscience and expression expressly protected under the U.N’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we need the assistance of not only celebrities and notable public figures, but most importantly, we need the support of our political leaders in western democracies. Which brings me to the importance of addressing informalblasphemy.

‘Informal Blasphemy describes blasphemous expressions that violate customary norms. Although such blasphemy may not be specified in law, it is judged to be blasphemous by those who uphold the society’s norms’.

Here, there are two primary aspects I’d like to address. The first concerns the social taboos that still exist in the west with regards to criticizing and ridiculing ridiculous religious beliefs and behaviours. And the second aspect concerns an even more aggressively policed taboo on criticising one religion in particular.   Now, the general taboo on criticizing religion in general is abating to some degree in the West, particularly with the rise of social media, atheism and with the increasing number of outspoken atheist celebrities, (thank you Ricky Gervais), so I don’t think I really need to spend too much time on that general taboo, although it is still an issue that needs to be addressed, in some countries more than others.

The second aspect of Informal Blasphemy, however, namely the criticizing and ridiculing of that very violent religion of peace, Islam – yes, you did hear me correctly – that’s an entirely different beast altogether.  Many liberal atheists, and I’m speaking as a liberal atheist myself, have no problem whatsoever criticizing the atrocities committed by Christians of the past, nor do they feel the need to show restraint in strongly condemning Christianity’s current efforts to undermine the rights of same-sex couples and women, nor do these atheists hold back in criticizing Christianity’s tireless attempts to pollute our education systems by trying to force its outdated theology into our science classrooms – but when it comes to criticizing Islam, a religion that is presently where Christianity was 500 years ago, a religion, the core doctrines of which are wellspring for misogyny, gender inequality, murder, rape, Domestic Violence, paedophilia, and numerous other crimes against humanity, all of a sudden these same brave liberal atheist-soldiers in the struggle for reason, rationalism and human rights, become not merely coy, but aggressively opposed to those of us who do not discriminate – those of us who care just as much about the rights of Muslim women and men as we do about the rights western women and men – those of us who do not believe that the Muslim world shouldnecessarily be held to lower standards – those of us who would prefer to standshoulder-to-shoulder with the oppressed, rather than assist fascists and religious fundamentalists, – and those of us who stand with the heroes of the Muslim world, heroes like Salman Taseer, who bravely gave his life to defend Asia Bibi and fight Pakistan’s deadly blasphemy law, heroes like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, who has been lashed and imprisoned for simply aspiring to leave a better, more humane society for his children.

This group of predominantly western atheists, who have no problem attacking Christianity but who lose their minds when anyone so much as makes a mild, critical remark about Islam, belong to a neo pseudo-liberal movement that Maajid Nawaaz has dubbed the Regressive Left.  Now, despite the Regressive Left’sseemingly good intentions, those intentions apparently being the protection of minorities in the West and holding the West accountable for its geopolitical crimes of the past and present, which are concerns I also share as a liberal-minded humanist, this group’s narrative is still nonetheless, nothing if not well-intentioned bigotry.

The Regressive Left seem to have no qualms about non-western women and men suffering horribly and having their human rights completely and utterly infringed upon under totalitarian religious regimes, yet they have a tremendous problem with those of us who dare to criticize those horrid religious regimes and that misogynistic and misanthropic collection of superstitions that wrote the manifesto for groups like ISIS and Boko Haram.

This regressive pseudo-liberal movement has misappropriated the core principles of liberalism to zealously defend a fascist, anti-liberal ideology. Now, I know a lot of you are probably thinking, “Don’t hold back, Michael! Tell us what you really think!” Okay, fine, I will. The Regressive Left is little more than an idiotic, identity-politics-obsessed collection of cowardly and pathologically apathetic illiberal activists dressed in the garb of humane liberalism. They are, and I say this without hesitation, a brood of reputation-smearing vipers, who are poisoning liberalism from within, and at the same time assisting in the oppression of women and men in the Muslim world, by making it an offense to speak the plain truth about an extremely oppressive and dangerous ideology, and they achieve their misguided ends by branding those who freely speak the truth about Islam and Islamism with pejorative labels such as Islamophobe, racist and bigot.  And here I arrive at my central point concerning informal blasphemy.

If more balanced rationalists don’t find a way to seize control of the norms surrounding the criticism of religion, and Islam in particular, the Regressive Left will continue to control the narrative, and the pre-existing social norms that make it a taboo to speak honestly in this regard will be bolstered, and this would be tragic, because the only alternative to the apathetic and irrationally relativist narrative broadcasted by the Regressive Left will be the hateful and bigoted anti-Muslim narrative preached by the Far Right, which will not only lead to the needless suffering of innocent and peaceful Muslims, it will distort the necessary discourse on the dangers inherent within many of the core and peripheral doctrines of Islam, and the dangers associated with religious ignorance in general – and, most worryingly, informal blasphemy, if left unaddressed and unchecked, will continue to entrench the speech and thought hindering norms that forbid the necessary criticism of dangerous ideas and ideologies. This is just one of the reasons why addressing informal blasphemy is so important.

But herein lies the challenge! How do we compete with the oversimplified narratives offered by the Regressive Left and the Far Right? On the one hand we have the Far Right’s easy-to-follow, powerful and dangerous narrative, one which conflates humans with their beliefs, their narrative being, all Muslims are evil! And on the other we have the Regressive Left, who similarly conflate humans and beliefs, but by propagating the fallacious notion that the criticism of beliefs amounts to bigotry, racism and the persecution of a group of people… it does not!

So those of us stuck in the middle between these clowns to the left and those fascists to the right – those of us who understand the difference between criticizing beliefs on the one hand, and persecuting human beings on the other, we have to find a way to make our more nuanced narrative more appealing, and I think that is what it boils down to, sadly – it’s all about sales. The Regressive Left have extremely attractive linguistic symbols as part of their propaganda, i.e., Islamophobe, bigot and racist, whilst the Far Right, they have easily-digestible stereotypes coupled with the powerful archetype of evil at their disposal. We rationalists, however, we have subtle, somewhat unattractive nuances that require contemplation, considerable thought and careful discernment – our narrative is akin to a science textbook, people love the idea of owning one, but reading it, understanding it, and applying it, that’s another matter entirely.

So how do those of us who see Muslims and religious people in general as our fellow human beings yet deplore their religious beliefs, how do we go about making what we are selling more attractive to Far Right and Regressive Left audiences, who are more interested in easy-to-grasp, neon-lit narratives? Well, I think one thing we need to do is inject a little more passion into how we deliver our message.

Another thing we can do is repeat….repeat….repeat.  We can do both of these things without sacrificing the substance of our rational, human rights-focussed message, but again, we must remain cognizant of the reality that a large portion of this audience is either too busy living day-to-day, surviving on low-to-minimum wage, or else they are too busy voting which singer should win the next season of ‘The Voice’. I guess what I’m saying is, the audience is either too busy surviving or too complacent and apathetic to thoroughly contemplate the not-so-subtle nuances that exist between criticizing religious ideologies and persecuting those who are held prisoner by them.

Another problem we face as campaigners for human rights over human beliefs, is that we are attempting to sell a global message that not only cuts across national borders, but that trespasses across the red-tape of identity politics. That is to say, we are asking people to consider aspects of their political opponents’ points of view. What do I mean by this? I mean we are asking liberals to put aside their biases and bravely and rationally consider the rational concerns about Islam expressed by voices on the Right, and we are asking the people on the Right to move beyond their racism, bigotry and tribalism, to care sufficiently about the wellbeing of those who do not share their own nationality, or ethnicity – and such requests, on both sides of the political spectrum, can, and frequently do, fall upon deaf ears.

Those are just a few of the hurdles I see facing rationalists in our bid to shape thesocial norms surrounding the criticism of Islam and religion in general.

Another reason we must challenge informal blasphemy, again, informal blasphemy being the informal, social taboos surrounding the criticism of religion, and Islam in particular, is that in Western representative democracies, the constituencies, that is the people, hold a degree of sway over the values deemed important by our political representatives – representatives who can potentially serve as powerful vehicles for positive global change, change that would occasion an increase in human rights in Islamic states, and globally.

So, it has come time for rationalists to come together, despite whatever political disputes may have divided us in the past, and challenge not only the formal blasphemy laws that plague Islamic theocracies and predominantly religious societies, but also to combat the tide of informal blasphemy in the West, which makes it a taboo to criticize religion, and again, Islam in particular.

Because if we cannot put aside our differences to protect our own freedoms and the human rights of those incapable of protecting their own rights – if we fail to unite to take control of the discourse surrounding the criticism of Islam, and religion in general, then we leave this extremely important issue in the hands of morons and misanthropes, and it should go without saying, neither the moron nor the misanthrope should ever be charged with the sacred responsibility of protecting the human rights of our sisters and brothers around the globe.

Finally, aside from the obvious benefits concerning human rights, challenging both the formal and informal taboos on blasphemy is necessary for human progress. And this is my final argument, I promise!

As the playwright George Bernard Shaw penned upon the lips of one of his characters, “All great truths begin as blasphemies”.

This notion was also expressed by the brilliant Freethinker, Robert G. Ingersoll, who said:

“The infidels of one age have often been the…saints of the next. The destroyers of the old are the creators of the new. As time sweeps on the old passes away and the new in its turn becomes old. There is in the intellectual world, as in the physical, decay and growth, and ever by the grave of buried age stand youth and joy. The history of intellectual progress is written in the lives of infidels. Political rights have been preserved by traitors, the liberty of mind by heretics. To attack the king was treason; to dispute the priest was blasphemy”.

I don’t really need to put too much effort into proving that blasphemy is necessary for human progress, because the annals of history are littered with examples. Just look at Darwin’s blasphemous theory of evolution, which is the central nervous system of the science of biology, archaeology, and numerous other valuable and progressive fields of human knowledge. Or take for example the germ theory of disease, which, at the time of its advent, was competing with the long-held and superstitious belief that sickness and disease were the result of God’s wrath, the devil, demons, witchcraft, and/or sin.

Look back to the stir that vaccinations first made, particularly in the U.S., with opponents like Cotton Mathers arguing that they undermined God’s plan by saving the lives of those whom God wanted dead. Or take for example Copernicus’ heliocentric model of our solar system, which angered the founder of the Protestant Church, Martin Luther, to the point that he referred to Copernicus posthumously as simply, a clown who was out to refute scripture.

Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, I mean the history books are overflowing with examples that prove beyond any reasonable doubt, that blasphemy has been, and will always be, necessary for not only human rights, but human progress.  I personally think Ayaan Hirsi Ali made this point brilliantly.

“Only through rigorous scrutiny can cultures progress, and only through free speech can rigorous scrutiny occur.”

So to summarize, by couching and conceptualizing blasphemy in sociological terms, that is, within the theoretical framework of the sociological theory of deviance, we can, hopefully, better understand the interdependent relationship between informal blasphemy on the one hand, and formal blasphemy laws on the other. And in so understanding, we may just be able to formulate effective strategies to combat the relentless attacks on our freedom of speech, and most importantly, our freedom of thought, which, as history has clearly shown, are freedoms which protect human rights and perpetuate human progress.


Thank you very much for listening.



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