You may ask what blasphemy has to do with skepticism - often I've talked with people about the intersection of skepticism and religious belief. I feel that religion should never be above skeptical scrutiny. A common question asked of the Skeptics Society is whether someone can be both an atheist and a skeptic - I always say that yes, someone can be both, but that I believe it requires the person to avoid shining a skeptical light on their belief. Skeptics usually stand by the idea that nothing is above questioning, and so a skeptic who isn't willing to scrutinise their religious beliefs seems to be a strange case to me. We should have no sacred cows.
The spotlight has been pointed at blasphemy laws around the world recently, and even Stephen Fry became embroiled in the issue recently when someone complained about an interview he gave in Ireland.
It's a surprise for many people to hear that New Zealand has a blasphemy law.
Last week I spoke briefly to a select committee in parliament about our blasphemy law, as a member of the Humanist Society. I spoke about people I've met in countries such as Turkey and Iran where many religious activities are either illegal or frowned upon:
The Humanist Society of New Zealand are a national charity that promotes Humanism. We work on behalf of the many New Zealanders who are not religious to make sure their voices are heard. Nearly half of New Zealanders now consider themselves to have no religion.
I’m here today to talk about section 123 of the Crimes Act, the blasphemous libel section.
At the Humanist Society, we regularly hear from people in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh who are in fear for their lives because they’ve dared to write articles on the internet about their lack of religious belief. Several bloggers have been killed in the last few years simply for having written blog posts about religion that conservative religious leaders have taken a dislike to. These intellectuals are desperate to escape from their home countries in order to feel safe, even though it means uprooting their families and becoming refugees in a foreign country.
I have visited countries that have strict laws around religious belief, and I’ve met with people in those countries who are atheists, and others who hold religious views that do not align with the state religion.
For example, I spent a couple of months in Iran, and while there I met Christians in Tehran. They wanted to pray with me because I was a Westerner, but were afraid to do so in public because of a fear of reprisal. I was invited by a Kurdish family to stay with them in the North West of Iran, and while I was with them I was shown a secret library of Sunni texts that had to be hidden from the authorities, because those texts were deemed blasphemous by the Shia government.
I have met with Christians in Turkey who have held services in secret, worried that their form of Christianity doesn’t conform to what the government approves of, and their beliefs could get them arrested.
This is not to say that New Zealand’s blasphemy law is comparable to the laws of these other countries I’ve been to, because it’s not that bad. In practical terms our blasphemy law is not a concern for New Zealanders today.
However, it’s an unnecessary law, and it violates the ideal of a secular state - an ideal that I hold dear. But the bigger point is that New Zealand having a blasphemy law risks other countries pointing to our blasphemy law to justify their own oppressive laws, laws that go against the idea of universal human rights.
Having a blasphemy law also weakens New Zealand’s ability to criticise other countries for their unjust laws. How can we stand up and tell Saudi Arabia, for example, that their blasphemy law is bad, when we still have a blasphemy law on our books?
There has been a global move in recent years by western countries to remove their outdated blasphemy laws. Like with our new marriage equality law, it would be good to see New Zealand take its place among forward thinking countries such as the UK and France, where blasphemy laws have been repealed in recent years.
I'm hopeful that we'll see this part of our law repealed, as I can see no good reason to retain it in our country where soon over 50% of kiwis will not have a belief. Our laws should be secular, meaning that they do not promote religious belief - as this the only way to make sure that society is fair for all.
The Humanist Society are planning to release a manifesto listing all the issues that they consider important to New Zealand's secular nature, including topics such as religion in schools, abortion, euthanasia and tax breaks for religious groups. It will be announced as part of a global Humanist conference being held in Auckland at the beginning of August, where speakers from around the world will talk about topics such as what life is like as an atheist in an Islamic country.