Religious people all over the world insist that their beliefs should control what everyone else can say, look at, or know about. The bargain of civilization means that these taboos can't be enforceable.

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The Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets that God gave to Moses, was the holiest object in ancient Israel. According to the Hebrew Bible, it was perilous just to be around it, let alone to touch it or look at it. Only the Levites, a hereditary class with special religious privileges, were permitted to move it from one place to another.

In one biblical story, the Philistines steal the Ark after defeating the Israelites in battle. But as long as they keep it around, debilitating plagues break out among them (some translations say hemorrhoids).

Finally, the Philistines return the Ark with their apologies. They drop it off in the town of Beth-shemesh, where the men are unable to resist the temptation to peek inside. In response, Yahweh goes full Old Testament on them:

“And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.”

1 Samuel 6:19

Every religion has something like this. It’s the blasphemous knowledge, the altar too sacred to gaze upon, the holy of holies which only the priests may enter. Every religion has something it forbids the uninitiated to look at, depict, read, or know about.

Outside the pages of religious books, these taboos aren’t so conveniently self-enforcing. Instead, there have always been human beings ready to step into the gap and prevent anyone from seeing what their faith condemns.

If I can’t do it, you can’t either

Last fall, Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor of art history at Hamline University in Minnesota, was teaching a class on Islamic art. Among other course material, she included two medieval depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, both created by Muslim artists. Prater included these images in the curriculum specifically to debunk the idea that Islam has always and everywhere prohibited visual depictions of Muhammad.

One of the images shown in the Hamline class, depicting Muhammad receiving revelation from the angel Gabriel (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The professor took every possible precaution. She warned students in advance that she was going to show these images, discussed why she was doing it, and told them that they were free to skip that lecture if they had a religious objection to seeing them.

It wasn’t enough.

One student (later identified by the school newspaper as Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association) complained about the content of the lecture. In a shocking act of cowardice, Hamline fired Prater.

Normally, I dislike the trope that someone is “looking for a reason” to be offended. However, in this case, it applies. If students were informed in advance, if they had a chance to opt out, if they chose to sit through it anyway, and then decided to file a complaint… what inference can we draw, other than that this student’s goal wasn’t to heal their own wounded feelings, but to chill academic freedom at the school and intimidate others? And they succeeded.

Hamline’s statement ludicrously claimed that it “cause[s] harm” to show an image which Muslims disapprove of, and stated that “respect for the observant Muslim students… should have superseded academic freedom”—which means there is no academic freedom at Hamline University.

Academic freedom isn’t needed to protect the discussion of safe, unobjectionable ideas. Academic freedom is needed when, and only when, the idea to be discussed is unpleasant, difficult, or upsetting to some. Clearly, this student disliked the idea that Islam isn’t universally aniconic, and wanted to prevent evidence of that fact from being shown.

This isn’t to say that academic freedom or free speech in general should protect literally anything. A professor who sexually harassed their students, for example, or discriminated against them on grounds of race or religion, or disclosed information they had a legal duty to keep in confidence, could be fired and it would be right to do so. However, in this case, any reasonable person would conclude that showing these images served a legitimate academic purpose.

Hamline’s administrators have obviously given no thought to how the principle they’ve set out can be exploited. If it “causes harm” to see someone else say or do something that violates my religion, then I become a law unto myself. There’s no limit to what power I can wield. What if a Christian group claimed that it’s a sin to see two men kissing, and that it’s harmful to Christians to ever depict such a thing or permit it on campus?

This isn’t a hypothetical scenario. In fact, Christians all over the country are trying to make it a reality.

A rash of red-state censorship

In the past few years, red states have broken out in a rash of ugly laws targeting schools and libraries for censorship. The most infamous, Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, prohibits teachers from discussing “sexual orientation or gender identity” in class. This is a vague, confusing law (is it illegal even to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people?), which is intentional. It’s supposed to foster a climate of fear, intimidating teachers into steering clear of any topic that a bigot might object to. Other red-state laws are forcing libraries to purge books containing LGBTQ themes or characters.

In a related moral panic, many of these same states are trying to ban drag shows and punish venues that hold them. Some would forbid drag shows from being in or near schools, while others would make it outright illegal for minors to view drag performers, classifying them the same as strip clubs. The wording of some of these laws would apply to any performance that includes a transgender person in any capacity.

RELATED: Drag Queen Story Hour: Getting past the knee-jerk

In other cases, Republicans are trying to censor information about Black icons and civil-rights struggles, on the grounds that teaching history makes white conservatives feel bad.

That’s not an exaggeration. A law in Georgia bans teachers from saying anything that might cause their students to feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” because of their race. Iowa banned the teaching of “divisive concepts“. Both these laws give a heckler’s veto to any loudmouthed racist who thinks equal rights are divisive. Most brazen, Ron DeSantis’ Florida banned AP African-American studies—a mainstream, College Board-approved history course!—because it “lacks educational value” and contains “a political agenda”.

Even as conservatives are enshrining discrimination in the present, they’re trying to stop people from learning how they did it in the past. If they think the parallels make them look bad, perhaps they should reflect on why that is.

The mentality of the book-burner

Whether it’s Muslims who want to forbid everyone everywhere from viewing drawings of Muhammad, or Christians who want to forbid everyone everywhere from reading books about gay or transgender people, the impulse is the same. It’s the mentality of the book-burner and the inquisitor, the belief that people should be prohibited from doing what my religion forbids. It’s the blasphemy laws of old, resurrected in a new form.

It’s impossible to make religious people’s sensitivities the arbiter of what’s permitted, and the reason is obvious: Religious people don’t agree among themselves on what’s offensive. Each sect has its own peculiar beliefs that others reject as blasphemy and sin.

Christians believe Jesus was the divine Son of God and say it’s blasphemous to deny this, while both Jews and Muslims reject this and believe it’s blasphemous to say that God would take human form. Liberal Christians say God loves LGBTQ people, while conservative Christians say they’re doomed to hell. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox sects of Judaism clash on the proper role of women. Shia and Sunni Muslims have been waging war on each other for centuries over the identity of Muhammad’s proper successor. Mormons say Joseph Smith was a divinely inspired prophet, while mainstream Christians regard this as theological fan fiction written by a con man.

In the clash of faiths, whose offense wins? Who gets to silence whom? Which taboos get to be backed by the force of law, and which ones don’t?

The question is undecidable on any rational grounds. That’s why after centuries of fruitless and bloody warfare between competing sects, each one trying to enforce its own taboos and silence others by force, Western nations finally hit on the principle of free speech.

Free speech isn’t a nice extra, a bit of window dressing that can be suspended when weightier considerations intervene. It’s a hard-won ceasefire. It allows the debate to continue in the arena of words without spilling over into bloodshed again.

As part of this bargain, we have to accept that others may say things we find foolish, offensive, even blasphemous. The right to free speech isn’t unlimited—as, indeed, no right is—but only the most compelling reasons can justify infringing on it.

Protecting people’s feelings from the sting of disagreement isn’t one of those reasons. Nor is enforcing religious restrictions, which, again, is impossible when they’re mutually exclusive. Those who demand a special exemption, who insist that their beliefs should receive special protection not available to everyone else—whether they know it or not, they’re well on their way to rejecting the bargain of civilization.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...