Atheists and other secular people ought to be at the forefront of defending free speech.
It was about 15 years ago, at Pitzer College, a small liberal arts institution in California, in my Sociology of Religion class. The morning’s lecture was “The Origins of Mormonism.” A main point of the lecture was to illustrate the way in which this recently-established world religion emerged not because of any supernatural magic, but because of the well-documented charisma and conniving of one man, Joseph Smith, Jr.
During the lecture, I presented extensive evidence regarding Smith’s scheme of claiming to be able to find buried treasure; prior to creating a new religion, Smith’s con was to convince people that he had a magical ability to locate buried treasure and if they paid him a fee, he would tell them where to dig; when no buried treasure was found, he would claim that the devil had moved the treasure elsewhere. I also lectured about the way in which Smith claimed to “translate” the Book of Mormon from “Reformed Egyptian” by using magic peepstones and how his colleague’s wife, Lucy Harris, brilliantly exposed this fraudulent scheme. I also discussed the many young women Smith exploited for sex and the schism this caused. I covered many other facts about Mormonism’s founder, and the dubious ways in which he successfully established his new religion. All of my assertions were backed by historical documentation.
After class, one of my better students showed up at my office, wanting to talk. Within minutes, she was sobbing. Long story short: She was a Mormon; she had never heard the things I had lectured on; she was deeply offended; the lecture felt like an attack on her very identity, her family, and her community. Although she said that she had enjoyed the class up until that day, and liked me as a teacher, the lecture on Smith had crossed a line. It was traumatizing. Disrespectful. Hateful. It had shattered her. She dropped the class and transferred to another school at the semester’s end.
A crucial right
As an atheist, and an outspoken one, at that, I often debunk certain aspects of religion. I publicly speak, teach, debate, and write about the various ways in which some manifestations of religion harm society. I frequently put forth scathing critiques of religious faith. And sometimes, when feeling particularly peevish, I even mock religion.
The thing that allows me to do all of this without fear of getting fired, arrested, tortured, or hanged, is the beautiful, moral, and very much humanly-created law known as the First Amendment.
Prior to the First Amendment, and the Enlightenment values upon which it rests, talking critically or even factually about religion was a very dangerous endeavor. In many countries today, it still is. Just ask Raif Badawi, or Avijit Roy’s widow, Bonya.
The lack of freedom of speech has been a truly brutal, ruthless bane to secularism for centuries. Without freedom of speech, atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and skeptics cannot take on the religious powers that be; cannot point out the ways in which religion harms society; cannot debunk religious falsehoods; cannot challenge religious claims; cannot demand equal rights for the non-religious. Without freedom of speech, secularists can only whisper, cower, and hide.
Given the many centuries of persecution and repression of nonbelievers that a lack of freedom of speech has entailed, it is very strange – if not outright dumbfounding — to see some secularists today actually critiquing it. For example, Rick Snedeker recently wrote that a “rational” approach to free speech is to not allow any speech that is “traumatizing, demeaning, and socially isolating to… many Americans.”
I guess that means no more lectures on Mormonism; nor on how Christianity lacks factual evidence; nor on how Muhammed was a pedophile; nor on how Orthodox Jews abuse their children; nor on the Catholic Church’s aiding and abetting of pedophiles. For if we are going to forbid speech that is “traumatizing, demeaning, and socially isolating to so many Americans,” as Snedeker urges, then we are basically trashing the First Amendment, and with it, the very foundational right that protects us, the nonreligious, the most.
Understandably concerned about Trump’s fascist lies, the proliferation of dangerously fake news, baseless conspiracy theories, abject racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and other abusive and purposefully destructive speech, some progressives, and even some secular progressives such as Snedeker, think the answer to such immorality is to curb the First Amendment. It isn’t.
Here are the main reasons—all interrelated—that atheists and other secular people ought to be at the forefront of defending freedom of speech.
First, as noted above, nonreligious or antireligious people have consistently been the oppressed victims of a lack of freedom of speech. For most of recorded human history, religious folks have been in charge, and they have not taken well to those who are skeptical of their reigning faith. Socrates met his demise because he challenged the religious authorities of his day; Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob; Lucilio Vanina and Menocchio were burned at the stake by the Italian Inquisition; Etienne Dolet was strangled by the French Inquisition; Casimir Liszinski had his tongue ripped out and his head chopped off by Polish Jesuits; Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Scotland. And these are just some of the more notable cases. Certainly, thousands of atheists—who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep their mouths shut or their pens still—have been persecuted, exiled, tortured, and killed by religious rulers and their religious supporters throughout history as they ran afoul of blasphemy laws or simple intolerance.
Talk about vicious legislation. Blasphemy laws make it illegal to critique religion, because such criticism causes insult. It makes people feel bad. The results: death to rational viewpoints, death to empirical argument, death to moral insight. Take but one example, the case of Sanal Edamaruku of India. About ten years ago, in Mumbai, a bunch of people noticed that water seemed to be emerging from a statue of Jesus. They claimed it was a miracle. They began gathering the “holy” water. Edamaruku, a well-known myth debunker, went to check it out. He quickly found that the source of the trickling water was broken plumbing just behind the wall of the statue. Upon proclaiming his findings, he was charged with blasphemy, or insulting religion. Or, to use Snedeker’s words, employing speech that was “traumatizing” and “demeaning” to many people. In order to avoid arrest or worse, Edamaruku was forced to flee and currently resides as an exile in Finland.
About a quarter of the world’s countries still have blasphemy laws today. They almost exclusively protect the power, prestige, and malfeasance of religion, while silencing those who would critique such holy insanity. How truly wonderful, then, that here in the United States, the venerable First Amendment makes any notion of blasphemy laws unconstitutional.
As atheist and free speech defender Greg Lukianoff has astutely argued :
Everyone—literally every person reading this article—is a blasphemer to someone else. Whether you’re a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, or—like me—an atheist, you hold some belief that would get you jailed or killed somewhere in the world today, or at some point in recent history. Modern Americans are very fortunate to live in a time and place where the government can’t punish you on the basis of what god you believe in or don’t believe in. This isn’t an accident: The founders of our country intended to avoid the kinds of religious wars and persecutions that were endemic to Europe in the 1500s and 1600s…Just a few words in the Bill of Rights mitigated one of the biggest drivers of bloodshed in history and helped enable unprecedented scientific and scholarly advancement.
A second reason atheists ought to be at the forefront of protecting free speech has to do with our very own ethical orientation. Since we don’t believe that morality is based upon obediently following the obscure and often contradictory orders of a magical invisible deity, our moral and ethical compasses rely on natural, rational, self-evident foundations. In that vein, a key principle we rely upon is treating others the same way we ourselves would like to be treated. It is as sound and solid and universal a practical ethic as we’ve ever created. And it directly relates to speech: if we want the freedom to express our opinions, our ideas, our views—however unpopular or scandalous they may be—then we must grant that right to others. Even our enemies. Such an understanding lies is at the moral, political, and secular heart of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s 1906 statement: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
A simple hypothetical
Closely related to the above, a third reason we ought to defend free speech involves a simple hypothetical: Imagine that it is religious fanatics who are the ones in charge. Imagine that Christian fundamentalists or Islamic jihadists or Hindu godmen are in charge of drafting and enforcing laws, and that they control the criminal justice system. You can be sure that atheists, humanists, and secularists would be the first people to have their freedom of speech revoked. If religious fanatics were fully in charge, advocating for the rights of women to their own bodily autonomy could be framed as a hate crime; or speech in support of gay marriage; or speech elucidating the facts of evolution; or speech that provides factual information about non-binary gender experiences; or speech critiquing the homophobia of the Hadith; or speech exposing the illogicality of theism; or speech condemning the caste system; and so on. Actually, we don’t need to be hypothetical about any of this. It has already taken place! All of the speech above has been illegal in the past, and in some places, is still illegal.
But what about hate speech? Shouldn’t speech that denigrates and dehumanizes entire groups of people, which denies their very existence, be outlawed? No—for the simple, obvious, and insurmountable reason that there is no fair, unbiased way to decide who gets to define “hate.” Or “denigrate” or “dehumanize.” Will it be Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who makes such distinctions, or Marjorie Taylor Greene? Neil deGrasse Tyson or Charlie Kirk?
You see, it’s unavoidable: what constitutes hate speech to one segment of the population is righteous argumentation to another, and vice-versa. A Mormon could define a speech about Joseph Smith’s chicanery as hate speech; a woman could define a Mormon sermon about God’s wish for women to put priority upon their children and husbands over their careers, as hate speech. A Jew could consider a speech against circumcision as hate speech; a doctor could consider a rabbinic oration defending the necessity of circumcision as hateful child abuse; A Muslim could consider a speech against Islam’s belief in jinn as hate speech; a homosexual could consider a sermon on Muhammed’s advocacy for the killing of homosexuals as hate speech. The Bible could easily be considered hate speech by women and homosexuals; a homosexual-rights critique of the Bible could be considered hate speech by Christians. A pro-choice advocate could be accused of denying the humanity of millions of unborn babies; an anti-choice advocate could be accused of denying the rights of millions of women. It just goes on and on: all deeply controversial speech is by definition offensive to someone or some group. And while you might relish the thought of your obviously correct viewpoint holding sway and the silencing of their obvious lies, if they are in power, it’ll be you who is muzzled (or worse).
Free speech is not free. It comes with a cost, and that cost is allowing speech that is heinous, foul, false, repugnant, and immoral. It is a very steep and painful price to pay, but one far preferable to a lack of free speech, which may serve you and yours if you and yours are in charge, but most certainly won’t if others are.
As Katha Pollitt explains:
The question, as always, is who decides what is permissible and what is beyond the pale. And who, as the Latin saying goes, will guard the guards? It’s easy to imagine that the people in charge would be like oneself, but the history of book banning in Western democracies suggests otherwise…If you call for a bookstore not to stock your enemy’s book or rejoice when a problematic classic is taken out of print, your enemy will do the same. Then it just comes down to who has more power. You won’t have a universal principle to appeal to…the fact is, given American realities, where almost half the electorate voted for Donald Trump and large numbers don’t even believe in evolution, no one needs it more than the left. It’s messy, it’s contradictory, it means living with insults and stupidity and even, sometimes, evil and pain. Fortunately, your enemy is in the same position. That may be as good as it gets.
Fourth: the secular sagacity of John Stuart Mill. One of the brightest stars of the humanist firmament, Mill was raised without religion and espoused a deeply secular worldview. Chief among that worldview was the inherent value and necessity of free speech. Mill, being a secular thinker, recognized that we are all fallible. Thus, we must never insist that we maintain an air-tight monopoly on truth. We must always be open to being wrong. We must always be open to new evidence. New insights. New arguments. Silenced or condemned viewpoints may, sometimes, actually be correct. Suppressed speech may, sometimes, still hold a kernel of truth. And even when our enemies’ speech is irrefutably incorrect, it can still be useful, for simply by engaging with it, we can sharpen our own opinion, better defend truth in the face of challenges, muster even stronger evidence to bolster our position, and not grow lazy, knee-jerk, or dogmatic in our views. For Mill, liberty without free speech was impossible.
As Adam Lee has beautifully argued:
Free speech is the most fundamental right of a civilized society. In a sense, it is the right upon which all other rights depend, because free and unrestricted speech is the only way any society can hope to notice and correct its mistakes so that it can make moral progress. The moment we ban the expression of any idea, even if we do it with the best intentions in the world, we’ve set foot upon a fatally slippery slope. To do this is to say that there are policies that may no longer be questioned, aspects of society that may no longer be discussed – and down that path lie dogmatism, tyranny, and all the black and terrible evils that come with them. Once an idea is banned because it is too noxious, too radical, too subversive – and once people become used to this – then the line inevitably moves, and the next most radical idea becomes the new target. The only way to stop this process is to cut it off at the root – to declare that we will never countenance the banning of any idea, no matter how strongly we disagree with it.
Finally, there is the Steve Kerr principle. When I was in my pre-teens, my brother’s good friend was Steve Kerr. Yeah, that Steve Kerr. One day, after a great game of whiffle ball, we were sitting around the living room, discussing politics. Something came up about the Nation of Islam and their leader’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. Personally offended by such things, I said that such hateful speech ought not to be allowed. Steve agreed that the rhetoric was heinous, but that it was still allowable.
“Don’t you believe in free speech?” he asked me.
“No,” I heatedly scoffed.
“Then shut up.”
And that was pretty much all I needed to learn about the morality, legality, and absolute necessity for the widest possible birth of free speech in society.
Free speech, at root, is deeply liberatory, radical, enlightened, and progressive. It is what has allowed the defenders of social justice to advance their agendas. It is what allows us to fight against despotism. It is what allows us to challenge religion.
I honestly don’t know why growing segments within progressive and secular circles don’t understand this, or why people on the fascist right—who are poisoning our planet, disseminating AR-15s, destroying democracy, electing religious zealots, denying rights to women, and pushing deeply racist agendas—do.
Maybe some of you can explain it to me.
Oh, but wait—it is the freedom of speech that will allow you to do so.
Without it, you’ll need to stay very, very quiet. Indeed, you’ll need to shut up.