Atheists’ chance to be the good guys
The crusading triangle of cruelty between Islam, Christianity and Judaism is now being played out in an important but esoteric dispute in the UN.
This time, we atheists are really the good guys.
According to an article in The Age by religion editor Barney Zwartz, for more than a decade, there has been a UN debate about the criticising of faith. The 56-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) wants the freedom to have its way with its critics. The OIC is comfortable allowing sovereign nations to have a role in stamping out such criticism.
The debate concerns a proposed resolution denouncing the ‘‘defamation of religion’’. In 2009, after 10 years of debate, a resolution was carried in the UN Human Rights Commission with the OIC countries gaining support from Latin America, Africa and others. The resolution exhorts member states to respect the practices of faith. It expressly condemns Islamophobia. This all sounds innocuous enough, but it is a de facto licence for followers of any faith to embark on unspeakable barbarity and intolerance. The non-binding resolution would sanction the enforcement of religious rules of blasphemy and apostasy, which will reap a bitter harvest.
The West (mostly), the Christians (mostly) and the Jews oppose it for it is seen as free go at ‘‘convert-or-be-killed’’ programs. Mind you, these programs were well-tested by the Spanish Inquisition, but that was a long time ago. An opposition Christian group has arisen in the West known as Open Doors. This group, hailing from the US, documents the appalling atrocities visited upon Christians in Islamic and other countries. The martyr de jour is Asia Bibi, a Christian believer in Pakistan sentenced to death on charges of blaspheming Islam’s prophet. Of course, the question surrounding this group is where were they when the Serbian Orthodox were targetting Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s? This does somewhat tarnish the credibility of the followers of Christ. The ultimate irony is that some elements in the Orthodox Church support the Islamic line of the defamation-of-religions issue. In the history of human conflict, were there ever two more paradoxical bedfellows?
This did not, however, deter The Age from denouncing the UN resolution. The logic of the editorial was hard to fault but for the historical hypocrisy of the West lecturing the nations of Islam on tolerance. In these debates, who says it is often more relevant than what is said. Logic always defaults to politics. When I encounter a Christian group that has emerged from the US such as Open Doors, my suspicious mind immediately leaps to suspicious (perhaps ill-informed) conclusions. I think evil. Imagine what the Islamic world thinks?
The godless approach, too, might lack some credibility with the supporters of this defamation position because we are the hated apostates. But at least the godless are consistent. Atheism has for several centuries railed against the rules of blasphemy. About one in three of the boring books we write for the few readers who buy them, is about blasphemy for it is such an anathema. If a faith wants to get nasty with its critics, all it does is deem the words and actions to be blasphemous and bloody vengeance is then legitimate.
Blasphemy can include the criticism of religious beliefs and practices or even mere irreverence. In Leviticus 24:16 it is punishable by death. The carnage caused by enforcement of blasphemy would be magnified if it was used by nation states to suppress diversity of views. Blasphemy is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal renunciation of faith. Sadly I am both a blasphemer and an apostate.
Atheists have a stark choice. We could fondly observe the inter-faith brutality and seek to profit from the irrational rivers of blood that flow. Surely, there is no greater voice for godlessness than the screaming voices of those tormented in the name of God. Or we could use our tiny voice to broker sense in the world.
The UN defamation of religions resolution offends me. There is an historic antipathy that atheism has for blasphemy and apostasy. It immediately makes reasonable the suspending of civil order and empowers theocratic nation states to let slip the dogs of intolerance.
So what are we to do? Clearly, Christians do not have clean hands in this debate as indicated previously.
Atheists, too, do not have clean hands — the behaviour of the big three, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot, and other barbaric atheistic regimes have soiled our manual cleanliness. But atheists outside the context of communist nation states (you and me) do not have that baggage. We are even-handed in our disputation with the faiths of the world. But more important is that we can be the righteous gentiles of our era. It is our opportunity to work for the Christians, Jews and Muslims in the firing lines of fanatics even if we are not the main target of the persecution. Assistance for the outsider elevates the assister as much as the assisted.
Atheism is thus charged with a duty to oppose this UN dogma, which while non-binding now, is making the journey into a more legislative phase. We must try to hear the legitimate complaints of Islam about oppression in Europe. We must contest as the resolution moves through the labyrinthine UN processes.