The Secular Conscience

Ethics from below

Beyond Free Speech: Blasphemy and Equality

The trial of Alber Saber shows the global discrimination against secularists.

“How do I know who the true God is?”

It is for asking questions such as this one that Alber Saber Ayad is being prosecuted for “defamation of religion” in Cairo, where his trial resumed today. The 27-year-old computer science student was taken into custody on September 13 by the police after an enraged mob stormed his house, beating him and menacing his mother, a Coptic Christian. Saber was accused of circulating “Innocence of Muslims.” His postings and videotaped ruminations express a more thoroughgoing religious skepticism.

In a complaint filed to the public prosecutor on September 18, Egyptian human rights groups claimed that while in custody Saber has been slashed with a razor blade and compelled to give false statements. He faces the charges of “defamation of Islam and Christianity,” “insulting the divine” and “satirizing religious rituals and sanctities and prophets” under articles 98, 160 and 161 of the Egyptian Penal Code.

Although Egyptian President Morsi and other world leaders made excessive use of the recent UN General Assembly to denounce the excesses of free speech, this debate is about more than free speech. It is about equal treatment for all persons of conscience.

When we view Saber’s practices from the perspective of the religious traditions of his neighbors, they are framed as “speech” about which we can ask the now-familiar questions: Why would he deliberately insult believers? Why be offensive?

Viewed from his perspective, however, he is participating in the human quest—older, deeper, and wider than any religion—to know what there is in the world that is worthy not just of admiration but awe and reverence. The unavoidable consequence of investing some things with sacredness is denying it to others. Atheism, no less than monotheism, is a protest against idolatry.

The speech of religious skeptics should be placed on a continuum of manifestations of conscience, attempts to grapple with ultimate questions of meaning, value, and morality. The claims of the believer and the claims of the blasphemer, so-called, are morally symmetrical. It is not so much speech versus faith as conscience versus conscience.

The very same value that is invoked to mark the boundaries of permissible expression—respect for the conscience of the religious believer—should also underlie the right of the skeptic, the secularist, and the dissident believer to practice their understandings of what is and is not sacred, even when this offends others.

For this reason, when the government of Egypt or any country singles out some citizens’ conceptions of the sacred for official protection but not others, that government is guilty of a gross failure of equal treatment under the law.

Just this form of inequality is laid bare in an important new report by an international coalition of secularist, humanist, and atheist organizations that was presented to the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom this past August. The 2012 Report on Discrimination Against Atheists, Humanists, and the Non-Religious observes that while relatively few countries around the world criminalize irreligion as such, many impose arbitrary burdens on secular manifestations of conscience that are not experienced by others.

These include laws regulating:

  • apostasy and religious conversion;
  • blasphemy and religious criticism;
  • compulsory religious registration, usually with a government proscribed list of permitted religions;
  • religious requirements or restrictions on government ID cards and passports;
  • religious tests for citizenship or participation in civic life;
  • religious control of family law;
  • and religious control of public education.

The report goes on to observe that the fate of the secularist is shared by members of heterodox and unrecognized faiths.

We also note that all these laws seek to control and regulate religious belief and behavior in ways that can adversely affect all belief groups and believers, whether religious or not. Atheists and humanists—and others who doubt, dissent, or protest religion without identifying with any label or tradition—may be at one end of the spectrum of belief, but they often suffer the same forms of discrimination as other belief groups. We hope that in looking at structural discrimination against religious minorities—for example, discrimination that flows from apostasy and blasphemy laws, or from religious tests for citizenship, or for religious control of family—the U.S. State Department will look at how this discrimination would impact nonbelievers as well as those who identify with an organized religion.

Amnesty International has declared Alber Saber Ayad a prisoner of conscience and called on the Egyptian authorities to drop all charges.

Austin Dacey is the author of The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights.

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