Many humanists tend to view debating with theists about the existence of God to be a stale and pointless exercise. But sometimes arguing in this way can serve a useful purpose. Take, for example, the reaction to Stephen Fry’s recent interview on Irish TV network RTE. A clip from the interview, in which Stephen is asked what he’d say if confronted by God at the point of his death, has been viewed several million times since it was uploaded to YouTube last week. And it has certainly served to highlight Stephen’s humanist beliefs and values – beliefs which, though widely shared by millions of people around the world, rarely get the same airtime as religious or doctrinal beliefs.
Throughout history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and compassion. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethic. It is these views in combination which constitute Humanism.
Against this backdrop it becomes clear why most non-religious do not spend time grappling with ‘the problem of evil’. Arguments put forward by religions and their apologists will only ever hold weight with the faithful and the devout. A humanist doesn’t need to explain away bone cancer, earthquakes, or parasites which lay ruin to a child’s quality of life. There is no ‘divine plan’ which justifies such wanton suffering, and so the response of a humanist is to work to relieve this suffering. As the humanist novelist George Eliot put it, ‘What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?’
Although not at all unusual or unique, humanist views like those of Fry’s still continue to be a source of persecution for non religious people all over the world. The freedom Fry was exercising – his freedom to challenge religious beliefs and express his non-belief – is an indispensible part of democratic society, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The reality, however, is that not everyone is allowed to exercise this freedom. Blasphemy is illegal in 49 countries. In many countries, these laws are used to stifle free expression and promote a climate of fear and punishment for people of minority religious and non-religious groups.
It’s shocking to think that the televised interview of Stephen Fry, which stimulated such an interesting array of reactions and discussions here in Britain, could lead to criminal sanctions against him in many countries. And though it is unlikely that Ireland will choose to prosecute Stephen under its blasphemy law, shouldn’t it be a source of moral disgust that it could, if it chose to?
It often falls to humanists to act as a conscience for wider society and to draw attention to human rights abuses in the name of religion and fear of ‘blasphemy’ around the world – which are so often used to persecute the religious themselves.
Groups such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union have been at the forefront of international efforts to raise awareness of the plight of Raif Badawi, the Muslim blogger from Saudi Arabia who in 2012 was arrested on a charge for the crime of allegedly insulting Islam by running a website which criticized religious leaders. Badawi was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and one thousand lashes – a punishment which began at the start of this year and which has caused waves of protest and revulsion. Even his lawyer was arrested.
The very presence of blasphemy in law presents a threat to the rights of ordinary people of all beliefs and backgrounds – be they humanists, Christians, Muslims, or simply people whose political views differ from the government’s.
That’s why the British Humanist Association (BHA) is proud to be supporting a new campaign, End Blasphemy Laws, through our lobbying efforts in the UK and Brussels, and at the Council of Europe and UN Human Rights Council. Because frankly, we can’t put too a high price on the freedom to think, to believe, or to speak. This right is a cornerstone of democracy, and a crucial bulwark against state oppression.
Stephen Fry's Finest Quotes
Stephen Fry's Finest Quotes
1/19 On Being Bipolar
"There’s a moment in the film where I recognised that this was the last moment we filmed before this wave of depression came over me, and I was idiotic or victim enough, or whatever one wants to call it, of this mad compulsion."
2/19 On Taking Cocaine At Buckingham Palace
"I take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly, to the owners, managers or representatives of the noble and ignoble premises and to the hundreds of private homes, offices, car dashboards, tables, mantelpieces and available polished surfaces that could so easily have been added to this list of shame."
3/19 On His Age
"I don't need you to remind me of my age. I have a bladder to do that for me."
4/19 On Swearing
"It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing and without enjoying swearing."
5/19 On TV
"I don't watch television. It destroys the art of talking about oneself."
6/19 On Happiness
"Having a great intellect is no path to being happy."
7/19 On Technology
"One technology doesn't replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators."
8/19 On Being On Stage
"You are who you are when nobody's watching."
9/19 On Education
"Education is the sum of what students teach each other between lectures and seminars."
10/19 On Creativity
"An original idea. That can't be too hard. The library must be full of them."
11/19 On Journalism
"Many people would no more think of entering journalism than the sewage business - which at least does us all some good."
12/19 On Love
"Love in all eight tones and all five semitones of the word's full octave."
13/19 On The English Accent
"A cut glass English accent can fool unsuspecting Americans into detecting a brilliance that isn't there."
14/19 On Being An Author
"I get an urge, like a pregnant elephant, to go away and give birth to a book."
15/19 On Homosexuality
"I’ve never wanted one extra gay person in the world, there are plenty of us around."
Susannah Ireland / The Independent
16/19 On Christmas
"Christmas to a child is the first terrible proof that to travel hopefully is better to arrive."
17/19 On Clichés
"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me."
18/19 On Smoking
"I think I have always linked smoking and sex. Maybe this is where I have been going wrong all my life."
19/19 On Homophobia
"Homosexuals are not interested in making other people homosexuals. Homophobes are interested in making other people homophobic."