Stephen Fry's comments about God could get him arrested for blasphemy in many countries around the world

The very presence of blasphemy in law presents a threat to the rights of ordinary people of all beliefs and backgrounds

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.

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