This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 1, No. 2.
In the midst of the Cartoon Jihad, much has been said in defense of the right to free speech, especially by those on the religious right (such as Jeff Jacoby and Michelle Malkin). This effort is remarkable because, on the premises of religion, the Islamic militants are correct: There is no right to free speech.
Rights are principles specifying the kinds of actions that a person should be free to take. The right to free speech, if it exists, is the prerogative to express one’s ideas, whether in spoken, written, or artistic form—regardless of what anyone else thinks, believes, or feels about those ideas. If there is no right to “offend God,” as the Islamic militants insist, then there is no right to free speech. And whether or not we have the right to “offend God” depends on the source and nature of rights.
Where do rights come from? Do they come from the natural world or from a supernatural dimension? And how do we know that we have them? Are rights rationally understandable facts of reality or mystically intuited articles of faith? The answers one gives to these questions determine how one holds the concept of “rights” in one’s mind, how one uses the concept in practice, and whether or not one is able intellectually to defend rights when they are attacked.
On the religious worldview, quoting Alan Keyes: “Our rights come from the will of God.”1 President George W. Bush concurs: “We received our rights from God.”2 Newt Gingrich challenges anyone to cite another source for rights: “If you are not endowed by your Creator with certain inalienable rights where do they come from?”3 In other words: If there is no God, there are no rights.
This idea is not only wrong; it is exactly backward. The fact is that if there were a God (which there is not), there would be no rights—and as long as people believe that rights come from God, they will be unable to understand rights or to properly defend them. To see why, let us begin by reviewing the basic tenets of religion.
According to religion, there is a God—an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being—who is the creator of the universe, the source of all truth, and the maker of moral law. The essence of His moral law is that we must have faith in His existence and goodness and that we must obey His commands without question. That is the general theory. Practicing religion consists specifically in having faith in God and being obedient to His will. Let us take the issue of obedience first.
In the words of Harry V. Jaffa, a distinguished fellow at The Claremont Institute: “As God’s creatures, we owe unconditional obedience to His will.”4 Unconditional obedience to God’s will is, of course, the kind of obedience exemplified by Abraham’s willingness to murder his beloved son Isaac because God told him to.5 Rabbi David Aaron writes: “Our neglect to obey God’s will becomes the source of our own personal destruction.”6 Bearing in mind this requirement of unconditional obedience, observe that, like Islam, both Judaism and Christianity prohibit speech offensive to God—and both call for those who violate this tenet to be put to death. From the Old Testament:
Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.7
If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” . . . you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.8
Those are just two such passages; there are†many more in the Bible. While some religionists try to brush aside such divine decrees—saying “God didn’t mean those parts” or “I don’t accept those sections” or “Let’s be rational here”—in so doing, they deny a fundamental tenet of religion. Either God is to be obeyed, or He is not. If one chooses to obey God only when one thinks He got it right, or only when one wants to obey Him, or only when one thinks it is rational to do so, then one denies God’s divine authority—which, according to religion, is a very bad thing to do.
Religion holds that we must obey God’s will regardless of what we think. “Above all,” writes the devoutly religious René Descartes, reminding us of the applicable tenet, “we ought to submit to the Divine authority rather than to our own judgment even though the light of reason may seem to us to suggest, with the utmost clearness and evidence, something opposite.”9 According to religion, God’s will, however objectionable, is by definition good; and human judgment to the contrary, however rational, is by definition bad. The “real distinction between right and wrong,” explains Bishop Robert Mortimer, “is independent of what we happen to think. It is rooted in the nature and will of God.”
When a man’s conscience tells him that a thing is right, which is in fact what God wills, his conscience is true and its judgment correct; when a man’s conscience tells him a thing is right which is, in fact, contrary to God’s will, his conscience is false and telling him a lie.10
No matter how people choose to “interpret” the holy books or “cherry-pick” from God’s commands, the basic principles of religion remain: God’s word is the fundamental law; He is to be obeyed by all people at all times without question or exception; those who violate His law in any way, to any extent, are sinners; and those who dare to insult or second-guess God—those who commit blasphemy or heresy or the like—are beyond redemption and deserve the corresponding, divinely ordained punishment: death.
This ultimate punishment is perfectly fitting for what is, on the religious worldview, the ultimate crime: offending God. According to religion, the whole universe, all of reality, and everything in it, was created by God. His will is why existence exists. To offend God is to offend all of existence—and thus to deserve to be put out of existence.
What does this principle of religion mean when applied to the realm of politics? It means—as the seriously religious John Calvin put it—that the government must ensure
that no idolatry, no blasphemy against the name of God, no calumnies against his truth, nor other offences to religion, break out and be disseminated among the people. . . . [Government must] prevent the true religion, which is contained in the law of God, from being with impunity openly violated and polluted by public blasphemy.11
Calvin, true to biblical law, had the Spanish physician Michael Servetus burned at the stake for heresy. (Servetus denied the Trinity.) Although some of Calvin’s contemporaries felt uneasy about this divine justice, Calvin reminded them:
Those who would spare heretics and blasphemers are themselves blasphemers. Here we follow not the authority of men but we hear God speaking as in no obscure terms He commands His church forever. Not in vain does He extinguish all those affections by which our hearts are softened: the love of parents, brothers, neighbors and friends. He calls the wedded from their marriage bed and practically denudes men of their nature lest any obstacle impede their holy zeal. Why is such implacable severity demanded unless . . . devotion to God’s honor should be preferred to all human concerns and as often as His glory is at stake we should expunge from memory our mutual humanity.12
Calvin, of course, was one of the more barbaric religionists in history—precisely because he followed the word of God as written in the Bible. Either God is to be obeyed, or He is not. According to religion, He is to be obeyed, and Calvin took religion seriously.
As objectionable as God’s law is regarding such matters, there is no way for a serious religionist to take a principled stand against obeying His will. This is why even the most rational theologian of all time, Thomas Aquinas, insisted on the death penalty for verbal or written offenses against God. “Blasphemy is vilification of God’s excellence and goodness,” wrote Aquinas. “Of its nature, vilification of God’s goodness is a fatal sin. . . . [B]lasphemy which intends to harm God’s honour is graver, simply speaking, than murder, the gravest sin against our fellowmen.” About heretics, Aquinas wrote, “there are two things to say”:
Their sin deserves banishment not only from the church by excommunication but also from the world by death. But the church seeks with mercy to turn back those who go astray, and condemns them not immediately but only after a first or second warning. If, however, a heretic remains stubborn, the church, despairing of his conversion, takes care of the salvation of others, separates the heretic from the church with a sentence of excommunication, and delivers him to the secular courts to be removed from the world by death. . . . Our Lord told Peter we should forgive seventy times seven times—meaning always—offences committed against ourselves; but that does not mean we are free to forgive offences against God. . . .13
Like everything in the world, religion is something specific; it has a nature. And part of its nature is that it demands absolute devotion to God and unconditional obedience to His will.
What then of the right to free speech? Does religion provide a viable foundation for freedom of expression? For instance, are books or cartoons mocking the Creator in order? The question is absurd.
Thanks to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, religionists in the West today do not take religion as seriously as did their forebears; they do not call for blasphemers to be stoned to death or burned at the stake. But western religionists today do call for censorship—of television, radio, the Internet, video games, and so on—and they are making headway in their efforts.
In 2005, for instance, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act with an overwhelming 389 to 38 vote. In 2006, the Senate unanimously approved its own version of the Act—including a tenfold increase in existing broadcast “indecency” fines (up from $32,500 to $325,000 per airing of “indecent” material). In response to this blow to freedom of speech, Daniel Weiss, a senior analyst at Focus on the Family—an organization committed to forcibly imposing religion on the public—said: “Today we have a hard-won victory over an entertainment industry intent on polluting the public airwaves.”14 “Polluting” by what standard? By the standard of God’s will.
While western religionists today are not calling for death to those who “offend God,” they are calling for—and increasingly achieving—punishment for such “offenders.” They seek to limit and further limit freedom of speech—to build “victory” upon “victory.” Their ultimate goal is—as according to the Bible it must be—to bring all art and communication under God’s authority. The Coalition on Revival makes this point openly:
God is the Author of creation and communication. As the supreme Creator and Communicator, He is the source of art and communication. . . . [We] must bring all art and communication under His authority. . . . [There are no] Biblical justifications for censorship of the truth; [but] evil, blasphemy, profanity, and pornography are neither truth nor legitimate speech and must be rebuked and censored. . . . [Neither] pornography [nor] blasphemy [is] permissible as art or “free speech.”15
On the premises of religion, there is no right to free speech; there is only the “right” to speak the “truth” as revealed by “God.”
The fact that some religionists do not take the holy books seriously does not change what the holy books say. It does not give them a passkey to have their Bible and throw it out too. Nor does it grant them any credibility with those religionists who do take the scripture seriously. Rather, these religionists’ halfhearted embrace of religion renders them inconsistent in their convictions (holding religion as both true and not true), hypocritical in their actions (obeying God’s will and not obeying it), and thus intellectually disarmed in the face of those who wholeheartedly embrace religion (e.g., Islamic militants).
Because western religionists accept religion to some degree—and because religion forbids speech offensive to God in any degree—they are unable to understand, to accept, to apply, or to defend the right to free speech. While some of them claim to uphold the right to free speech, when they are faced with something like “ungodly” broadcasting, they compromise freedom of speech in the name of “family values” (a euphemism for religious values). When they are faced with something like the Cartoon Jihad, they are reduced to making such contradictory statements as this remarkable pair from the Bush administration: “We vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view”—and—“Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.”16 Translation: Individuals have a right to free speech but may not criticize religion. Or: Individuals have an unlimited right to free speech, which must be limited as God commands.
On the premises of religion, there is no right to free speech; there is only the “right” to say what is permitted by “God.” This conclusion follows logically not only from the content of religion, but also, and more fundamentally, from its method—that is, from the means by which its content is “known” to be “true.”
How, according to religion, are people to know that God exists, or what He commands, or that they must obey Him? While the holy books claim that He exists and said certain things and must be obeyed, they do not present any evidence in support of these claims. Statements written in books are not themselves evidence that those statements are true. Moreover, in addition to claiming that an all-benevolent God demands murder, the holy books contain many other wild claims: that a bush spoke, that a woman turned into a pillar of salt, that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that God created the universe six thousand years ago (a millennium after man created the first balance scale). How, according to religion, is one to know that the claims of the scripture are true? The answer is: by means of faith.
Faith is the acceptance of ideas in the absence of evidence and in defiance of logic. In biblical terms, it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”17 Faith is the only way to “know” of God’s existence, laws, or desires, because there is no evidence for them. There is no science or logic to religion. God is purported to be beyond nature (i.e., “supernatural”) and thus beyond rational comprehension. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel puts it, God “surpasses nature” and “lies beyond all things and all concepts.”
The moment we utter the name of God we leave the level of scientific thinking and enter the realm of the ineffable. Such a step is one which we cannot take scientifically, since it transcends the boundaries of all that is given. . . . Every religious act and judgment involves the acceptance of the ineffable, the acknowledgement of the inconceivable. . . . [T]he ineffable [is] that aspect of reality which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension, and is acknowledged by the mind to be beyond the scope of the mind.18
To know the truths of religion, one must give up one’s mind, accept the ineffable, and acknowledge the inconceivable. In a word, one must reject reason.
Religious “truths” cannot be understood by reason and are not to be put to its test. If it is right to accept God and His laws on faith, then it is wrong to question Him or them with reason. To demand reasons for accepting the tenets of religion is to challenge the very existence and authority of God. According to religion, reason is, as Martin Luther put it, “The Devil’s bride” and “God’s worst enemy.”
There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason, especially if she enters into spiritual matters which concern the soul and God. For it is more possible to teach an ass to read than to blind such a reason and lead it right; for reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. . . .
Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees it must put out of sight, and wish to know nothing but the word of God.19
Granted, few religionists in the West today are as openly anti-reason as Luther was. Not even Jerry Falwell announces that “Faith must trample under foot all reason . . .” But insofar as a person accepts faith as a means of knowledge, he thereby denies that reason is man’s only means of knowledge—and thus denies the possibility of rights.
Think about it: If a person has faith that God exists, that He must be obeyed, that He must not be offended—and that if He is disobeyed or offended, He must be avenged—how on earth can this person be expected to respect anyone’s “right” to disobey or offend God? What the believer purports to know here is not a trivial matter; it is a matter of the gravest importance in the world: the will and honor of the creator of the universe. There is no reasoning with such a person; his faith will not permit it. Evidence of the destructive nature of his beliefs will not sway him; logical argument will not enlighten him; human suffering and death are of no consequence to him. He is, by choice, immune to reason.
This mentality was the cause of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the Thirty Years’ War. It is the cause of the current Islamic assault on the West and on freedom of speech. In mitigated form, it isalso the cause of the current Judeo-Christian attack on freedom of expression. And it will continue to cause rights violations, suffering, and death until faith is widely recognized as invalid and immoral.
“Faith and force are corollaries,” wrote Ayn Rand. The claim to a non-sensory, non-rational means of knowledge is the rejection of reason. “When men reject reason, they have no means left for dealing with one another—except brute, physical force.”20
Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are possible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us. And that is the state to which [faith] reduces mankind—a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence.21
Far from providing grounds for the existence or protection of rights, religion necessarily leads to the systematic denial and violation of rights. When faith is accepted as a means of knowledge, force inexorably follows.
Just as faith and force are corollaries, so too are reason and freedom. Freedom in a political context means freedom from physical force—and rights specify the kinds of actions that a person is properly free to take. Our need of freedom and our possession of rights are consequences of the fact that reason is our basic means of survival. We survive by using our minds: observing reality, discovering causal relationships, forming concepts and principles on the basis of these identifications, and acting on our best judgment. The faculty that makes all of this possible is reason—and the purpose of rights is to enable us to use it.
Rights are moral (i.e., life-serving) principles specifying an individual’s proper freedom of action in a social context. The basic right, the right to life, is the right to act freely on the judgment of one’s mind; we need this freedom because using reason is our basic means of surviving, producing values, accomplishing goals, and achieving happiness. The right to liberty is the right to be free from physical force by other people; we need this freedom because physical force stops us from acting on our judgment—our basic means of living. The right to property is the right to keep, use, and dispose of the product of one’s effort; we need this freedom so that we can produce and trade according to our judgment—and reap the benefits thereof. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to seek the goals and values of one’s choice; we need this freedom because choosing and pursuing our own goals by means of our own judgment is what makes life worth living. And the right to free speech is the right to say or write or otherwise express what one thinks; we need this freedom because expressing our ideas and judging the ideas and actions of other people is part and parcel of using our minds.
We are in an intellectual battle against religion—at home and abroad—to maintain freedom of speech. There is no middle ground here: Either religion is valid, or we have the right to speak our minds. We can lose certain liberties (as we tragically have been doing and continue to do) yet still work peacefully toward resecuring them—so long as we can say what we think. But to lose freedom of speech would be to lose liberty as such. If we are not free to criticize religion or “offend God,” then we are not free; we are by that fact fully under the rule of religion. “You can do or say anything except that which offends God” is the law of theocracy—that is: rule by men who embrace faith and thus reject reason.
There was a time when westerners were unable to criticize religion or “offend God” for fear of punishment or death; it is called the Dark Ages. To lose our freedom to speak our minds would be the end of peaceful civilization and the beginning of a new, darker Dark Age—one in which the Church would have at its disposal highly advanced eavesdropping technology (not to mention modern weaponry).
The tenets of religion are incompatible with the right to free speech. The only way to mix the two in one’s mind is to take neither of them seriously. But not taking religion seriously does not change what religion is or says or means. And not taking freedom of speech seriously does not alter the fact that it is a fundamental requirement of human life.
The right to free speech is the recognition of the fact that in order for people to live together peacefully, they must be free to express their thoughts—regardless of what others think, feel, or “just believe.” We need freedom of expression; and to establish and maintain it, we must repudiate religion and embrace the rational foundation for rights.
If we fail to challenge the growing threat to freedom of speech at the most fundamental level, we will lose the freedom to express our ideas—which means, we will lose our ability to live as civilized human beings. In order to disarm those who attack the right to free speech, we must identify religion—all religion—as what it is: illogical, invalid, inhuman, and immoral. Nothing less will save the West.