freedom of speech

Almighty Moral Busybodies

Levan Sutidze

"It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Clive Staples Lewis

For years now two groups with radically different interests and views have been demanding that freedom of expression be constrained in Georgia. One of them, the Georgian Patriarchate, wants to impose religious censorship, whilst the other, comprising a segment of non-governmental organizations, longs to have hate speech criminalized.

The latter group explains its demand with the generous aim of minimizing the spread of xenophobia. They want to prevent words of hatred from transforming into deeds of hatred.

owever, a legal norm initiated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs against blasphemy has shown that the demands of this group, in reality, play into hands of the Patriarchate.

Fundamentalist forces have already perfected the use of both technical progress, which they no longer brand as Satanic, and post-modernist discourse with European phraseology for their own aims. It has been a long time since the Georgian Patriarchate stopped being an organism that does not understand foreign words, but one can still find useful idiots from another group of society who help it obtain its goals.

According to the draft law proposed by the Interior Ministry, the Code of Administrative Offences of Georgia is to be amended with an additional clause which would qualify a public expression of hatred or/and disrespectful action towards holy sanctities, religious organizations, the clergy or believers as an offence punishable by administrative sanctions.

The key supporter and initiator of this bill is the Georgian Patriarchate. The Patriarchate has been demanding a similar law for many years, but has now agreed to call this prohibition "hate speech." This is because, in contrast to that segment of non-governmental organizations, the Patriarchate understands full well that by so doing the state will not force the Patriarchate, which is the main source of xenophobia, to fall mute. On the contrary, it will regard the protests voiced by individuals and the non-governmental organizations against the wave of xenophobia flowing from the Patriarchate as blasphemy.

The Patriarchate is thus taking the traditional cooperation that it has had with law enforcement bodies since Soviet times to a new stage of development. But let us hope that things will not reach a point where an official position of office in charge of religious affairs will be introduced, because if this draft law is adopted the need for the establishment of such an institution will logically arise.

That the simultaneous protection of freedom of speech and of religious sentiments is impossible is something that has been proven by history and past experiences. Moreover, it is impossible to protect the sentiments of one religion without infringing upon those of another.

For many centuries, prohibition on religious grounds was applied to literature – to those very works that we read with such great interest today. So-called heretical texts were burnt according to auto-da-fé. The enforcers of religion had problems not only with fine art, but, more generally, with everything they did not like. It is precisely because of such a law that the Bible was banned from homes in Islamic countries, whilst the events described in the Song of Songs, a book in the Bible, were seen as form of eroticism or pornography.

Can the disclosure of certain historical facts itself be considered blasphemy? For example, is it blasphemous to recall that before the annexation of Georgia by Russia in 1801, some Georgian hierarchs were Tsarist spies that helped contribute to the annexation? Could a discussion about the collaboration of the clergy with the Soviet propagandist machine, including the personal participation of the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia in Soviet propaganda events, be considered as an offence to someone's religious feelings? We have repeatedly witnessed of late how criticism of Ilia II and dissatisfaction expressed towards his personality has become a cause of condemnation, have we not?

However, it is still possible to establish historical facts on a rational basis – although they may prove to be subjects of debate, one can still find a material basis for them. However, no such basis can be found in theology – a subject dealing with intangible reality. It should be noted that one of the reasons for punishing Christ was a deviation from Jewish customs and blasphemy. When He said that He would pull down a temple and build a church within three days that drove the masses into a frenzy, but it was precisely because of this "blasphemy" that the new religion came to life.

At the end of the day, history and experience has shown that it is just as impossible to punish blasphemy as to define it. Blasphemy might be disliked and offending a person's religious feelings may be viewed as immoral, but the desire to ban it by law would lead to deadlock. There is no way to determine what kind of speech or behavior a certain religious group or individual may regard as being an offence to their religious feelings.

Scholars have repeatedly argued over what may and may not be regarded as a religion. Their positions are divided not into two but into hundreds of different schools of thought. How can a Georgian-born police officer, prosecutor or judge be expected to accurately define something that an army of historians of religion and theologians have failed to determine?

A believer can determine for him/herself where the line between religious sanctity and blasphemy runs, but the law is unable to do so.

If we forget the incompatibility of such laws with the freedom of expression and freedom of religion for just a moment, we will see that it is impossible to protect the religious feelings of believers from all denominations on an equal footing without discrimination, because their theological perceptions are often conflicting and exclusivist. It is impossible to define where the religious feelings of one person start and those of another end because religion does not set boundaries on its own perception. Beliefs are numerous. The expectation that our courts will manage to collate the infiniteness of each of these beliefs and their accompanying feelings in such a way as to observe the principle of justice and equality is, in itself, an irrational belief.

For example, does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity conflict with the extreme monotheism as seen in Islam or Judaism – religions which assert that there is only one god without three hypostases? In this case, who should be regarded as having been offended and who should be punished as the offender? How should we deal with the segment of Protestants who declare that a direct interpretation of the Eucharist sacrament (confession), as maintained by Orthodox Christians and Catholics – i.e. drinking the blood and eating the flesh of Christ – is an illustration of cannibalism? Should we penalize the Orthodox or Catholic Churches in order to spare Protestants from offence?

Is it not an offence to the feelings of Muslims to see an icon of the Prophet Isa, i.e. Jesus Christ to Christians? Islam strictly prohibits the depiction of any prophet, whereas in Orthodox Christian or Catholic temples depictions of prophets are seen in abundance. Moreover, icons depicting the crucifixion of the Prophet Isa are often displayed with most of his body uncovered.

The majority of prophets from the Old Testament are also sacred for Islam – Adam, Abraham, Moses, Isaac and so on and so forth. What judge will be able to decide whether or not a Muslim's rights were infringed when faced with such depictions? How can a judge determine that?

The Pope of Rome may be seen as a servant of the Antichrist by an ultra-orthodox Lutheran from the Missouri Synod. Such an attitude towards the Pope is common among Protestant fundamentalists. The former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Presbyterian pastor Ian Paisley caused havoc during a speech Pope John Paul II delivered to the European Parliament in 1988. Paisley was shouting at him, calling him the Antichrist and holding up a poster reading "Pope John Paul II Antichrist." He continued to denounce the Pope even after he was ejected from the hall. Should the European Parliament have refused to host the Pope merely for the sake of protecting Paisley's religious feelings?

Let's speak about the Orthodox Christian Church: is it possible for a conservative Orthodox believer to feel offended by a relatively non-traditionalist female believer if the latter enters a church wearing trousers or a low-cut dress? And, if the traditionalist then reprimands her for that, will the non-traditionalist believer herself be considered a victim of a religious offense? How should we act if both of them demand that justice be served? Whose religious feelings should a judge give preference to?

Moreover, a comprehensive definition of what religion actually is has yet to be found. For example, is Buddhism or Confucianism a religion? These beliefs do not have a god. Can a belief be a religion if it does not have a god? If the answer is yes, then how can religion be distinguished from the ethical teachings of the likes of Albert Schweitzer?

How can Steinerians, occultists and theosophical schools of thought be separated from religion? God knows, where, when and in whose karma one may intrude.

If religions do not require a god (as Buddhism and Confucianism have proved), nor are various rituals necessary in order to be a religion (as Quakers have proved), then how should we distinguish the likes of those supporting animal rights from religious believers? How can we draw a clear line between irrational beliefs and perceptions, on the one hand, and moral maxims, on the other?

How should we protect vegetarians if one day they decide that, for example, a meat manufacturer's advertisements offend their feelings? Should we just ban the advertisement and consumption of meat products altogether? Some go even further. For example, vegans believe that they must refrain from consuming any product, including dairy products, which are derived through the exploitation of living creatures.

Fruitarians are a sub-variety of the vegan diet. They only eat those plants which are not "destroyed" by people. They do not eat fruit until it has fallen from the trees naturally. As grapes are picked and pressed to produce wine, does that mean that we should stop consuming wine? How can we prohibit Christians from participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist?
The situation becomes further complicated when it comes to environmentalists. For them, the entire planet is one large individual. The force of nature takes precedence over human beings and care for it becomes the sacred responsibility of every person. For followers of this system of views, nature offers a form of sanctity. If we consider such beliefs and perceptions as being something of a religious nature (and no common position on that has yet been achieved), then should we conduct a ritual of mass hara-kiri in order to spare our planet from our blasphemous civilization and culture?

Why is seeing the public consumption of spaghetti in Italian restaurants not regarded as an offence to the religious feelings of members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (which was established precisely to ridicule such laws and religious privileges)? Who and how can anyone determine that a Pastafarian does not have religious feelings?

Will the law, aimed at ensuring equality, manage to do that?

Is atheism itself a religion? It is a fact that one cannot touch god. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to establish, in a lab, that the god exists; just as it is impossible, via observing chemical reactions in the same lab, to assert that god does not exist. Consequently, is atheism the belief in the idea that someone, who is unseen and cannot be ever seen, does not exist? What shall we do with those rationalists who one day decide that Christian preaching, or the growth of lizards with ultraviolet light, or creationist religious beliefs are offensive to them? Will a judge be able to convince them of the existence of god?

It is difficult to draw a clear line between religion, philosophy and ideology. They each strive towards a totalitarian, fascist or communist earthly paradise and want to drive people into the Garden of Eden with an iron hand. Their ideas are built upon an irrational basis and their aim is apocalyptic too. These concepts suggest that it is absolutely possible to improve humans by a rational or scientific formula. How can we distinguish a belief in the almightiness of human reasoning, or of the superiority of any race, from a religious belief?
At the end of the day, spontaneous attempts to transform order lead to bloodshed. Should we therefore eliminate liberalism and individualism altogether because they offend the religious feelings of totalitarians? Or vice versa, should we burn all the Marxist literature?

Under the conditions of such conflicting religious opinions, a law that aims to protect religious feelings on the basis of equality will bump into yet another problem. Any person facing punishment under such a law would be unaware of whether he/she had committed a crime or not until they were accused of doing so. In other words, the oldest maxim – nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege, or there exists no crime and no punishment without a pre-existing penal law appertaining – is ignored. Any legislative norm must enable a person to regulate his/her own actions; to accurately predict what is allowed and what is prohibited. When the law fails to ensure that, it opens up the door to chaos.

How should we guess whose religious feelings we have offended when various people have different feelings? What is considered sacrosanct for one person, for example, a white cow in some Asian religions, is just a food product for another.

Therefore, since we cannot figure out what the Georgian legislature had in mind when it intended to prohibit causing religious offence, the only option we are left with is silence – to avoid discussing certain topics and certain people. But the problems do not end here – entrusting the lever for the protection of our feelings to the state, without taking into account that people there are imperfect too, may one day backfire on us very painfully. Any law which cannot clearly define what a crime is risks becoming a weapon that specific public servants might wield in order to achieve their clearly defined goals.


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