Freethought NOW!

Charlie Hebdo, Bill Donohue, and the freedom of thought

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The satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo is the latest target for religiously-motivated violence. Three Muslim men didn’t like the way the authors, journalists, and cartoonists thought, so they murdered them. Twelve lives ended. Families shattered. Children parentless. And Bill Donohue of the Catholic League says, “Muslims are right to be angry.” Donohue sided with the murderers, condemning only their method but saying that we should not “tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction” and that it was “too bad” Charlie’s editor “didn’t understand the role he played in his” own death. Isn’t it just like religion to blame the victim?

We saw this 10 years ago when the Danish papers published benign—bland might be a better word—cartoons about Islam’s pedophiliac founder. As Hitchens was fond of pointing out, though Islamic mobs were beating, burning, “and issuing death threats against civilians,” the archbishop of Canterbury and the pope condemned the cartoons, not the overreaction.

We saw this 25 years ago when the Ayatollah Khomeini—to borrow from Hitchens again—”publicly offered money, in his own name, to suborn the murder of a novelist who was a citizen of another country.” Once again, the Vatican and the archbishop of Canterbury condemned the speaker, Salman Rushdie, not the violent criminals.

History offers countless instances of religion enforcing its inane orthodoxy with violence.

But that is changing. The time has come for the religious to understand that they have no right to be free from criticism. All ideas can be criticized—especially religion. Bill Donahue may not like it, but he ought to dig deep into his corpulent frame and find the courage—I won’t say intelligence, that’d be asking too much—to stand up for that right because it is the essence of freedom.

When the framers crafted our First Amendment, they were not really seeking to enshrine free speech or a free press. They were attempting to secure the right to think freely. The rights protected in our First Amendment—a secular government, religious exercise, free speech, free press, peaceful assembly, and petitioning our government for change—are consequences of the framers protecting a more basic right. What does it matter if you can think freely, but not meet and discuss or publish those thoughts? What does it matter if you can think freely, but the government can force you to go to church or support a church or read a bible? The six rights in our First Amendment protect our most basic right—the freedom of thought.

Free thought and freethought only exist with the right to dissent and to proclaim that dissent. And yes, to criticize and even mock the ideas of others. Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams about his hope for the future: “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.”

The day that Jefferson predicted is here—and neither Bill Donahue’s callous idiocy, nor religiously motivated violence will stop the dawn of reason or the spread of freethought. Je suis Charlie.

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