Freedom of speech is the right not only to express one’s views on a subject, to discuss that subject, to disagree with the opinions of others on that subject, but also to satirize it. This applies no matter what the subject might be, including religion. Consequently, in a society that honors freedom of speech in practice and not merely in theory, no one has the right not to be offended by others speaking or writing or painting or filming their views. Any individual may say what he or she likes about another individual’s religious beliefs or views or activities or venerated figures.
Any effort to limit such freedom of speech or free expression is fundamentally dangerous to the principle of free speech itself. That is why in a free society, there is no freedom from offense with freedom of thought and speech, and no real freedom of thought and speech where there is legalized freedom from offense.
There are those who think that this basic principle should not apply to one or another aspect of religion — to this or that religious figure, or to a particular religious text or “scripture,” or to a particular religious activity. But they are very wrong. All people should have not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion if they choose.
Whenever any religious decree is taken as the final word, that means a door has slammed on the human mind, chaining it into a fixed position on that matter, a position in which no further progress is possible and no further investigation is allowed. That, of course, puts a stop not only to advancement in science, but also to advancement in countless other fields.
Any assumed fact must thus always be open to potential investigation, criticism, discussion and disproval.
There was a time in the West when such investigation was not only forbidden but actually dangerous to one’s life. From this, Western civilization learned a very important lesson — that with freedom of speech and expression one is free to investigate any matter, whether it be of science or of religion, history or folklore. And that is as it should be.
It is critical to the survival of a democratic society that this freedom of speech and expression be vigilantly watched over and protected. We are very fortunate in the West. Such freedom of speech does not exist in all parts of the world and in all segments of society in various countries, which still have outmoded and backward “blasphemy” laws, but freedom of speech in its various manifestations is one of the greatest gifts of Western Civilization to the world, and it is one which must be cherished and protected.
Consequently, a sensible person will regard any statement offered as fact as only fact in a provisional sense. It may be tentatively accepted as accurate given what is presently known of the evidence, but nonetheless such a “fact,” whether in science or religion or any other field, is never immune to the possibility of being disproved by further investigation and evidence.
That means it is the height of nonsense to persecute or prosecute or harrass someone simply because they disagree with one’s views on a given matter, or express their disagreement in some written or visual or audio form. And of course that means everyone should be free to choose a religion, or to leave a religion, or to have no religion.
Suppose, for example, one thinks the world was created only a few thousand years ago by an all-powerful deity. Unfortunately there are large numbers of people who accept that as fact, then close their minds to any possibility of another option. Why they do so is immaterial, because they have stopped all thinking on the issue, as do all those who adhere to such a dogma. They consider the matter closed. Imagine the results if this had been adopted as the attitude of science!
Suppose now, that there is in society a law that keeps one from offending such closed-minded people; a law that prevents suggesting that their view may are wrong — a law that forbids one from putting disagreement with such “creationists” into speech or into writing or visual format — a law that forces one to keep one’s opinions to one’s self, secret. Then that is a society in which the principle of free speech has been seriously damaged and limited — a society that is no longer truly free, a society that actively hinders the advancement of knowledge.
There are two great dangers to freedom of speech, and they are two sides of the same coin: the first is the forbidding of speech that offends the views of another. That alone is serious and damaging enough. But the second is even worse: it is limiting the free speech of others through intimidation — through threats of violence. Both result in a society that is unable to think and speak freely and openly, a society that is regressive and ultimately unhealthy.
Free speech in the United States is the result of an immigrant society that had experienced, in the past, religious intolerance and violence in the mother countries. That does not mean, of course, that simply coming to America made them automatically supporters of free speech. There was a great deal of intolerance in certain segments of early immigrant America, for example among the New England Puritans, who came here for freedom of religion, but who did not wish to grant the same right to anyone else. Fortunately, however, freedom of speech and freedom of religion were a part of the founding of the United States out of the original thirteen colonies.
In the years since then, freedom of speech and of religion have not been uniformly protected in practice, but historically one can say that certainly great progress has been made. It is all the more important, then, that we should be aware of the inestimable value of these freedoms, and should be ever vigilant that we do not lose them through ill-considered new laws that may damage them or through fear of intimidating violence that hinders or prevents their free practice.