This is great stuff. One quotable line after another.
[T]here is clearly no guarantee that a state arbiter won’t cede to the most unreasonable and extreme demands of religious groups, expressed with adequate fervour and implied threats, especially as we have declared in advance that their ‘sensibilities’, however irrational, are somehow worth regarding. Thus, by abandoning a consistent first principles approach to freedom of expression in favour of some kind of dialectic between reasonable (us) and unreasonable (them) people, we may well find ourselves conceding tactical defeat ad nauseam, to the point where those who do accept the ‘fallibility of human knowledge’ must chafe under the de-facto rule of those who don’t.
Allow me to take stock of our new situation with reference to two hypothetical social groups, A and B. Group A is rather scientific and sceptical, curious and uncertain—at once interested in discovering ‘truths’ through rational inquiry, while remaining open to the possibility that existing knowledge can be falsified. Group B subscribes, with a famous ardour and certainty, to a bundle of unproven and unfalsifiable beliefs—a religion—and thus necessarily rejects the very premise of the ‘fallibility of human knowledge’. Clearly, as B already has The Truth, it shall be somewhat lukewarm on allowing any ‘conflicting notions’ to exist at all….[S]o long as B can bring enough rancour and enmity down on A for showing disrespect to some aspect of B’s unproven and unfalsifiable beliefs, the state may side with B against A…Incredibly, due to the philosophical nature of B’s beliefs as unfalsifiable dogma, we have also necessarily admitted that B can be morally justified in heaping massive opprobrium on A, without being asked or even being able to explain precisely why. That is to say, B may mercilessly assault the character of A without bothering to provide a credible, logical, reason—I’m afraid ‘because God says so’ is no such reason. In short, by allowing any superstition to have a role in determining the theoretical legal limits of ‘free speech’ we are inadvertently crafting a doctrine for unscientific, irrational bullies.
And behold – it shall be so.
We now observe the pitfalls of trying to adjust a scientific forum for free expression to any sensibilities arising from unfalsifiable dogma—as many religious claims are absolute and ‘unimpeachable’ by nature, it is not clear whether ‘believers’ are significantly more tolerant of a serious intellectual challenge from outside the ‘faith’, however polite, than they are of cheap abuse. Indeed, there is some evidence that the more fervent of believers may have some trouble distinguishing between the two.
And actually some may find serious intellectual challenge considerably more of an outrage than cheap abuse. Cheap abuse is not much of a threat, but serious intellectual challenge, naturally, is.
So long as the ‘contestability of ideas’ is open to any compromise with the sensibilities of religious believers, it shall almost invariably be the case that our ‘reasonable person’ test will be held to ransom by religious stonewalling—the sheer weight of numbers, and the intensity of their resolve, can too easily dictate the terms of arbitration. If serious threats to the social peace are enough to force massive concessions on the part of liberals, to the point of endorsing blasphemy laws, precisely how will any forum for the contestation of ideas withstand calls for the prohibition of vigorous religious criticism and inquiry?…To ‘compromise’ freedom of expression by erecting statutory guard-posts around a bundle of unproven and unfalsifiable assertions is to assault the very foundations of science, logic and rationality. Instead of allowing the veiled, and not-so-veiled, threats of irrational zealots to guide our notions of justice, we should resolve to protect all individuals from aggression and threats of aggression, emphasise the rights of freedom of association and conscience as they arise from the axiom of ‘non-aggression’, and redouble our commitment to a free, open and enlightened society.