The Russian State Duma has reportedly moved forward with new legislation pushed by the Putin government to criminalize blasphemy — a measure designed to please the Russian Orthodox church. As we have discussed previously, Putin has reestablished the link with the Church to crack down on critics and nonbelievers. The new law purportedly protects religious feelings of believers.
The government will now arrest those who insult religion in Russia with a fine of up to 300 thousand rubles, or community service for up to 200 hours or by imprisonment for up to 3 years.
It is part of a global crackdown on agnostics and atheists. We have previously discussed how even Western leaders have demonized secularists and atheists.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) presented a report on how governments are imposing the death penalty on atheists in countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
Here is the IHEU report: IHEU Freedom of Thought 2012
Just yesterday, I listened to the latest attack on agnostics and secularists by former Utah governor Mike Leavitt as part of the conference on religious liberty. It is the latest conference held by the Center on Constitutional Studies headed by Rick Griffin. Griffin has created a remarkable academic program that has brought national attention to Utah Valley University and its new academic program on constitutional studies. This conference has been extraordinary with panels that spanned the historical and legal issues surrounding the religion clauses. I spoke yesterday as well with Harvard’s Noah Feldman, Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College and others. I will speak again today.
Leavitt’s speech last night was one of the highlighted events at the conference. While there were moderate aspects to his speech, particularly in his reference to the abuse of gay students in Utah, he warned about a war on faith by secluralists, agnostics, and atheists who he described as cunning in their effort to demonize faith. The speech fit within the pattern of Western leaders vilifying secularists, including a warning of the rise of Americans who do not associate with any particular faith. Leavitt insisted that the decline of public expression of faith would lead to the loss of liberty.
While Leavitt’s speech was troubling, it was part of a program that succeeded in bringing together a variety of different views of the role of religion in American public life. Though I am at odds with many of the things that Leavitt said, I have enjoyed the interaction with participants on these issues. It is too rare to have rivaling views and speakers actually engage in dialogue in this area. (As an aside, I also have to say that I was bowled over by the talent demonstrated by the music program at UVU. Last night featured the school’s orchestra, choir, and individual singers. It was an incredible performance by these students).
As Leavitt spoke of how the decline of public support for faith was a harbinger for the loss of liberty, I could not help but think of the irony of the actions that day in Russia. Faith has often been used to silence critics of governments by feeding sectarian anger and alliances. Orthodoxy appeals to those who want to limit free speech and associations that challenge the status quo.
Secular values in government is not the rejection but the protection of faith. The separation of faith and government guarantees neutrality in the treatment of faith. As discussed previously, faith-based organization do face legitimate threats from the expansion of anti-discrimination and other laws. However, this is not the result of some hidden conspiracy of secularists but the conflict between free exercise and equal treatment. We can make little progress in resolving that conflict if leaders continue to attack secularists and non-believers as destructive to liberty itself.