A Long History Supporting Free Expression Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

In February 2015, I had only been working for the Center for Inquiry (CFI), home of Free Inquiry, for about a month when activist and writer Avijit Roy was murdered by machete-wielding assailants in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bonya Ahmed, his wife and a fellow writer, was also badly injured during the attack. This was my introduction to the world of blasphemy rights, a core advocacy issue for CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism long before my tenure began. In fact, we established International Blasphemy Rights Day in 2009, which is celebrated worldwide each year on September 30.

International Blasphemy Rights Day was created to bring awareness to blasphemy laws still in effect around the world and the importance of free expression. The date was chosen to coincide  with the anniversary of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishing the so-called “Danish cartoons”—twelve editorial cartoons, many of which depicted Muhammad. This sparked a great deal of controversy, and radical Islamists responded with violence, because it is considered blasphemous in Islam to visually depict Muhammad. When almost no other Western outlets would show them, Free Inquiry reprinted several of these cartoons in the April/May 2006 issue, resulting in the issue being pulled from the shelves of Borders and Waldenbooks stores.

Our second ever issue—Spring 1981—included an article by Gordon Stein titled “The Blasphemy Laws.” Stein discussed how several U.S. states at that time still had such laws on the books and why such laws were originally put in place. “No one is really ‘free’ in our society until he or she is able to openly express an opinion on any subject, assuming that it is done tactfully and with an honest intent,” Stein concluded.

We have also published several issues focused on blasphemy as a theme. The Spring 1997 issue’s feature, titled “The Freedom to Inquire,” included several articles discussing how the freedom to ask questions is central to multiple areas of study and is especially inherent to  secular humanism. Sometimes, however, this freedom is suppressed by the people in power to maintain the status quo.

The December 2012/January 2013 issue featured a series of op-ed articles all touching on the attacks on free expression on various fronts. Tom Flynn, former editor of Free Inquiry, called readers to action when he wrote, “It’s time to stand up for free speech, volubly and quickly, before this essential human value is degraded—degraded in part by knaves, in part by reformers blinded by the best intentions.”

My big introduction to the importance of free expression and the right to blaspheme  came with my work on the October/November 2015 issue. The cover is very striking, and it includes two large feature sections on blasphemy: “Defending the Right to Blaspheme” and “Applied Blasphemy.” The first section focused on allowing and encouraging expression and criticism, the impact of  blasphemy laws on  a population at large, and the importance of blasphemy to society. The second section shared human experiences of blasphemy and free expression.

The June/July 2017 issue  touched on the age-old question: Is blasphemy only in the eye of the beholder? Governments across the globe have made decisions on what constitutes blasphemy, but there is no universally agreed-upon definition. So who gets to decide what is blasphemous? The very next issue focused on the power of blasphemy in the visual arts. Many pieces of artwork graced the pages, demonstrating various examples of blasphemous artwork.

Most recently, FI introduced a new series of articles titled “In Defense of Blasphemous Literature” in the August/September 2022 issue. Stephen R. Welch discusses in twelve articles various literature throughout history that was, intentionally or not, blasphemous. In the first of this series, Welch made his intention clear: “Though few of the authors had forethought as to the offense their books would cause, it should be made clear that the aim here is not to defend their literary merit against that offense. Rather, we are championing these works precisely because of their blasphemy.”

As I come to my eighth anniversary with CFI, many countries still have laws on the books making blasphemy illegal. What is more frightening to me is that even in countries where blasphemy is legal, civilians take it upon themselves to dole out justice they feel is dictated by their religion. Many people are not free to express themselves for fear of violence or death. Free Inquiry and CFI are doing what we can to work toward the abolition of blasphemy laws, bring awareness of the value of free expression, and provide aid to those who fear for their safety. The very direct way we achieve these goals is through CFI’s Secular Rescue program, which is designed to provide emergency assistance to writers, bloggers, publishers, and activists who face threats due to their beliefs or expressions regarding religion.  We have helped many individuals in dire situations, both physical and social, escape to safety. Sadly, the need for Secular Rescue has only increased over time. (One of those courageous dissidents assisted by Secular Rescue tells his harrowing story in this issue.)

Due to my previous work experience proofreading obituaries, I was tasked early on at FI to draft appreciations for those associated with us in some way who have died. In the October/November 2015 issue, one such article appeared where I made a shocking realization: “In less than six months, four secular bloggers have been attacked and killed by machete-wielding assailants in Bangladesh.” While this was only one six-month period of time, it is but a small reflection of the violence people who choose to criticize or question religion experience. Not only should we continue to shine a spotlight on the atrocities these people endure, but we need to continually remind everyone of the importance of free expression.

In February 2015, I had only been working for the Center for Inquiry (CFI), home of Free Inquiry, for about a month when activist and writer Avijit Roy was murdered by machete-wielding assailants in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bonya Ahmed, his wife and a fellow writer, was also badly injured during the attack. This was my introduction …

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