In quite a few countries there are laws about blasphemy. Which means that the government can decide what constitutes acceptable religious speech and what doesn't.
These laws presume that the religion in question is so weak that it cannot defend itself and stand on its own two feet. It must be guarded by the government. If I were a follower of such a religion, I would take great offense. Either that or I'd get out of a religion so powerless that it requires the power of the state simply to exist.
But now comes something even worse: Legislators in Egypt have proposed making atheism a crime there.
As the Religion News Service story about this reports, "The legislation was proposed Dec. 24 by Amro Hamroush, head of the Parliament’s committee on religion.
“'It must be criminalized and categorized as contempt of religion because atheists have no doctrine and try to insult the Abrahamic religions,' Hamroush said in announcing the proposed law.
"The legislation has the support of Egypt’s highest Islamic religious organization, the Al-Azhar. Mohamed Zaki, an Al-Azhar official, called it necessary 'to punish those who have been seduced into atheism.'”
In Egypt, it's what Islam gets for allowing itself to be tied so closely to the ruling powers. It makes the religion look weak and rudderless. Worse, it removes the responsibility of adherents of the faith to be critics of the government when the state does things it shouldn't be doing.
No religion should be co-opted by the state. It's one of the things that makes the Church of England weak. And it's the reason the folks who wrote the U.S. Constitution finally decided that there should be a separation between church and state, although that phrase isn't used in the Constitution.
If Americans value religious freedom, as we say we do, we should be speaking out against this foolish move by members of Egypt's parliament and we should be defending people who choose not to believe in God, even if we disagree with them.
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WITCH TRIALS AS INTRA-FAITH COMPETITION
And now for a bit of religious history with a new twist: In the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, some 80,000 people were tried for committing witchcraft, and half of them were executed. A new study suggests an economic explanation. It was a way for Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity to compete with one another for members. The economists who did the study call it "non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share.” Oh, the strangeness of religious history.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- in which I try to explain how Protestants differ from, well, Protestants -- now is online here.