Religion and Cancel Culture

The vicious sentence on Humanist Mubarak Bala should remind all ‘culture war’ warriors that the hidebound religious have always presented one of the biggest threats to free speech. Barking and Dagenham Post Opinion Piece. 4 May 2022.

The international Humanist community is reeling from a 24-year jail sentence imposed on the President of the Nigerian Humanist Association in April. Mubarak Bala’s ‘crime’ was posting non-religious views on Facebook. 

It comes at a time of intense debates worldwide over freedom of expression and belief. This is nothing new, and humanists have always been at the forefront of arguing for progressive change. Today’s issues include so called ‘cancel culture’, the recent takeover of Twitter by the world’s richest man, and ongoing Government plans to criminalise ‘noisy’ demonstrations. So, can we learn anything from history?

One lesson on cancel culture is how often those with hidebound religious views have tried to suppress free speech. In the 19th century the Church was behind the notorious prosecution of atheist Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for publishing a book on family planning. And, in my lifetime, the publisher of Gay News received a prison sentence for blasphemous libel for publishing a poem. The 1977 prosecution, instituted by conservative Christian Mary Whitehouse, prompted the founding of this country’s first gay Humanist association. It took until 2008 for our blasphemy laws to be finally abolished.

Should we then welcome the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, and his promise to police content with a lighter touch? Another lesson is how those with power, be they autocratic states, organised religion or the super-rich, have used media to try to manipulate what we know and think. It is therefore concerning, to say the least, that an influential platform which feeds on controversy and is an echo chamber for disinformation and hatred is now in the hands of a man answerable to no-one.

How media content should be moderated, if at all, is an ongoing debate. But there is no reasonable case for ever imposing a criminal penalty on someone simply for expressing non-religious views. It is unacceptable that blasphemy remains a criminal offence in dozens of countries, and even carries the death penalty in some.

A third lesson is that civil liberties were never handed out on a plate. They have always had to be fought for. This has sometimes even involved noisy demonstrations! We hope all those who value civil liberty and freedom of expression will join our campaign urging the Nigerian Government to repeal their blasphemy laws and overturn Mubarak Bala’s vicious sentence.

Paul Kaufman, Chair East London Humanists

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