Editors Note: This one was written in response to the constant stream of letters and emails bemoaning the fact that the newspaper continues to print my stuff. 

In a Democracy, Blasphemy Can’t Be a Crime


Galileo is probably turning over in his grave. If you thought civilization had evolved beyond the days when the Inquisition persecuted people merely for expressing an inconvenient scientific truth, you’d be wrong.

After a religious group filed a complaint, Sanal Edamaruku — a debunker of claims of the paranormal and founder of Rationalist International — was charged with the “crime” of blasphemy. Oddly, this didn’t happen in some Persian Gulf theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but in India, the world’s largest democracy.

It’s not surprising India, which was ravaged by a sectarian civil war that caused an estimated one million casualties in the mid-1940s, has a law protecting “the religious sentiments of a particular community.” Its 150 million Muslims have always feared the country’s 850 million Hindus, so religion is a sensitive issue. What’s surprising is that it’s not the Muslims who want Edamaruku arrested, it’s the Catholic church of Mumbai.

At the invitation of a local TV channel, Edamaruku investigated the miracle of the crucifix of Our Lady of Velankanni church, which appeared to be dripping “holy water.” It took only minutes for the skeptic to identify the source of the water (a washroom drainage) and the capillary action that caused the water to seep from Jesus’s feet. This effectively ruined the town of Irla’s future as India’s Lourdes.

During a live TV debate with church representatives, Edamaruku argued that the church was “miracle mongering,” which caused the Association of Concerned Catholics to demand an apology. Threatened with arrest under India’s Penal Code u/s 295, Edamaruku compared himself to Giordano Bruno, whom the Inquisition burned at the stake in 1600 for speculating that there might be life on other planets.


Edamaruku can be arrested at any time, without warrant, and his petition for anticipatory bail was rejected on the bizarre grounds he’d be safer in jail. He’s ended up a 21st century hybrid of Salmon Rushdie, the heretical Indian Muslim novelist who was put under a death sentence (fatwa) from the Ayatollah Khomeini, and John T. Scopes, who was arrested for teaching evolution in the fundamentalist American South.

Edamaruku performs the same function in India as American debunker James Randi. After a successful career as The Amazing Randi, the retired magician became famous for exposing psychic Uri Geller as a fraud. The James Randi Educational Foundation website offers a $1 million reward to anyone who can demonstrate occult powers, faith healing or any other paranormal abilities in a controlled setting. After decades, no one has been able to collect a cent.

Being a crusader for science and against superstition has made Randi a pariah in both religious and pseudoscientific circles. When he demonstrated the absurdity of astrology on a PBS broadcast, the audience reacted with visible outrage (against him, not astrology). When he publicly exposed televangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff as a charlatan, Popoff’s faithful followers became enraged. (Not surprisingly, Popoff is now back on TV, running the same scam — P.T. Barnum is probably laughing in his grave.)

Unlike his Indian counterpart, Randi doesn’t have to worry about being arrested. The days of the Scopes trial, when a Tennessee high school teacher could be arrested simply for teaching science have thankfully passed. We can take comfort that what happened in India could never happen here, because, despite the best efforts of social conservatives, we still have a government that values the separation of church and state.

The problem is the conservatives are actually correct when they say the Constitution doesn’t specifically mandate separation of church and state; that phrase was actually coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Baptists to assuage their worries about religious persecution from more-powerful Christian denominations. And this leaves the door open for theocrats on the Religious Right to wield their considerable clout.

Even in areas where the Constitution specifically proscribes sectarian interference in government — such as Article VI, which bans religious tests for officeholders — those who respect the Constitution need to be vigilant. Social conservatives have repeatedly tried to enact legislation barring nonbelievers from office, despite court rulings that unfailingly strike down such statutes as a clear violation of Article VI.

For powerful organizations such as the Catholic League, freedom of speech is not nearly as important as preventing “Catholic bashing,” which they define as any free speech they find offensive. Meanwhile, evangelicals work tirelessly to replace evolutionary biology with religious pseudoscience, such as creationism, in the public school curricula to promote fundamentalist doctrines.

As a columnist whose writing often offends religious sensibilities, I regularly see mail expressing outrage that I’m “allowed” to say anything critical of anyone’s faith. Of course, I’m allowed to do this because, in America, the right to practice one’s religion doesn’t include a license to censor someone else’s free speech.

The world is full of people who believe their own Truths to be so lofty that they should supersede the rights of those who don’t share them. In places like Egypt, they advocate Sharia. Here, it’s fanatics who want contraceptives removed from hospital pharmacies and the Big Bang banned from textbooks. It’s up to the rest of us to keep Galileo and Jefferson from turning over in their graves.


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