Ellery Schempp, Who Helped Put a Stop to Bible Readings in Public Schools, Applauds Ayaan Hirsi Ali for Her Courage April 18, 2014

Ellery Schempp, Who Helped Put a Stop to Bible Readings in Public Schools, Applauds Ayaan Hirsi Ali for Her Courage

This is a guest post by Ellery Schempp. Ellery’s protest against mandatory Bible readings at his public school played a pivotal role leading to the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision to end the practice.


Last week, Brandeis University offered an honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and then quickly rescinded it when Muslim groups complained. Among other responses, I particularly enjoyed American Atheists’ President David Silverman‘s open letter to the school’s president, in which he stated he was “ashamed of [his] association with Brandeis University.”

Of course, it’s not hate speech to criticize a religion. This is a dangerous idea. Exempting some notion from critique because it is claimed “religious” is a violation of all serious thinking. We know what hate speech is — and what Hirsi Ali offers is far from that. Which is more than I can say for what some of her detractors are saying about her as a public atheist speaking out against the harmful nature of some faith beliefs.

Criticism of atheism is not one of our fears — we can defend our thoughts with reason and evidence. Religious adherents go after our ideas all the time while accusing us of all manner of evil. But if someone doesn’t agree with us, so what? We say, go thou and do kindnesses to all, whatever they believe. Just because I don’t believe in your holy book, or your doctrine of resurrection after death, or your gods, or your God, it’s no reason to worry about my soul or to hate me.

“… [H]onoring an anti-Muslim bigot like Ayaan Hirsi Ali would amount to an endorsement of her hate-filled and extremist views,” said Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) National Executive Director Nihad Awad. This is apologetics writ large. Hirsi Ali has never called for the killing of anyone, never called for the bodily mutilation of anyone, never called for killing of girls going to school… but she has been threatened by those who are actually hate-filled and extreme.

I believe that religious fatwas calling for killing others are evil, whether these come from mullahs or evangelicals against abortion, whether they arise from white-supremacists or Islamic-extremists. Those are the kinds of people Hirsi Ali has stood against. Their ideologies are the ones she has battled in her books and speeches. It’s a kind of courage very few people possess.

A few years ago, I gave a speech about blasphemy and I think what I said is still relevant today:

We have seen what blasphemy laws have done to us. Women called witches in Salem were killed because of finger-pointing — witches were said to be not only blasphemous, but satanic–whatever that means. Mary Dyer, a Quaker woman, was publically hanged to death right over here on Boston Common on June 1, 1660. In fact, three members of the Society of Friends were condemned to death and executed by public hanging for their religious beliefs under the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Others lay under sentence of death at Boston in the same period, but had their punishments commuted to that of being whipped out of the colony from town to town.

Unitarians were condemned for denying the Trinity. That is blasphemy, heresy, apostasy all combined.

When I see what some bishops and preachers have done, I confess that I have some sympathies for Satan. Now, I am not in favor of evil, or anti-social acts, but I do sympathize with sinning.

Blasphemy, heresy, apostasy are purely religious doctrines with no place in a free society.

So, I say unto you, Go thou and blaspheme and sin. Sinning is good for the soul. Blaspheming and heresy are good for the mind.

Criticism — even condemnation — of religious beliefs and “worship” practices is essential for freedom of speech — and, ultimately, for freedom of religious thought.

No matter how fervently one believes, we have humanistic views that take precedence over religious faith fervor. In that sense, every one of us is a disbeliever.

Baptists disbelieve in the Pope as the essence of their religion; the Pope disbelieves in Martin Luther; Christians disbelieve in Allah; Muslims disbelieve in Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses; Jews disbelieve in everything that is not in Torah — and even there, there is worry and guilt.

To those who are out front, bravely confronting this “religion is free from examination” nonsense, I thank you. And I hope that another university can offer Hirsi Ali what Brandeis decided to take back.

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