Free Expression Under Threat In Europe, Warn Secularists

Free expression is under unprecedented threat in Europe, the National Secular Society will tell Council of Europe Ministers today.

Speaking in a debate “Free Expression and Respect for Religion” at the French Senate in Paris, Keith Porteous Wood, the Executive Director of the National Secular Society will speak out against demands from religious leaders for the introduction of a Europe wide code to enforce “respect for religious feelings”.

Mr Wood will say that although blasphemy is no longer the repressive tool that it once was in Europe, it is sneaking back in a new guise: “Blasphemy has a new cloak. Its new name is ‘respect’”, he will say. “We are told that our freedom of speech – so precious, so hard-won – must now be curtailed in the name of “respect” for religion, respect for gods and prophets that many in Europe discarded years ago.”

Mr Wood will say that following the Danish cartoon saga, the clamour for new restrictions on the press and on artists have become stronger.

“A tide of demands for censorship is now engulfing Europe. The Vatican rails constantly against films, books, TV programmes and art exhibitions which it considers “disrespectful”. Often it calls for them to be banned, and sometimes it succeeds – as it did in Britain with the satirical cartoon Popetown. Reports emerged just yesterday that the Bavarian Premier called for new laws against blasphemy. This comes hot on the heels of a Vatican aide telling a UNESCO conference here in Paris last week that the Mohammed cartoons were an abuse of human dignity and that every means possible should be adopted (presumably including new laws) to prevent this so-called abuse.”

Mr Wood continues: “But sometimes religion deserves to be disrespected. The horrendous and ongoing abuse of children in the Catholic Church demands to be exposed, the exploitative, money-grubbing cults need to be examined, the manipulative political interference of religious leaders should be questioned. All these important, vital activities risk being curtailed if we allow the concept of blasphemy – or some similar privilege – to be re-introduced into Europe.

It is in all our interests to stop this now. It is our duty as democrats, as protectors of human autonomy and defenders of artistic expression to say no, no, no to those who want “respect” for ideas that many of us do not and will not respect.”