Humanists call on Scottish government to abolish blasphemy laws

Gordon MacRae

Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) has called on the Scottish government to show “moral leadership” by repealing Scotland’s blasphemy law. The call comes in response to a new international report on discrimination and persecution against the non-religious by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

The Freedom of Thought Report records discrimination and persecution against humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, with a country-by-country assessment. The report finds that “blasphemy” is outlawed in at least 59 countries where it is punishable with a prison term or in some cases by death. There are laws against apostasy in 22 countries. At least 13 countries provide for the use of the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy.

Scotland’s blasphemy law was last used in 1843 to convict Thomas Paterson, an Edinburgh bookseller, of selling blasphemous literature. He was jailed for 15 months.

In 1697 it was invoked against atheist student Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Britain to be hanged for blasphemy.

In a foreword by Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations’ recently appointed special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief,  laws against blasphemy and “apostasy” (converting or leaving religion) are shown to be “exploited as political tools often used against non-religious people”, HSS said.

Mr Shaheed wrote: “While anyone can run afoul of these laws, and often there are allegations of the use of such laws for political purposes, these laws potentially automatically criminalize dissent and free-thinking, and victimize ‘non-believers’, humanists and atheists. What is even more shocking is the cruelty with which those who are accused of violating these laws are often punished– by state agents or by non-state actors, including neighbours and relatives.”

Commenting on the release of the Freedom of Thought Report, Humanist Society Scotland chief executive Gordon MacRae said: “This year’s Freedom of Thought Report demonstrates the danger experienced by people who express a non-religious world view across the globe.

“Here in Scotland, humanists, atheists, agnostics and free-thinkers enjoy freedoms and respect that would be denied elsewhere. However, as our Religion in Scots Law report highlighted earlier this year, Scotland remains a nation with a law against blasphemy still on the books. That should be a badge of shame for any progressive nation. That is why we are calling on the Scottish government to show moral leadership and to take a stand as citizens of the world by repealing that law and calling for all other nations to put equality, human rights and liberty first.”

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