Sanal Edamaruku never intended to open himself up to criminal charges in his native India. In fact, most people would argue that he took honorable and selfless action. Hearing about a crucifix in the suburbs of western Mumbai that reportedly leaked "miracle water," Mr. Edamaruku set out to investigate. His curiosity led him to commit a grave crime: He alerted Catholic pilgrims that the water they were drinking was actually sewage from a nearby toilet. In response, proponents of religious immunity have attacked Mr. Edamaruku as a blasphemer, attempting to send him to jail for three years. Such gratitude.
As president of the Indian Rationalist Association, Mr. Edamaruku has made a career of refuting the authenticity of India's swashbuckling "godmen," who perform miracles for villagers (for a price). One might think Edamaruku would be lauded for his activity, debunking "miracles" that include walking on hot coals and turning water to blood. Instead, this skeptic has been derided and threatened.
Mr. Edamaruku's enemies implied he was a bigot, as zealots are wont to do when they feel their beliefs are under attack. Apparently, by letting pilgrims know they were consuming toxic waste, he was displaying his "very obvious and stridently anti-Christian bias.” (The theological reasoning behind this must be pretty interesting: "Blessed are those who let pilgrims drink polluted water; for they shall not be prosecuted.")
Luckily, Mr. Edamaruku was able to emigrate to Finland in July 2012. But ridiculous defense of religion is by no means unique to India. In recent weeks, Bangladesh has been rocked by violent protests demanding both the death of several atheist bloggers and the enacting of national anti-blasphemy laws. Over half a million members of Hefazat-e Islam, the nation's Islamist coalition, entered the capital city of Dhaka and engaged with police. The movement, which draws support from the country's numerous madrassahs, wants greater gender segregation of men and women, and the enactment of strict Islamic education (Bangladesh was founded as a secular democracy). Chanting "Allahu Akbar!" and "One point! One demand! Atheists must be hanged," the Hefazat-e Islam rioters injured 60, killed three, and struck fear into the heart of nonbelievers everywhere.
All too often, criticism of religion is instantly slammed as discrimination. Our knee-jerk reaction is to reject anything that criticizes belief, to avoid "hurting religious feelings." But how far should this politeness extend? How much deference should we extend to people who use their irrational beliefs to destroy themselves or others? If you want to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you're probably not hurting anyone. But if you want to "pray away" your child's pneumonia, you're abusing both your kid and your freedom of religion. There obviously must be a balance. But the events above suggest it is tilted much too far toward protection of religious feelings.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett once reflected on something he learned from Christopher Hitchens: "What Christopher showed me — and i keep it in mind now wherever i speak — is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock."
When governments protect the right of religious leaders to delude their people into drinking sewage, it is time to be rude.
When parents kill their children by refusing medical treatment in favor of a "prayer regimen," it is time to be rude.
When rioting mobs demand retributive violence against those whose opinions they dislike, it is time to be rude.
The graphic below sums it up quite well: People need protection. Ideas don't.