“The most tyrannical of governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for everyone has an inalienable right to his thoughts.”— Baruch Spinoza
“People who change their religion should face the death penalty.”
― Zakir Naik
Apostasy seems a strange word to someone raised in the United States. As we go through our lives both we and some of the people we know question the religious beliefs they were brought up in. As our friends and neighbors progress through their education and lives, it is not unusual to hear of some abandoning their religion of birth and becoming members of some other religion: Catholics become Protestants and vice versa, some may even leave the Abrahamic religions and search out New Age or Eastern Religions. Some even abandon their religious beliefs entirely becoming, as survey results are calling them these days, ‘nones’. This searching and experimenting with different belief systems strikes the rest of us as nothing out of the ordinary; no different than choosing a different sports team to root for or even rooting for a different sport entirely. The freedom to pursue whatever avenue the mind wishes to go down is one of the privileges of living in a society that holds to Enlightenment values, specifically the ideas that traditional authority is not always correct and humans can and should improve themselves through reason. When the claims of religion contradict reason and by extension science, the child of reason, we should be and are, in fact, free to reject those claims.
Every reader knows that this freedom is not a given in other places of the world. Depending on the religious fervor of the country in question, leaving the “official religion” (another strange concept to those of us raised with Enlightenment values) may and, unfortunately does, come at the cost of one’s life. Many religions contain commandments that demand apostates should be killed. The Old Testament and the Koran both contain verses instructing the faithful to do just that. Leaving the religious plantation (apostasy) is as illegal and life threatening in some countries today as it was for slaves attempting to leave the Southern plantations during the time of slavery here in the United States. This egregious behavior is not limited to theism; political religions such as Communism engage in this behavior. Having lived in the shadow of the Berlin Wall I know this all too well. Many paid the ultimate price at the foot of that filthy wall, their flight to freedom ending in a hail of bullets or an explosion from stepping on a mine. These days Saudi Arabia and Russia, both noxious and festering cauldrons of theocratic and political fascism, respectively, are shining examples of this barbaric behavior. Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the direction of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Putin’s attempted murder of Alexei Navalny, both for political reasons are clear indications that coming to the wrong conclusions about a political regime and voicing them will ensure a secular fatwa will be issued against you demanding your death.
“The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.” – Christopher Hitchens
Those who would charge others with apostasy (religious or political) and demand the required punishment of death all seem to claim a certain right over others. This right they claim, whether explicitly or implicitly, is the right of ownership. The purpose of your existence is to advance the goals of whatever system, political or religious, claims ownership of you. If you fulfill your duties, you will be allowed to live; assert or act in manner which repudiates that claim of ownership and you will either be imprisoned or killed, oftentimes both. This is, at its core, what apostasy really is: the assertion of self-ownership and the repudiation of fascist claims to the contrary. Each and every man and woman is free to think and question everything they have been taught to determine the direction of their lives. Against that are those who assert you are their possession, like some farm animal, and, like some farm animal, when you are rebellious, they will snuff out your life. Questioning their right of ownership over you is an immoral act of the highest order and deserves a like punishment. Every thinking person finds that claim of ownership and the people who make it and punish those who dare disagree with them disgusting.
“Freedom is self-determination.” — Baruch Spinoza
Secular individuals who can speak freely and inquire as their minds see fit owe this freedom to the Enlightenment values that created our modern society. It is the rediscovery of these values and the dedication to them, both as individuals and society, that will allow us to confront apostasy and the idea which underlies it, the claim to own people as chattel.
We must rededicate ourselves to the values of the Enlightenment and advocate them in the face who dare claim the right to own others. While no human endeavor is perfect, we can point to the new Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, to show the power of these values and what they can accomplish. Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, pointed out that we are in, “...a country and a time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” Every lover of freedom and self-determination should have stood up and cheered at that utterance. Though the light has dimmed and ebbed, it is still burning. It is up to us, if we truly want to purge our world of apostasy, to advance that light forward in whatever way we can. The simple enumeration of the values of the Enlightenment will start a fire in all those yearning to be free and will crush the forces opposing freedom no matter where they are or how entrenched they may appear to be.