Last week, Humanists International released a report detailing instances of state-sponsored bias against humanists, atheists and skeptics of religion around the world.

One thing stands out: Blasphemy laws remain a scourge in many parts of the globe. In some countries, to even question whatever dogma the state has embraced is enough to land you behind bars.

Some examples:

  • Pakistan: More than 1,000 people have been prosecuted under the country’s 1988 blasphemy law. Dozens are on death row.
  • Cambodia: A vaguely worded law prohibits any “infringement on State Religion,” in this case, Buddhism. It’s also illegal to use “words and gestures likely to undermine the dignity” of Buddhist monks and nuns. Earlier this year, government office suppressed an online publication after it ran an article criticizing a monk for using physical punishment against junior monks.
  • Qatar: It is illegal to insult the “Supreme Being.” This includes the production of any slogans or drawings that might offend Islam.

Lest anyone think that blasphemy laws are relics found only in less advanced or hardline Muslim nations, bear in mind that Canada, Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand repealed such laws only recently. There have been attempts to apply them recently in Ireland, Russia, Spain, Poland and Austria.

In America, several states still have blasphemy laws on the books, although the last successful prosecution for blasphemy dates to the early 20th century. These laws are considered antiquated, but they rear their heads on occasion. Pennsylvania’s blasphemy law, which, remarkably, was passed in 1977, was invoked in 2007 after a resident named George Kalman filed papers to incorporate a film production company called I Choose Hell Productions. State officials rejected the application, telling Kalman that commercial names “may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.” Kalman sued, and in 2010 a federal court ruled that the Pennsylvania law violated the First Amendment’s religious freedom and free speech provisions.

Freedom of belief, by necessity, also includes the right not to believe. This means we have the right to criticize the beliefs of others. It includes the right to be impolite, to mock and poke fun. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 1952, “It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.”

Unfortunately, for many people in other parts of the globe, government does assume this power – much to the detriment of open inquiry, intellectual freedom and fundamental human rights.