One of the things that has brought human beings far ahead to every other animal on the planet is their conception of society. It wasn’t intentional; evolution drove us to it. We were evolving to be increasingly difficult to take care of as infants and it became necessary for humans to be closer to one another than they ever were. To ensure there was harmony among the members in a society, it was essential that they come up with a few ground rules. ‘Do not kill another one of us’, was a pretty reasonable request – so much that murder is universally considered a crime, almost. Somehow, the rulebooks of every single culture got that right. Of course, humans are not perfect as is evident from many of our fellow primates’ insistence to, most often physically, hurt those who abide by a different rulebook than theirs (which is basically what religious fundamentalism, fanaticism and patriotism is all about).
Needless to say, completely made up crimes get listed in the rulebooks once in a while. Penalisation for theft and murder, I can understand. I wouldn’t want my things stolen or my life prematurely taken away. I didn’t need a book to tell me that it would be awful if I were to do that to others; I’ve got empathy for that. I can tell when something should or shouldn’t be a crime. Sadly, scriptures have managed to override an average human’s natural empathy and as a result they’ve learnt to assimilate atrocities effortlessly while getting outraged at imaginary crimes.
What I mean by imaginary crimes
We’re, as children, taught to accept that certain actions are inherently immoral. We’re almost never given any reasonable explanation as to why they are thought of that way; perhaps they themselves are unaware of the reason. Those acts might not necessarily harm anyone and, on closer inspection most of them are indeed harmless. I know a few…
Apostasy is the act of giving up one’s religious affiliations. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve turned irreligious. One could embrace a different religion than the one they were born into; they thus become an apostate to their birth religion.
Birth religion: the religion one was indoctrinated into before they had a chance to develop their critical thinking faculties.
Apostasy seems like a pretty harmless thing and it is. The only real danger it poses is to the religion itself, which is why the religion of Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostates. The countries that enforce the death penalty as of right now are Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen. Mauritania offers one a three day grace period to re-embrace Islam. In some cases Brunei might go for upto thirty years of imprisonment instead of the death penalty; in that time, one could “repent their apostasy” to be acquitted of the crime.
Algeria, Comoros, Egypt, Gambia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Syria are among the countries that penalise apostasy with punishments like imprisonment, flogging, and a revocation of certain civil rights. It’s a bit more than a coincidence that all of these countries have a Muslim majority and many of their laws are built around the Quran. This, of course, is not to say that Islam is the only religion of it’s kind. Christianity too considers apostasy as a crime, but the punishment for it now is as imaginary – an eternity in hell – as the transgression itself. It is past its phase of executing freethinkers.
The Torah, of Judaism, asks for death to apostates by stoning. We don’t hear about them as they’ve long given up the practise. The punishment for abandoning Judaism today is exclusion from Jewish rituals. They might also not be allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries which shouldn’t really matter much as they’ll be dead. Religions like Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism do not have a concept of apostasy in their scriptures and is not a part of their central doctrine. They claim not to have anything against apostates, however, ostracism against them by members of those religions isn’t unheard of.
To think of apostasy as a crime is to think that belief is a matter of choice. It’s not. One cannot just choose to believe as they please. The concept of apostasy as a crime was clearly invented to deter people from escaping a religion.
One might argue atheism as an imaginary crime should’ve been listed under apostasy, but the evidence suggests atheism is a totally different subject altogether. It’s true that the prime victim for anti-apostasy laws are atheists who had previously been Muslims. However, people of other religions, as long as they’re not converts from Islam, are allowed to live. ‘Believe in whichever god you like but believe.’, is essentially what they’re saying.
This is an area where statistics are hard to find because atheists are almost universally discriminated against for “being godless”. Many countries that call themselves secular don’t do enough to protect one’s freedom from belief. Atheists are shrugged off as a minority and their opinions aren’t valued. They’re shunned by their relatives and very often forced to leave their homes. The lucky ones are those who have managed to leave their homelands to live in a country that would grant them asylum.
The not so lucky ones have to pretend to believe in a deity for the rest of their lives. The ones who speak out are attacked. There have been numerous instances of atheist writers beaten to death for their disbelief in the past few years. Atheism is punished by death in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but it usually hasn’t anything to do with laws. It’s the mob that gets them. There actually might be more atheist executions than that we hear of; not every instance of violence against atheists get reported.
In the US, atheists are the most untrusted group of people. In Brazil, they’re the most hated group. In Algeria, a person found to be an atheist will have their marriage annulled; they cannot take custody of their children and neither can they inherit.
India has a more peculiar outlook toward atheists. On the one hand there are a few Hindus who assert that Hinduism allows atheism and on the other there are millions who will disown their children for failing to bring themselves to believe in a deity.
Blasphemy is the expression of views that contradict those of a religion. Cultures throughout the world have had varied opinions on what counts as blasphemy. Once upon a time, the Christian church would torture those who asserted facts that conflict with their pet fictional account of reality. By that standard every scientist and historian today ought to be labeled blasphemers.
The thing about anti-blasphemy laws is that it severely restricts free speech. One is not allowed to criticise a religious belief as it might offend them. Anti-blasphemy laws are rarely consistent. One could simply profess their religious beliefs and get charged with blaspheming against every other religion, but that never happens. Like with apostasy and atheism, persecution for blasphemy is very common in Muslim majority nations and is mostly punishable by death. If that weren’t horrifying enough, note that things like describing Mohammed’s personality and speculating what he might have done were he alive could count as blasphemy.
I would’ve loved to mention a few fascinating details about Mohammed, but I enjoy staying alive. The internet is a vast resource for self-study. Use it. Learn about Mohammed and never speak of it again.
Anti-blasphemy laws have been a bane to free speech everywhere when in effect. The most notable case is that of Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist, who was exiled for debunking a supposed miracle. More importantly, the ones responsible for his exile were Christians – goes to show it’s not an Islam specific problem. This happened in a country where the majority religion claims to not have a concept of blasphemy, as long as you stick to only ever saying flattering things about them.
Sedition is similar to blasphemy except it’s related to public proclamation of ideas that are counter to the agenda pushed forth by a nation rather than a religion. This is an especially stupid concept as it curtails one’s freedom of expression, a freedom the state claims to grant every individual it governs.
One is said to have had a seditious intent when their actions cause a non-trivial disruption of public order as is codified by the government. While almost all sovereign states have some kind of a sedition law, it is hardly every implemented consistently, which is what makes it dangerous. There is no telling where the line is between acceptable behaviour and sedition. India recently, in 2012, witnessed an incident in which an act as harmless as publishing cartoons, that put the government in a bad light, could get one imprisoned under its sedition law. The charges against Aseem Trivedi were likely dropped because of the media community uproar.
Depending on the government in power and their ideology, the state can charge anyone with sedition. India’s sedition law, like most Indian laws that exist, defines sedition so vaguely that any act that appears to be disdainful can be punished. As far as imaginary crimes go, this is perhaps the worst offender. This is one arena where Muslim majority nations are probably not worse than others, although it must be because sedition and blasphemy are identical concept in those places.
An adulterer is a person who indulges in sex with one who is not their spouse or one whose spouse is not them. Adultery, while meaning no more than just extramarital sex, is a word with exponentially greater negative social connotations. It has the power to demonise people, human beings who are slaves to their biological urges. Extramarital sex definitely happened way too often throughout history; they wouldn’t have a word for it otherwise.
The human being is not a naturally monogamous creature. While humans excel at social monogamy – the practice of pooling a couple’s resources together to mutually enhance their lives through a somewhat symbiotic relationship (the contemporary term for which is ‘marriage’) – they’re not built for sexual monogamy. That extramarital sex is a thing people do, in spite of being punishable by death in some cultures, is a glaring proof of the fact. No creature on this earth would need to be forced into compliance through a fear of death if they could naturally fall into place. It is ridiculous to expect sexual monogamy from human beings – a fact that should be crystal clear the moment you admit to yourself, after a thorough assessment of your biological urges, that you too wish to have sex with people other than your spouse or your significant other – and yet, somehow, we live in a world where humankind collectively decided to opt for the most masochistic – sexual fidelity as their de facto setting – of the many choices they had.
It will come as no surprise (and Islam certainly makes it hard to not seem like we’re disproportionately picking on them specifically) but the punishment for adultery in Islam is flogging. It’s not however practiced in all Muslim countries; those instead support stoning. A significant portion of the population of Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria are in favour of stoning. If that were not enough, there have been instances of victims of rape being sentenced to lashes for the crime of adultery because it technically fits the definition of the term in their scripture.
Christianity and Judaism are not any better in this regard. The Bible and the Torah contain well described variants of adultery one may commit and the different kinds of punishments for each of them. Luckily, these holy instructions are not followed this day.
The weird thing about adultery in the Indian context is how it is defined in the Indian Penal Code. Section 497 makes it impossible for a woman to be classed as an adulterer and thus only the man is prosecuted. Rather than treat the two as adults with the ability to decide for themselves what they want to do with their bodies, it infantilises women and treats the men as criminals.
Homosexuality is the tendency of having romantic or sexual attraction and sexual behaviours between people of the same sex. While only a small percentage, about 3 to 5 percent, of people are homosexuals, that number range is consistent between broad enough demographics. Homosexuals have existed for a long time now and throughout history, either as a group of highly creative intellectuals or interspersed among the crowd doing unobjectionable common people stuff to keep themselves from being found. Whether it’s a heritable trait or a lifestyle choice, the fact is that they’ve been a part of every culture, like it or not. They’re just not very well known, because they actively hid themselves or their homosexuality had no bearing on what they brought to the society’s proverbial table.
The problem starts with people preventing homosexuals from living their lives as they please. While western countries now allow people to live as openly gay, they have until a decade ago had to endure opposition from the Christian right citing the god of Abraham disapproved of sex between two men. As with everything, the Islamic world wants you to take that god a little more seriously. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Sudan and Nigeria punish homosexuality with death. Qatar, Algeria, Uzbekistan, and the Maldives punish homosexuality with prison time or a fine.
India is the place where there exist monuments, depicting same-sex sexual acts among other things, in full public display and protected as a part of its heritage by the constitution. That same India had its ruling, decriminalising homosexuality in July of 2009, overturned in December of 2013. The culprit is a piece of legislation called section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which was instituted during the British rule of India to supposedly prevent “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. In a country where developing a scientific temper is a citizen’s fundamental duty, it is surprising that their highest court would take such a regressive step. Funnily Britain has no problem with homosexuality anymore.
To think of homosexuality as a crime, is to arbitrarily limit the concept of free expression. Humans are natural experimenters and it’s the deviant and aberrant behaviours that propel society forward.
Premarital sex is a weird term. It assumes that marriage is a requirement for sex and that getting married is the default navigational path through this maze we call life. As always, religions have strong opinions on premarital sex. Islam surprisingly has no problem with it.
No problem under a singular circumstance that is. In Islam, a male slaveholder having sex with his female slaves is not an issue. It’s only when you don’t own people, that it becomes a problem. The punishment varies for other people. It’s either getting a hundred lashes in public or death by stoning. Death is no escape however as you’re also said to be chastised in your afterlife. In the recent past there have been quite a few instances, in the Islamic world, of rape victims being punished for premarital sex
While Christianity has had a chequered past in regards to premarital sex, it doesn’t seem to kill people for it anymore, although devout Christians still consider it immoral. You would be “living in sin”, but that phrase is now used rather in an endearing tone than a condemning one. In Judaism, premarital sex is only a problem if at least one of the participants were betrothed.
Hinduism condemns premarital sex and, while India as a government does not penalise it, it is considered to be a shameful act. Honour killings have been a serious cause for concern in orthodox Hindu communities. It shows that people give an arbitrary ritual more importance than human life.
Sin and its inheritance
This is the most insane one of the lot and not just because every person on this planet is claimed to have been cursed for the mistake of their ancestors. No, it is a troublesome notion because it teaches its believers that knowledge is a bad thing and nowhere in the Abrahamic trinity of religions have they attempted to hide that fact. If you get me started, I could go on and on about the ways in which I’m surprised people still fall for this obvious con, but I guess it would do better in a future article.
The success of Christianity’s pitch entirely relies on your being convinced, that the first people that lived on this planet committed a grave sin – they disobeyed god to satiate their curiosity. It tells you that obedience and belief are higher virtues than one’s drive for investigation. It doesn’t stop there, it makes it your duty to fix an issue that you never caused. With that, it brings a barrage of other arbitrary mindless rituals you need to perform to be a part of an exclusive club of those saved from their merciful loving god’s wrath.
You don’t owe anything to those you have never known, met or interacted with. You do not deserve to be labelled a sinner for not having it in you to lower your standard of evidence. Sin is the ultimate imaginary crime created to sell an imaginary cure.
I hope you found this piece entertaining and somewhat informative. The imaginary crimes about which I’ve written are by no means an exhaustive list. If you can think of more, let me know.
As always, you can send my way your requests for debunking articles and media you think makes spurious claims. I will address them eventually. If you find this piece factually inaccurate or can suggest a way to expand its contents, let me know that too. For generic communication, you can visit the contact page of this website.