30 September 2009


Blasphemy: funny if it weren't often so dangerous

Atheist bus signToday is International Blasphemy Day (of course there are a Facebook page and group). The event is held on the anniversary of the 2005 publication in Denmark of those infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Subversive cartoonist Robert Crumb is coincidentally in on the action this year too, with his illustrated version of the Book of Genesis.

Blasphemy Day isn't aimed merely at Islam or Christianity, but at all and any religions and sects that include the concepts of blasphemy, apostasy, desecration, sacrilege, and the like. "Ideas don't need rights," goes the tagline, "people do."

While my grandfather was a church musician, and my parents had me baptized and took me to services for a short while as a youngster, I've never been religious, so no doubt I blaspheme regularly without even thinking about it. I've written plenty about religion on this blog in the past few years, often blasphemously in someone's opinion, I'm sure. In 2007 I wrote my preferred summary of my attitude:

The beauty of a globular cluster or a diatom, the jagged height of a mountain or the depth of geological time—to me, these are natural miracles, not supernatural ones.

In that same post, I also wrote tangentially about blasphemy:

...given the scope of this universe, and any others that might exist, why would any god or gods be so insecure as to require regulated tributes from us in order to be satisifed with their accomplishments?

If the consequences—imposed by humans against each other, by the way—weren't so serious in so many places, the idea of blasphemy would be very funny. Even if there were a creator (or creators) of the Universe, how could anything so insignificant as a person, or even the whole population of a miniscule planet, possibly insult it?

We're talking about the frickin' Universe here. (Sorry, should be properly blasphemous: the goddamned Universe.) You know, 13.7 billion years old? Billions of galaxies, with billions of stars each? That one? Anything happening here on Earth is, on that scale, entirely irrelevant.

To my mind, there are no deities anyway. But if you believe there are, please consider this: it's silly to think that a god or gods could be emotionally fragile enough to be affected by our thoughts and behaviours, and even sillier to believe that people could or should have any role in enforcing godly rules. Silliest yet is that believers in a particular set of godly rules should enforce those rules on people who don't share the same belief.

Being a good person is worth doing for its own sake, and for the sake of our fellow creatures. Sometimes being good, or even simply being accurate, may require being blasphemous by someone else's standards. Today is a day to remember that.

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You are assuming a universal all powerful god (of course such an entity would not be insecure). But what about a jelous, impulsive only very powerful (not omnipotent) god? Just a local god really - not even one that has much sway on the planet as a whole. Blasphemy against such a mentally unstable god might have terrible consequences.

- Ari from Vancouver.
Gods in the old Greek mold, in other words. Good point. But I have no reason to think any of those exist either. Unless you count Kim Jong-Il.
Whoa, good essay, Derek. Them's my sentiments exactly, though I've never seen them so clearly and succinctly expressed as here.
Happy Blasphemy Day, Derek! Unacceptably, I don't think I've blasphemed all day. Not even once all goddamn day!
"how could anything so insignificant as a person, or even the whole population of a miniscule planet, possibly insult it?"
... Quite right Derek, it would have to be an exceedingly petty being. Nice post, thanks.
Hear hear! Great post.
Hi Derek, as always you're a diva on these topics.

An act of blasphemy is inherently an act of communicating a disrespect, and such communication is a slippery slope to discussion, and then rational analysis. An ideology or theology that cannot withstand critical thinking must defend itself by punishing (socially condemning)or threatening to punish (in an imaginary afterlife) their version of thought criminals. Religions which have tolerated heresy have largely died out as a result, so it is ironically a type of Darwinian process that leaves a predominance of intolerant religions standing today.
That less tolerant religions are "more fit" to survive is an interesting idea. I'm not sure it's necessarily the case, though.

I don't think Buddhism (or at least many of its substantial variants) really has heresies or blasphemies, and many Hindus argue that their religion doesn't either -- although there still seems plenty to fight about. Those two major divisions claim perhaps a couple of billion adherents. I'm also not sure that Taoism and Shinto have any such concepts, and that adds some millions more.

Interestingly, political movements that model themselves on religions, like Stalinist Communism, Nazism, and many personality-cult dictatorships and fascist states, certainly do have blasphemies, heretics, apostasy, and sacrileges -- although usually using some other synonym (like "counter-revolutionary" or "enemy of the people").

To me, the parallels only reinforce that all these systems are human inventions, and that concepts like blasphemy are not about respect for higher ideals as they claim, but rather about maintaining power and control.

So much more reason to be a blasphemer if you can get away with it.
Very true about the Eastern religions, and I thought about them but failed to mention them because they have evolved a different protective mechanism.

Rather that a hard carapace of "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.", (6th Commandment, Exodus 20:7 and common in basic form to the Torah, Bible, and Qur'an) there is an alternative strategy that is to yield where force is applied and simply alter or resume form when it is removed. These models replace the penalties for blasphemy with a more subtle strategy of reframing the context of criticism to justify their religious assertions. It's interesting to observe how many of the more 'progressive' sects of the Western monotheistic religions have been adopting this approach also as their changing environment makes the hard line strategy less effective. Darwin again. :)
Richard Dawkins invented the word meme back in the '70s for just such a concept, a sort of gene for ideas: "Examples of memes [...] included melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious beliefs), clothing fashion, and the technology of building arches."
I would like to provide a political perspective on this issue. I am a believing (although non-practicing) Christian. I am very conservative, especially socially. I totally agree with your stance on supporting free-speech over suppressing blasphemy. I say this because what you need to understand is that in the eyes of many people on the left, you are a right-wing hate monger by not opposing the Mohammed cartoons as dangerous, offensive hate speech. Unless I am mistaken you would not describe yourself as being right-wing, would you?

When you look at instances such as the Canadian human rights commissions and their "prosecution" of people like Mark Steyn & Ezra Levant; and the United Nations had before it a resolution making Blasphemy an international law violation.

These are left-wing intuitions, run by people who, I assume you would share values with MORE than say, me. Yet I (and conservatives like me) would agree with you.

I am interested in knowing your thoughts on the fact that in supporting free speech without restrictions, you are really fighting with people on your own side of the political spectrum, not ‘evil’ right-wingers like me.
There's always a tension here. Untrammelled free speech is what I would prefer on principle. Hate speech laws as we have in Canada, and in other countries like Germany (which criminalize things such as denying the Holocaust and advocating white supremacist views) make me uncomfortable. I'd rather make fun of racists than send them to jail. And there are plenty on the left like me too.

On the other hand, speech is never unrestricted, really. We have libel and slander laws, and those against incitement to violence. Free speech also doesn't mean speech without consequence, just that it is not officially prohibited by government agencies, and that you should not be in danger for what you say.

In my opinion, human rights commissions (at least here in Canada) are quasi-judicial bodies without the rules of evidence, checks, or balances of the real judicial system, so I don't like them much. UN resolutions against "defamation of religion" hijack the concept of human rights, and are precisely the sort of thing my post was aimed against.

The problem with opposition to the Muhammad cartoons by some on the left is that it identifies the cartoons as the problem, when the problem is extremist (and some non-extremist) Muslim reaction to them. There are plenty of left-wingers (like me) who think that's ridiculous, and a risky position to take because it emerges from fear—that those who take offence might resort to violence. For much of history, blasphemers risked violence or death, and in many places they still do.

I also don't subscribe to the post-modern moral relativist view that there are no rights and wrongs. But far fewer lefties like me really do than you might expect. It's a caricature, just as it would be for me to portray conservatives as bible-thumping, gun-toting, capital-punishment, righteously selfish, Ayn Rand types without compassion or empathy. Maybe that's Glenn Beck, but it's not the real conservatives I know.
This is off the topic of blasphemy, but I would like to point out that there is a growing movement of drawing a distinction between ‘liberals’ and ‘the left’. Your support of untrammeled free speech clearly means you are a ‘liberal’, not of ‘the left’, at least with regards to this issue.

I agree with you that there are more people who share your view of free speech, even on the left; my concern is that the minority of people who do support hate speech laws, human rights commissions etc. have more power than they should have and I worry that moderates such as yourself, true ‘liberals’ are not speaking up against ‘the left’ because mainstream liberals would rather be seen criticizing the right, with whom, ironically free speech values are shared.

Now obviously there are people on the right who are at the extreme end as well. However, I believe that in this day and age the ‘far right’ has less legitimacy than the far left, certainly in Canada, less so in the United States, but even that is changing. I say this because hate speech laws, human rights commissions do exist as institutions that have real power to affect change and enforce obedience. Glenn Beck says what he says and certainly people on the far right support him, but are there similar institutions (now in 2009, not during the Crusades) on the right that demand, by law, far right values?

There is a difference between individuals who have and express radical viewpoints and organizations that are given legitimacy and power by government. And the left is where the organizations and the danger exist.
We've diverged a bit from blasphemy, so let me take us back. I could have written a post about the abuses of the institutions you identify, which were founded on left-wing (that is, collective rather than individualist) principles. But remember that neither human rights nor blasphemy is a left-wing/right-wing concept. Regardless of their base motivations, there are plenty of religious lefties (many of whom have campaigned for civil and human rights), just as there are many atheist conservatives (who have done the same).

I wrote the post because it was Blasphemy Day, and here's why that's important.

Whatever their many flaws, hate speech laws, human rights tribunals, and the like have been established in response to real problems: subjugation of women, persecution of minorities, slavery, and yes, even religious intolerance—the kinds of moral problems that have been part of most human cultures throughout history. Most important, however, they are acknowledged human institutions, which we can (both in principle and in practice) change or abolish.

In contrast, blasphemies and heresies, apostasies and desecrations are, for those who believe in them, affronts against inalterable declarations from a god or gods. They are closed to negotiation or abolition. (True, religious authorities and individuals find lots of ways to justify circumventing them, but that only reinforces how inflexible the rules are supposed to be.) Yet in many cases, adherents of one religion or sect or denomination inherently blaspheme against others, simply by believing the "wrong" things.

For the kinds of all-knowing, all-seeing, loving creator gods that most people seem to believe in, my post already discussed why such blasphemies are ridiculous on their face (because how could any truly awesome god of that sort even care about them?). It is, I think, important not to insulate religious ideas from the debates we have about other ideas, by declaring them beyond reproach.

I can call some of the founding principles of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal misguided and dangerous, and I should safely be able to (and where I live, I can) call some of the Ten Commandments, or some of the hadith, or the stories of Xenu, or whatever, misguided and dangerous too.
What if god (or gods) was a substance, or a measurement, like radioactivity? I often like to think of god as something which came into existence as an actual supernatural substance once humans evolved to acquire intelligence. But what if Pigs, rats, whales, crows, chimpanzees, and dogs have god?
But on the subject of Blasphemy. I Blaspheme in my head, but I wouldn't walk into a Church, mosque or synagogue and Blaspheme. There are good reasons to Blaspheme, to make points, to resist certain stupid parts of some religions, and yes it can be funny. But to do so in a situation that might be particularly insulting, I think its good to do it with an air of respect to the insulted.
If gods were a substance, then we could measure it. An "actual supernatural substance" is also pretty much a contradiction -- if it is actual, and a substance, and thus we can measure it and define its influence, then it's natural, not supernatural. And so what if other animals (all mammals in your list, so far) have ideas of gods? They have no more reason to be right (or wrong) about it than we do. But I expect they perceive the world very differently than we do, so I'm not sure how much meaning such a suggestion has.

And I've been in a lot of religious buildings, from St. Peter's Basilica to the church up the street. I have not blasphemed openly in them, but that does not mean that I should only ever blaspheme in my head. Some adherents of different religions want the whole world to be their church, or mosque, or temple -- with blasphemies, heresies, and apostasies prohibited everywhere. Obviously that can't work, not least because religions contradict one another.

Religious viewpoints don't deserve more respect than other human institutions, such as political or academic ones. They should be subject to the same scrutiny and debate -- but blasphemy tries to make such scrutiny out of bounds.