Should We Blaspheme? Not Always… September 30, 2009

Should We Blaspheme? Not Always…

It’s Blasphemy Day today.

Why do we celebrate it?

Blasphemy Day International is a campaign seeking to establish September 30th as a day to promote free speech and stand up in a show of solidarity for the freedom to challenge, criticize, and satirize religion without fear of murder, litigation, and reprisal. Blasphemy Day takes place September 30th to commemorate the publishing of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. The purpose of Blasphemy Day is not to promote hate or violence; it is to support free speech, support the right to criticize and satirize religion, and to oppose any resolutions or laws, binding or otherwise, that discourage or inhibit free speech of any kind.

The Center For Inquiry is running a blasphemy contest through next week to mark the occasion. All you have to do is “create a phrase, poem, or statement that would be or would have been considered blasphemous.”

Paul Kurtz is the founder and former Chairman of CFI and he thinks the contest is in the wrong spirit. I have to say I agree with him.

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way by calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms, it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance. One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures borders on hate speech. What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way?

It’s not just the contest that’s the problem. It’s the idea of blasphemy, used in the wrong way.

If you’re doing something blasphemous today, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you doing it to make some larger point?
  • Are you doing it to begin a conversation?
  • Are you doing it just to piss off religious people?
  • What are you trying to accomplish?

Blasphemy isn’t always bad, of course. When Jyllands-Posten published “blasphemous” cartoons about Muhammad — and a few other newspapers and magazines followed — they were doing it to support freedom of the press. A very important point was made: just because you find something or someone sacred doesn’t mean the rest of us have to follow suit. More power to those institutions which stood up to the violent protestors.

Yes, you could hold a sign that reads, “FUCK JESUS.” You could wear a shirt like this. You could paint a picture of religious deities doing all sorts of disgusting things with barnyard animals. But what would be the point?

Without a good reason, you’re not showing the general public that we ought to take advantage of our right to free speech. You’re only showing them you’re a jerk.

I’m not trying to act holier-than-thou or anything, either.

Several affiliates of the Secular Student Alliance are celebrating their own way and I support what they’re doing.

For example, At LSU, Matthew Shepherd‘s campus atheist group has a plan of action:

Shepherd said the group will hand out fliers about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons from 10 a.m. until at least 12:30 p.m., and AHA might set up a system for students to exchange Bibles for materials “promoting free thinking.”

That’s what the day should be about: opening peoples’ minds, not simply offending them for the sake of it.

Just because you can blaspheme doesn’t mean you have to blaspheme.

***Update***: Current CFI CEO Ron Lindsay has responded to Kurtz’s piece.

Paul Kurtz does offer to the readers of Free Thinking a choice between two starkly different views of CFI. There is the CFI that stands with those who believe we should be free to criticize religion just as we criticize other beliefs; then there is the neo-Kurtzian vision of a CFI that would tiptoe around criticism of religion for fear of giving offense. There is a CFI that believes that art, even when it might be considered crude or offensive to some, may have symbolic value, and, in any event, deserves protection; and then there is the neo-Kurtzian CFI that advocates censorship of art. There is the CFI that honors those who have risked everything to express their views about religion; and then there is the neo-Kurtzian CFI that equates critique of religion with hate speech.

Kurtz wasn’t arguing against critiquing religion, though. He was against attacks on religion that had no point other than to offend. There’s a difference between criticizing what the Bible says and drawing a picture called “Jesus Does His Nails”:

No one’s trying to censor the artist or anyone else for that matter.

Again, I think Kurtz is asking what I’m asking: If you’re “blaspheming,” are you doing it for the right reasons?

(On a side note, like Ron Lindsay, I would like to know why Kurtz is using the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”…)

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  • What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way?

    This is really a false equivalence, considering that the reaction that spawned this “holiday” ended with several people being killed. Somehow I don’t think atheists would riot.

    But I agree with the “if you’re going to blaspheme, make sure you have a point” idea. Doing it just to piss off the religious is not a worthwhile exercise.

  • Gordon

    I thought the point was rather like what Dan Dennet illustrated in Breaking the Spell, religion has a wall around it. People assume these ideas are not open to discussion in the way other ideas are.

    Blasphemy is an outmoded concept.

    Besides “I deny the Holy Spirit” is an anagram of “Heed His Trinity Ploy”, how cool is that!

  • Answer no.3- I’m blaspheming to piss off religious people.. And why not. They piss me off often enough with their insufferable airs of occupying superior moral positions simply from their imaginary relationships with Invisible Magic Friends.

  • TXatheist

    When I think of blaspheme day I picture a t shirt with muhammad wearing a bomb on his head and the words “god damn it I have free speech in this country”.

  • Miko

    Free speech becomes its own point when threatened. I fully intend to get arrested by burning a flag the day after we get an anti-U.S.-flag burning amendment, despite the fact that up until that day I’d have no real desire to do so (since it seems kind of like a waste of cloth…). Saying “We have a right to do X, but no one does” becomes the equivalent of the addict’s “I can quit any time I want.”

  • mikespeir

    Why do we celebrate it?

    I don’t celebrate it!

  • I agree – to blaspheme just for the sake of it is pointless and childish. It should be possible to blaspheme without the need to be crude. I am not happy about the phrase ‘hate speech’ though – sounds a lot like what Bill Donohue would rave about.

  • Tony Pro

    There once was a planet quite odd,
    Who followed ‘Thy staff and thy rod.’
    They should have chose reason,
    Used logic all seasons,
    It instead chose the worship of God.

  • Eric

    Perhaps it is just me, but it seems a bit conflicted to have a blasphemy day event and demand respectfulness at the same time.

  • If the religious would ask those same 4 questions, it would perhaps be less important to actively observe Blasphemy Day. Yet 24/7/365 we are bombarded with religious messages intended to antagonize and separate those who disagree.

  • Philbert

    “create a phrase, poem, or statement that would be or would have been considered blasphemous”

    I think this is the real value here. For example, proclaiming that the Earth orbits the Sun. Uncontroversial now, but at one time people might be killed for saying so. The larger point is that we’ve learned the hard way that persecuting people for free speech is unnecessary and unjust, and to do so runs the risk of being judged very harshly by history (to say nothing of the believer’s God).

  • Schmeer

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Blasphemy is a demonstration against those who would prevent us from expressing doubt or disbelief. Even though many people will make crass and very inarticulate statements to participate in Blasphemy Day, the act of speaking freely denies others the ability to censor ideas they find offensive. Religion deserves no respect and blasphemy is the simplest way to tarnish the gloss that is slapped over child-rape scandals and other horrors. I do not mean that religious people deserve no respect. If you are offended by my saying that I don’t believe in the same articles of faith that you hold dear you still cannot stop me from saying just that.
    Blaspheme with vigor today! (If you’re clever, all the better)

  • swizzlenuts

    I’m on the fence. I agree with Hemant in most of his points, but shouldn’t we also ridicule the ridiculous? Wearing a shirt like Jesus is a Cunt is more about offending someone, but doesn’t it also stand as a conversation starter?

    I also disagree that blasphemy can be border line hate speech. Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

  • suzanna

    maybe i missed the point, but this day is not to promote free-thinking even. it’s to promote freedom of speech (even when it comes to criticizing religion) and to oppose laws that inhibit this. hence why it wouldn’t be awful to wear very offensive shirts, as really, i’m fighting that fight for people of religion as well as my fellow people of no belief. if you get to tell me i’m going to hell for not accepting your christ, that’s just as offensive as me calling jesus a cunt. which he was. happy blasphemy day!

  • J. Allen

    I have to disagree. Once you start talking about what is appropriate blasphemy, you miss the point completely.

  • Justin

    Happy Blasphemy Day, everyone! I have never commented here before, even though I visit this site multiple times every day. I wrote something in celebration of Blasphemy Day, but I couldn’t keep it under 20 words to submit to the contest. I was originally going to make a YouTube video of it, but I didn’t want to join to upload just one video. I’m not one to join many online groups. So I was hoping to see what you all think of it, and maybe one of you could do something with it. It was actually inspired by a TV commercial for a gastric bypass procedure. Weird. I’ll put it in a seperate comment, because it’s fairly long. So now I pre-emptively apologize for the double-post.

  • Pissing people off is just pissing people off, but blasphemy is when someone so dislikes something you said about their unjustifiable beliefs that they want you to stop talking. It’s about political correctness at it’s worst. Blasphemy isn’t a crime you intentionally commit, it’s a charge made against you by others for not agreeing with them.

    Being a jerk about it JUST to be a jerk is, well, being a jerk. BUT…

    Pointing out another’s failure in logic and reasoning to advance progress is morally right yet might be considered blasphemy by some. I say, too damn bad!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way?

    Uh…. has Paul Kurtz ever been to a fire and brimstone church? This is pretty much a regular occurrence.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Hemant Mehta says: “Speech should be free! Absolutely free! Unless it offends someone. Can’t have that. But other than that, people should be free to say whatever they want.”

    That I should be free to say whatever I feel like saying is a sufficient point.

  • Revyloution

    Im sticking the picture of Thor with the text

    “Christianity, Your God was nailed to a cross, this god has a hammer. Any questions?”
    on the back window of my car today. Below it is a second note saying
    “Celebrate International Blasphemy Day’

    By declaring actions I take against their deity to be personally offensive, they go beyond a personal relationship with him/it/they. That goes into the territory of dictating my actions. Blasphemy laws aren’t about protecting the delicate sensibilities of believers, its about controlling the actions of non-believers.

  • suzanna

    Hemant Mehta says: “Speech should be free! Absolutely free! Unless it offends someone. Can’t have that. But other than that, people should be free to say whatever they want.”

    have to kind of agree here
    but at least you have us commenters to keep you on yours toes, right? 🙂

  • Meg McG

    whats with the half-naked lady ad? And the dianetics ad? (banner ad, top of the page) You need to work on that one. I get it that it’s a feed but these are ridiculous.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Pissing off religious people is just plain fun! Also, I’d like to think atheists are thicker-skinned than religious people, or at least that I am. So if they (religious folks) try to piss me off intentionally, I’d try to just ignore it.

    I turn once again to my favorite Mencken quotation:

    Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructive criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians—and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

    H.L. Mencken, in The American Mercury, January, 1924

    In other words, keep on throwing the dead cats everyone!

  • Aj

    No one has a right not to be offended. Everybody has the right to be offensive. If you want to piss people off, you should be able to as long as you respect people’s rights. The only reason why this is such a problem is because people haven’t been pissing off religious people enough, building up their tolerance for it.

    When someone uses the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” and compares anti-Christian cartoons to anti-Semite cartoons of the Nazis then they’re being hypocritical and hyperbolic, and can fuck off. No one should talk about civilized discourse in pluralistic society while spouting such shit against atheists. Apparantly there’s one rule for Paul Kurtz and another for everyone else.

  • Erp

    A while back I did some hunting on the last legal cases of blasphemy in the US. The last conviction was in 1969 and strictly speaking was profanity not blasphemy (in Maryland a driver cussing out the cop who stopped him so the lay magistrate gave him 30 days). It was overturned on appeal. At the same time two high school seniors in Delaware were arrested (and jailed since they could not make bail) for printing in their unofficial newspaper that Jesus was born a bastard (which is actually accurate given the legal definition of bastard and what the Bible says about his parents). They were released after the ACLU intervened and later charges were dropped.

    The last people apparently charged with blasphemy in the US were two store owners in Pittsburgh in 1971 who put up posters with a drawing of Jesus that stated “Reward for information leading to the apprehension of —Jesus Christ Wanted — for Sedition, Criminal Anarchy – Vagrancy, and Conspiring to Overthrow the Established Government. Dresses poorly, said to be a carpenter by trade, ill-nourished, has visionary ideas, associates with common working people the unemployed and bums. Alien – beleived to be a Jew. Alias: ‘Prince of Peace, Son of Mon’-‘Light of the World’ etc etc. Professional Agitator Red beard, marks on hands and feet the result of injuries inflicted by an angry mob led by respectable citizens and legal authorities.” Charges were dropped before trial.

    Further information and a picture of the image I think was used on the poster

    It is perfectly possible to blaspheme without having the primary aim to offend (though offense might be a result).

  • DSimon

    It’s true that nobody has a right not to be offended, but I don’t think that’s what Hemant was saying.

    Without a good reason, you’re not showing the general public that we ought to take advantage of our right to free speech. You’re only showing them you’re a jerk.

    Everyone SHOULD have the right to say whatever blasphemous or offensive thing they want. Hemant is just advising that we not piss people off unless we’ve got a good reason to do so, and that “because it’s fun” or “because they pissed me off first” aren’t good enough reasons on their own.

    I’d be the first guy blaspheming in public the moment it became illegal to do so, because it would serve the purpose of fighting an unjust law. Wandering around with a “Fuck Jesus” t-shirt right now though is just downright counterproductive, and also pointlessly rude.

  • DSimon

    Also, I kind of like the “Jesus Does His Nails” painting. It’s poignant; the expression on his face seems to show him as a character trying to be serene even while being resigned to doing something terrible to himself. I wouldn’t hang it on my wall or anything, but it’s not bad.

  • Hemant Mehta says: “Speech should be free! Absolutely free! Unless it offends someone. Can’t have that. But other than that, people should be free to say whatever they want.”

    DSimon had it right. I’m not saying we should censor people. For example, when PZ desecrated the cracker, that was blasphemy of sorts. But he was making a point about religious symbols and how the rest of us don’t have to follow suit and treat them as something they’re not. I support what he did.

    On the other hand, if I see a guy on the street wearing a “Fuck Jesus” shirt, my first thought is not “Good for him! He’s using his right to free speech! Yay for blasphemy!”

    My first thought is: “That guy’s a dick.”



  • saltdeezy

    So we should be sensitive to religious people’s feelings, and try not to piss them off… while they think its ok for them to BELIEVE that we atheists aren’t fully HUMAN???? Screw that, i say be as offensive as you can to these sky daddy believers.

  • I dislike religious speech even when it is done to annoy for the same reason I dislike swearing. They are empty of content and often upset people for no good reason.

  • Aj said:

    No one has a right not to be offended. Everybody has the right to be offensive. If you want to piss people off, you should be able to as long as you respect people’s rights.

    Sure. If you don’t mind being a dick. There’s a difference between having a point and being a dick. If you’re doing it just to piss people off, you’re being a dick. And while it may not be illegal and people don’t have a right not to be offended, you’ll soon find yourself a social outcast. Being a dick tends to go against the idea of being respectable. You aren’t doing yourself any favors if you’re just being a dick.

    And Hemant, I promise I typed this before seeing your similar comment.

  • Peregrine

    My religious friends are pretty cool, for the most part, and I like them too much to deliberately offend them. And I apparently have a severe shortage of religious enemies (currently accepting applications; serious inquiries only.) So I won’t be participating in blasphemy day this year.

  • Aj

    Some people feel the need to express themselves in this way. I have more sense and understanding of the human experience to understand and allow it without whining. Are you people telling me you’ve never wanted to rebel for no good reason? Without a cause so to speak.

    If Hemant’s point was that if you do something to piss people off you’ll be considered a dick by some people then well duh. I see plenty of t-shirts and think to myself “diiiiiiiick”. I don’t think many people are bothered if some people think they’re a dick, especially if they’re the type of people to get offended about that Jesus painting.

    Pissing off establishment and the people who define what is respectable is a good enough reason for me. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. They’re really drawing fire away from the people who have important things to say, excess breeds progress. If anything these people are making Hemant look better in the eyes of the easily offended.

  • Siamang

    National Blasphemy Day: National Free Pass to be a Dick Day.

    That’s probably true. There’s probably some dicks that will use this day to get off on being a dick.

    You know what?

    Some of the people who changed the world were dicks. Jesus was kind of a dick, going into the temple and being a dick, and turning over the tables of the money changers, and using their whips against them. Talk about a dude who threw a dead cat in the sanctuary!

    Now, I wouldn’t do that myself.

    But anyway, my point is this: free speech gets tested by dicks, and not by polite people.

    Besides, ‘Blasphemy’ is an unequal offense. If I am not allowed by Blasphemy to make a point about Jesus being a dick, then I’ll stop making that point… but ONLY IF religion can agree on what things about atheism that they will demur from criticizing.

    But of course, these calls for “don’t talk that way about what I believe” only go one way. We learned that lesson on the super-long thread about that HBO series showing some internal Mormon temple ritual. We got dozens and dozens of LDS members posting here asking us to somehow stop HBO from airing the show, or asking for our support. But none of them would respond to my request for a quid-pro-quo concession from them that none of them would ever portray some hypothetical ritual done in Atheist Club.

    They ask for respect that they don’t even consider or even DISCUSS extending to us. Which means they do not value it as a general principle.

    So I’ll say that respect for the religious freedom of others is different from blasphemy. We can reciprocate our calls for people to respect our freedom to believe or not believe, as a general principal.

    But I’m actually FOR religious people to attack any ideas within atheist thought or writings. Even using vulgarities. If some Christian wants to say “fuck Richard Dawkins with Charles Darwin’s moldering corpse”, I’ll say, whatever! But I won’t stomp my feet and demand that they stop offending me!

  • ChrisZ

    Hemant, this is a pretty boring post. Your position seems to be “don’t be rude.” I’m not pro-rudeness or anything, but does your position really have anything to do with blasphemy? It seems to me like you just don’t like it when people are rude for no good reason. Of course, there are very few people who actually think that you should be rude for no good reason.

    Now, I think where the real disagreement is is that you think blaspheming just to be offensive is not a good reason, and some people think it is. Maybe it just makes the blasphemer feel good and empowered. Maybe they think that offending people’s religious beliefs is a good way to show the absurdity of some of those beliefs. Maybe they just want to do something anti-religion because it imposes on them all the time, and I think we can agree that blaspheming is a pretty mild anti-religion act.

    I’m not really sure what my point here is, I just think that maybe you shouldn’t get so bothered by rudeness. Yes, it’s rude, but then again, it’s just rude.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    How about those Founding Fathers? Now there was an impressive collection of dicks.

  • quixotic

    I agree completely with ChrisZ above me. I have nothing further to add.

  • Alan E.

    I celebrate it every day. Whenever someone tells me “Bless you” when I sneeze, I politely say “No thank you” or “that’s not necessary” and go back to what I was working on. I don’t even give them time to respond. They didn’t ask me before they tried bestowing blasphemous (to an atheist), and ridiculous blessings that:
    1)have no effect
    2)have no meaning in today’s culture anymore
    3)cause no changes to my physiology

  • Eric

    No, blaspheming in order to piss off the religious is a very good reason. It shocks them, it shocks them into realizing that maybe people don’t respect their misguided worldview. It shows them that we don’t care what their religion says is holy and sacred. It shows them that atheists exist and that we are not afraid to be atheists. They don’t respect us, I will not respect them. After all, these are the same people who think my existence is a sin. I refuse to play nice.

  • Tony

    I’m with Hemant. The popular image of atheists is that of a rebellious adolescent (whether grown up or not) motivated by causing outrage and that I think is something that the Atheist Bus campaign and various secular organisations are attempting to dispel. Atheists are people with jobs and family, lifes and loves, just the same as Johnny Christian. The difference is a matter of personal belief or lack thereof, and that is all.

    Adopting an attitude of superiority because “you believe in a stupid sky-daddy” does nothing but foster ill-feeling. It shouldn’t be a battle and it shouldn’t be a war, it should be dignified. I subscribe to the Atheist commandments:

    1. Don’t be an asshole.
    2. See rule 1.

    A friend of mine went to a Blasphemy Day thing at Golden Griddle. I was invited but declined as I don’t see the point of confirming the religious stereotype of atheists as angry brats.

  • Matthew Shepherd here from Louisiana State University.

    I can say that the AHA @ LSU Blasphemy Day event went off much better than I anticipated originally. Less than half the Christian groups–maybe ten or so–and one Muslim group showed up to protest our protest, and excepting one group of angry and loud fundamentalist Christians we spent roughly four hours in reasoned debate over free speech, morals, and other “big questions”.

    Overall everyone was respectful, though I don’t think we got through to a few people that it’s not a god-given right that we’re able to say what we want and not have someone try and lop your head off. In fact I had several come up and insist that it was wrong to say anything against their chosen monotheistic deity.

    Days like this are needed.

  • Staceyjw

    #41- It doesn’t matter what atheists act like, we will be viewed as angry adolecent rebels (at best), sub-human devil spawn (at worst)

    We may be a diverse group of average citizens, but we aren’t going to disprove any stereotypes with our actions, no matter how virtuous.

    Personally,I like the idea of “blasphemy day.” There’s no reason for it to even be part of our language anymore, its so outdated and silly.The only proper tone when discussing it is mockery.

    I also want to say that not every action requires a well concieved point in order to be worth doing. Its OK to be an asshole sometimes, esp when it comes to religion and other nonsense topics.


  • AxeGrrl

    Revyloution wrote:

    By declaring actions I take against their deity to be personally offensive, they go beyond a personal relationship with him/it/they. That goes into the territory of dictating my actions. Blasphemy laws aren’t about protecting the delicate sensibilities of believers, its about controlling the actions of non-believers.


  • Tony

    I agree and I utterly oppose any legal restriction of free speech, especially if it is religiously motivated. I just don’t think that here in Canada we have such prohibitions so it is unnecessary to try winding people up by deliberately setting out to ridicule their god. In Ireland with those ridiculous blasphemy laws it’s a different matter. In specific instances (such as the threats and furore surrounding the infamous Muslim cartoons) it is necessary.

    I just don’t like turning it into some sort of celebration.

  • Why do people wear intentionally sexually provocative outfits in Gay Pride parades?

    As long as it is not acceptable to criticize religion in polite company, I see no problem in having a day set aside to engage in the most blatant, over-the-top criticism (yes, even unfair and ridiculous criticism) of religion.

    Why am I doing it? Because many people want me to feel ashamed about my opinions on religion, and I don’t think I should have to feel ashamed. Yesterday was a day to express my opinion on religion as loudly, as proudly, and as brashly as I want.

  • jim

    When people complain about atheists insulting religion ‘for no good reason’, what exactly do they mean? Yes, perhaps when I say ‘Fuck Jesus’, it’s meant only to piss people off. Or perhaps it’s something more, like doing my small part to demean these ancient dogmas that still hold so much sway in the world, so that some day most intelligent people will consider them a joke, and a waste of time.

    Or…maybe it’s both. Who’s to say?

  • muggle

    Why the fuck do I need a good reason to blaspheme? Give me one good reason not to.

    Fuck God. Fuck Jesus and the high horse he rode in on.

    And fuck Paul Kurtz too and the high horse he rode in on. He’s nothing but a holier than thou snob.

  • steve

    muggle Says:

    Why the fuck do I need a good reason to blaspheme? Give me one good reason not to.

    Fuck God. Fuck Jesus and the high horse he rode in on.

    And fuck Paul Kurtz too and the high horse he rode in on. He’s nothing but a holier than thou snob.*


    Yes this from an 8th grade educated angry single 30 year old living in his mom’s basement who would suck richard dawkins cock if given the chance. Fuck atheism and the idiots who subcribe to it.

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