A Re-Objection to Blasphemy Day October 2, 2009

A Re-Objection to Blasphemy Day

After some back and forth between himself and Center For Inquiry CEO Ron Lindsay, Paul Kurtz is reasserting his objection to Blasphemy Day (emphasis mine):

My objection to Blasphemy Day is that it can be rather sophomoric; particularly the holding of a contest to see who come up with the most pithy forms of blasphemy. I have consistently said that if we are to be taken seriously, we need to provide the best scholarly and scientific examination of claims. I have also forthrightly defended “the right to blaspheme;” but there are different ways of doing this, and I submit that poking fun at ones opponents is counterproductive. I do not think that “in your face” atheism will get us very far. I have defended the right of the Danish newspaper to publish cartoons critical of Muslim suicide bombers, and I am not unilaterally opposed to the use of cartoons, particularly where there is a political or social point that needs to be made. But this is different from purposely seeking to blaspheme to gain public notoriety.

This is similar to what I said before. You want to respect people even if you don’t respect their beliefs. And to that end, I do believe there are ways of blaspheming that are counterproductive. It’s not a censorship issue — you can say whatever you’d like — but I do believe there are some thoughts that backfire when uttered.

I don’t agree with everything Kurtz says, though. Once again — and on purpose this time — he brings up the “atheist fundamentalists”:

In my view, the main failure of “atheist fundamentalists” — and they do exist — is that they often are so eager to criticize theistic religions that they ignore the need to develop a genuine moral compass and the principles of personal morality.

There are indeed two different visions of the Center for Inquiry: The first insists that there ain’t no God. And that people who believe in him are foolish. The second agrees that there is insufficient evidence for God, but that humans have the opportunity to realize the fullness of life for themselves and society. The second vision is affirmative and constructive in scope, and has proven enormously successful thus far. It would be a tragedy of monumental proportions to abandon it now.

But why is it one or the other?

You can criticize religious beliefs while still affirming your own personal morality. Just because some people get off on cutting religious people down to size doesn’t mean everyone criticizes them maliciously.

And many of us — myself included — do buy into Kurtz’s second vision, while at the same time, thinking there is foolishness in religious thought.

I’m pretty sure the current administration of the Center For Inquiry feels the same way. Yes, they tried to drum up some publicity with a not-so-friendly idea (I’m thinking of the Blasphemy Contest, not Blasphemy Day itself), but they’re usually doing very positive things in defense of critical thinking and scientific inquiry. Kurtz knows that, he helped pioneer it. To attack his own organization for a misstep or two seems counterproductive.

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  • schism

    You want to respect people even if you don’t respect their beliefs.

    I disagree. You want to respect a person’s right to believe differently than you, even if you don’t respect the beliefs themselves and if you think said beliefs make them a less-than-moral person (theocrats, misogynists, racists, Holocaust deniers, etc.).

  • benjdm

    I took blasphemy day as a fun thing, not limited to any particular ‘dogma’ and not necessarily limited to truthful blasphemy. Like:

    Spaghetti is good, but other foods taste better.

    Yoda was a mediocre Jedi.

    Eric Clapton is all thumbs.


  • cyn

    I find the whole Blasphemy Day thing rather pointless. Why blaspheme against something you don’t believe in?

  • Tim Stroud

    “they tried to drum up some publicity with a not-so-friendly idea”

    Ridicule your opponent. Make them a laughingstock and shame them into coming over to your side. It works everytime.

    “To attack his own organization for a misstep or two seems counterproductive”

    Yes, he should just keep his mouth shut and let it continue. Silence does not imply consent.

  • Polly

    You want to respect people even if you don’t respect their beliefs.

    Yeaaaah…you know what? Not always.
    Sometimes, just once in a while maybe even just Oh-I-dunno once a year, I really don’t give a flying monkey-fuck about respecting people. And that’s O-K-A-Y.

  • Paul

    I think Blasphemy Day as a specific activity draws respectability by having something to protest against. In the UK we have no blasphemy laws (any more), so by purposefully blaspheming because the calendar says I should, rather than because of a need to say something that others might find blasphemous, makes a nonsense of what I’m saying.

    On the other hand, if I lived in Eire I would happily and repeatedly blaspheme, however disrespectful it might appear, as a form of civil disobedience. In such a case the fact that it’s Blasphemy Day is a specific reason to do it.

  • I DO respect people, that respect does not extend to coddling their beliefs. Ridicule and satire has a long history in criticizing belief, Mark Twain was the master of this.

  • Richard Prins

    I have to say I tend to come down on Kurtz’ side as well. It strikes me as a somewhat juvenile effort (that plays into the hands of critics).

    I have no problem with (using) blasphemy or with others using it, when needed. Or with being disrespectful for that matter.

    As for the final sentence in Mehta’s piece. Yes, imagine disagreeing with your own organization! How dare he! All noses should be lined up in the exact same way!

    Atheism is by necessity a limited viewpoint (w.r.t. a belief in gods), despite efforts to conflate it with other (philosophical/world) views, including humanism.

    To turn it into something else, and still call it atheism, runs the risk of it being called a religion as well (as so many already tend to do).

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Kurtz: “My objection to Blasphemy Day is that it can be rather sophomoric…

    Sorry, but when you start throwing around nonsense phrases like “fundamentalist atheists,” it cuts into your ability to label someone else as sophomoric. Grow up, Kurtz.

  • I think humor and blasphemy are important. It is not meant to convert those who are in power, but those who are under their thumbs. If an organization or person tries to gain power or to hold onto power by the use of force or fear, then satire and blasphemy are an incredibly effective tools. It shows people that they do not need to be afraid. It will offend and maybe even push away core supporters of what is being ridiculed, but it chips away at the edges.

    Also by saying that there are certain things that are off limits, you are in effect giving them more power. No people or ideas should be shielded from criticism.

    FSM and Eve

  • Miko

    You want to respect people even if you don’t respect their beliefs.

    Blasphemy attacks the belief, not the person. When I saw Comfort and Cameron claiming that bananas disproved evolution, I wasn’t in the least bit offended; I just laughed at them. If people become offended when their beliefs are challenged, that’s they’re problem, not ours.

    To attack his own organization for a misstep or two seems counterproductive.

    On the contrary, if he thinks that they made a misstep, this is exactly what he should be doing. We need a multitude of viewpoints in order to find the good ones. No one should refrain from making criticisms just because their target does some good things too.

  • Fundamentalist atheists? What are the “fundamentals” of atheism? I can only think of one thing all atheists have in common. Do we have a creed?

  • capt’n john

    One of the worst blasphemies that I have heard of occurred here in Nova Scotia on September 30.
    The story taken from the pages of the Halifax Chronicle Herald is reproduced here:
    Accused Nova Scotia bishop released on bail

    By Richard Foot, Canwest News ServiceOctober 1, 2009

    * Story
    * Video ( 1 )

    The former Roman Catholic bishop of Antigonish, N.S., ended his brief turn as a fugitive Thursday, handing himself over to police in Ottawa.

    Raymond Lahey, 69, walked grimly and silently through a crowd of reporters and photographers into the police station, where he was fingerprinted and interrogated by investigators for the first time.

    Once hailed as a brave advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse, Lahey faces one count of possession and one count of importation of child pornography, after the discovery of images on his laptop computer at Ottawa’s airport while he was returning from a foreign visit on Sept. 15.

    He was released on bail later Thursday.

    Lahey resigned suddenly and mysteriously from his post on Saturday after charges were filed against him, but not made public, the previous day. He then disappeared from his home in Antigonish, prompting police to issue a warrant for his arrest.

    Neither his neighbours, nor staff and clergy in the Diocese of Antigonish, said they knew where he was.

    On Thursday afternoon, he was escorted into police headquarters in Ottawa by his lawyer, Michael Edelson.

    Lahey offered no comment, and Edelson told the group of reporters and cameramen waiting outside to clear the way as the two went through the crowd.

    Lahey is well known in Nova Scotia as the bishop who did what no previous Catholic leader had done before: accept responsibility and apologize — without any resort to litigation — for the sex-abuse crimes of a former priest in his diocese.

    The victims of that abuse, dating back to the 1950s, are now eligible for compensation from a $15-million out-of-court settlement Lahey negotiated earlier this year.

    Lahey was in the midst of a difficult fundraising effort across his diocese to generate money for the settlement, when he was pulled aside by Canada Border Services agents for a random check of his laptop at Ottawa International Airport on Sept. 15.

    Det. Dan Melchiorre, the lead investigator on the case and a member of the Ottawa Police High Tech Crimes Unit, says Lahey was not known to the Ottawa Police, or a target of its ongoing, anti-child porn program, before his arrival at the airport. Rather, he says Lahey “triggered” the interest of airport security agents who then conducted a secondary search of his computer.

    Melchiorre won’t say what those specific triggers were.

    He says authorities seized Lahey’s laptop, which allegedly contained images of child pornography — plus a number of thumb drives, which are small, portable plug-in devices that store digital pictures and information.

    Melchiorre says forensic investigators haven’t yet examined all of Lahey’s seized devices, and that information from them may result in changes, or additions, to the two criminal charges Lahey currently faces.

    “Nothing is ruled out,” he says. “These types of investigations can reveal a number of things. We’re looking at all kinds of different avenues, with regards to how the images got (onto Lahey’s computer drives), and where they went.”

    RCMP in Nova Scotia said no warrants have been issued for a search of Lahey’s home.

    At a news conference in Sydney, N.S., Anthony Mancini, the Archbishop of Halifax, declined to make specific comments about Lahey’s case, but instead offered his pastoral support to members of the church in Cape Breton and northern Nova Scotia.

    Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a separate statement Thursday, saying he was “shocked and saddened by the accusations” against Lahey.

    “I share with all Canadians, particularly my Catholic brothers and sisters, a profound understanding of the importance of such serious charges being fully and carefully investigated by the appropriate legal authorities.”

    Lahey was to be released on $9,000 bail by 5 p.m. local time Thursday. His next court appearance is Nov. 4 in Ottawa.

    The judge imposed strict restrictions on Lahey, who will be living at a residence on Rogersville, N.B., until his next court date. Among the bail conditions, Lahey is not permitted to visit parks or public libraries, be in the company of children or youth under the age of 18 unless a parent is present, cannot possess a computer or encryption devices, access the Internet, use a webcam or visit computer stores.

    The residence he is staying at in New Brunswick was described as a “large residence” where Internet access is available.

  • selfification

    I tolerate because its needed to run a society. Respect… that must be earned.

  • penn

    I saw the whole point of Blasphemy Day was that the idea of blasphemy is in and of itself ridiculous. In a sane world there would be no such thing as blasphemy.

    I agree that we shouldn’t say things just to offend. But, we should always advocate for a world where no ideas or beliefs are considered sacred.

  • jtradke

    Hemant – in neither of these posts have I been able to discern what your contention is. Yes, people will be rude on Blasphemy Day. People are going egg houses on Halloween; should we just call it off then?

    Rudeness is orthogonal to blasphemy. If it was called Tell Theists They’re Stupid Day, then you’d have a point. But blasphemy is not necessarily the same as poking fun at theists.

  • medussa

    Missing in this entire discussion is the awareness that it takes a lot of different types of protest to change society.
    Kurtz seems to imply there’s a right way, or maybe 2 right ways to further the agenda of reasserting a rational approach to a secular society, as if those were the only options. Hemant has expressed similar views (I’m thinking of the discussion about street contruction signs being hacked to have an atheist message, and Hemant’s contention that “this makes us look bad), and I strongly disagree.

    Look at abortion rights, women’s rights, civil rights in general: there were the “radicals” who shook everyone up and made the the more “conservative approach” look more reasonable and therefore respectable. But the “radicals” serve to make sure the subject stays on the table and to keep the middle ground from slipping too far to the right (in this particular case)…

    To change the system, you have to work from inside the system, but you also have to have people outside the system to allow for the paradigm itself to be questioned.
    Hemant and Kurtz obviously are inclined to be the reasonable voice of atheism, and that’s great. I know nothing about Kurtz, but Hemant has shown himself to be articulate, smart and more than capable of representing that side of atheism. But to deny that it also takes an angry voice, a more sarcastic and in your face approach, is to deny that we have reason to be angry, is to deny that the daily dose of religious nonsense takes its toll on rational people, that it actively undermines the well-being of other citizens in this country (i.e. subjects like gay marriage, access to abortion or birth control, hell, even the right to have sex with the consenting adult of your choice).

    Personally, I have been the angry voice most of my life, from anti apartheid to abortion rights, to immigration rights, to anti-war protests. As I get older, I feel myself being more inclined to be the reasonable voice, but I hope I never get to the point that I forget that it takes all kinds to change the world, issue by issue.
    I truly believe that something as “sophomoric” (Kurtz, not my choice of words) as Blasphemy Day lets people know how much anger is carried around by those of us constantly bombarded by religious mores, and at the same time makes theists look at Hemant and think “well at least he’s reasonable, we’ll engage with him”.

  • ckitching

    I’d disagree with those who suggest that there’s no point to Blasphemy Day in countries without blasphemy laws. Even in these countries, there are those who are pressuring lawmakers (sometimes directly, sometimes via the UN) to get them to protect their patron deity from criticism. Even if it served no other point than to say, “No, we will not stand for that!”, it’d still be useful. It may also help desensitize people to insults to their beliefs, and help break down the taboo against criticizing ridiculous religious beliefs. I don’t think it’s necessary to “win” people for atheism. There are bigger fish to fry than simply the belief in a god, but I feel that the taboos against religious criticism are some of the primary obstacles in getting to these issues.

    I think there’s a huge difference between thinking someone’s idea is stupid, and thinking that that person is stupid. Both theists and atheists sometimes make this mistake. Atheists sometimes choose to attack believers instead of their beliefs. Unfortunately, many theists seem unable to distinguish between a criticism of their ideas and beliefs and a criticism of themselves (in the most extreme cases, the mere declaration “I don’t believe there is a god” is a grievous personal insult). I will admit, however, that in some cases there are good reasons to use personal attacks against certain believers (I’m thinking specifically about parasites like Intelligent Design and Young Earth proponents, for example).

    To be honest, though, I’ve never understood why people have always felt the need to protect their gods against blasphemy. I don’t know why an omnipotent being should require protection from human words. Then again, reading religious texts full of stories and wars where humans had to bloody their hands doing “God’s work”, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

  • Mike Ashe

    I was in a Church today for a funeral of my wife’s grandmother, and while listening to the pastor talk about how “Christ died for our sins”, I made a cool mental connection to Blasphemy Day. Jesus (if historical man with that name actually existed and was crucified) didn’t die for our sins – he died for Blasphemy! He asserted he was on par with God and was killed for that. He was crucified for Blasphemy. He’d be the first to celebrate with us (but might not like that “Jesus does his nails” painting quite as much as I did!)

  • gwen

    The ability to blaspheme is very important! I should not get arrested for making the comment that I think female genital mutilation is barbaric. Not saying so doesn’t make it less so. I should be able to make a comment about eating pork without being charged with blasphemy. No one has the right not to have their feelings hurt. In your world, my enjoyment of a pork sandwich would be offensive to a vegetarian, but blasphemous to a muslim or jew.

  • ChrisZ

    “blah blah blah . . . gee people being rude really irks me . . . blah blah blah”

  • muggle

    Geeze, what bug crawled up Kurtz’ ass and died? If I wasn’t already familiar with him, the snobbery of that statement in and of itself would surprise me.

    Here’s a thought, how about we just use respect for one another and common sense to evaluate what’s most moral in individual situations we’re faced with. And respect means, what might be right for you, may not be right for some. If you want to help someone, help them. Don’t force your way of life on them.

    This is what turns me off about Secular Humanism. On the surface, they’ve a good idea: morals without God. However, they then start in, like religion, imitating religion even, with stating what your morals should be, must be. As if everything applies in every situation. While for the most part, their list beats the Ten Commandments, it is still self-righteous I-know-better-than-youism.

    On the whole I thought going in that a Blasphemy Day seems pretty silly but reading others’ statements above, I can see the point of it. If Kurtz doesn’t want to participate, no one’s holding a gun to his head and making him.

    Just quietly sitting it out would have been far classier.

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