UPDATE JANUARY 13, 2015: Here’s my post about the controversies swirling around Charlie Hebdo in the last 6 days since the massacre: Answering 16 of the Worst #JeSuisCharlie #CharlieHebdo Memes
Ten journalists at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris were assassinated this morning. Two policemen were also killed and about twenty people were wounded. The perpetrators are apparently Muslim extremists. In this video you can hear a man shouting, “on a vengé le prophète Mohammed” and “on a tué Charlie Hebdo” (“we avenged Prophet Mohammed” and “we killed Charlie Hebdo.”) Charlie Hebdo (which in English translates to “Charlie Weekly”) is a French weekly satirical magazine that has long been harassed (both with lawsuits and a firebombing,) by Muslims for making Islam and Mohammed the targets of its jokes.
The Guardian reports:
In November 2011, the magazine’s offices were fire-bombed after it published a special edition, supposedly guest-edited by the prophet Muhammad and temporarily renamed “Charia Hebdo”. The cover was a cartoon of Muhammad threatening the readers with “a hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing”.
The petrol bomb attack completely destroyed the Paris offices, the magazine’s website was hacked and staff were subjected to death threats. But that did not deter the magazine, whose editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, has received death threats and lives under police protection.
Six days later, the magazine published a front page depicting a male Charlie Hebdo cartoonist passionately kissing a bearded Muslim man in front of the charred aftermath of the bombing. The headline was: L’Amour plus fort que la haine (Love is stronger than hate).
Less than a year later, the magazine published more cartoons of Muhammad, including images of him naked and a cover showing him being pushed along in a wheelchair by an Orthodox Jew. The French government had appealed to the editors not to go ahead with publication, and shut down embassies, cultural centres and schools in 20 countries out of fear of reprisals when they went ahead anyway.
The magazine, which was founded in 1970, has insisted in the past that its goal has never been to provoke anger or violence.
“The aim is to laugh,” Charlie Hebdo journalist Laurent Leger told BFM-TV in 2012. “We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.”
“You don’t throw bombs, you discuss, you debate. But you don’t act violently. We have to stand and resist pressure from extremism.”
Hopefully people will remember that the rights of the critics of religion, however crass and offensive the content or manner of there expression is, must be as sacrosanct as the rights of the religious, however crass and offensive the content or manner of their expression is.
Hopefully we won’t hear any victim blaming of these murder victims.
Hopefully, the murders by Islamic extremists won’t lead to any retaliatory violence or bigotry against ordinary Muslims.
Below, in solidarity with the brave martyrs who died for defiantly exercising their human rights to freedom of expression, freedom of political opinion, and freedom to blaspheme, I am reproducing (with only minor modifications), a large portion of my defense of politically defiant acts of blasphemy that I published on Blasphemy Day 2009, interspersed with a mix of crude Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirizing the major Western monotheisms, each with caricatures of religious figures:
It is in the following spirit that I am for blasphemy. Our revering hearts are obstacles to truth. They are barriers to necessary criticism. And far worse than just falling under the spell of a great mind for a season is worshipping a man, a god, a tradition, a phrase, a symbol—an anything. Worship is inherently unhealthy. It’s a dangerous lack of restraint in one’s allegiances and affections. It’s a surrender of one’s critical faculties. And reverence which reaches that point deserves challenge. It may be unpleasant to those challenged, but if one is to engage the ideas of those who worship, one must challenge their revering wills. Bowing deferently to their altars may be politeness and civility when a guest in their houses of worship, but in the public sphere and in the contests of ideas one’s refusal to bow can serve a constructive purpose of demonstrating your defiance of what some of the religious want to consider holy over all else.
And Christianity and Islam, by their natures, have strong tendencies to want to spread their attitudes about what is to be taken as holy everywhere. And when we are too cautious about never incurring on their boundaries of sacredness, we de facto acknowledge a sacredness. We too treat what they insist is to be “set apart” as though it really is worth being “set apart” when we defer and agree never to treat it disrespectfully as we would any other merely human attachment.
There’s no point in being deliberately rude and obnoxious. You’re never going to see me flout the Catholic church by addressing a priest with whom I’m not on a first name basis as anything but Father. Because whatever my philosophical and moral disagreements, it’s a simple matter of respect for a different tradition. Insofar as religion is about more than people’s beliefs but also their cultures, we should be respectful of people’s places in their traditions as we are of the leaders of foreign countries. And we should respect people’s morally harmless religious rituals the way we respect a foreign culture’s customs which diverge from our own. We should also challenge their abuses of rituals to harm others in morally bad ways and we should heap scorn and ethical challenge on outright immoral rituals and traditions. And we should disagree vigorously with bad ideas and give them no special respect for just being traditional religious beliefs.
So these are where I think the boundaries should be drawn. Respecting morally indifferent rituals, traditions, titles, etc., are all matters of respecting cultures. Challenging morally questionable rituals, traditions, titles, etc. is a matter of exercising our own moral conscience and our right to make moral arguments in a community of open discourse about moral issues. Challenging philosophically questionable ideas is a matter of exercising our intellectual conscience and advocating on behalf of the truth as best we can judge it.
Where does blasphemy come in as any good in light of these considerations? When religions agitate to try to silence all moral and intellectual criticisms of their practices. Religions need to be adamantly and unqualifiedly denied such a desire. They have no entitlement to demand others treat their teachings as irreproachable. Their leaders and their traditions are not beyond criticism from outside. They are not entitled to any special rights outside the confines of their tradition which confers such rights on them for voluntary community members. They are not morally entitled to threaten or use violence to protest vigorous intellectual, moral, and political challenge. They are not morally entitled to write laws that take away our rights to be rude to each other. Should we be obnoxious and insult people’s reverences capriciously? Ethically no. But politically this should be as inalienable a right as people’s rights to have such reverences. You must have the right to worship whomever you want and I must have the right to laugh at you in whatever manner I want. That’s the deal. That’s fairness.
And so Blasphemy Day is an assertion of that right. That right of the secularists to insist that our freedom of private expression of our disbelief and/or disdain for superstition and irrational traditionalism is as inviolable as your right to have fantastic, unverifiable beliefs. Both rights end when they threaten to eradicate each other. Both rights end should they involve violence (or palpably harm children—I’m looking at you child-killing faith “healers”). Both rights end when people try to co-opt state apparatuses to enforce either public belief or private disbelief.
And since there is a disquieting tendency throughout the world to start to protect religious people from criticism or to defer to religious threats of violence as respectable and worth honoring, it is important that secularists stand up explicitly for our right to do things that religious people do not like. Usually it should not come to gratuitous blasphemy. But if even our morally, politically, and intellectually defensible arguments will be met with threats of violence as “blasphemy” then we must assert our rights not only to such reasonable discourse but even to legitimate instances of blasphemy. We cannot back down and promise only to criticize moderately and politely if we are being bullied when we are trying to be rational with irrational, violent people. The very notion that they can restrict our speech is an affront to our rights of free expression and to disbelief.
And so actual blasphemy which would be rude and gratuitous normally becomes an important, politically symbolic, gesture of our right to offend in general. Normally I for one have no intention of offending anyone. I am in the rational persuasion business. I’d happily never offend anyone. But I am willing to run the risk that people will be offended by strong opinions presented with rhetorical force. And when that happens, it’s not my fault. Affirming this right to offend by accident most clearly involves affirming the right to offend even deliberately. It’s affirming offense itself as politically legitimate speech.
And, of course, normally non-aggressive sacrilege and good humored mockery are important means for helping break the spell of the instinct to worship and to help people start to see their overhyped religious leaders as “dear old Frank” [in the case of the Pope] or “dear old Mo” [in the case of Mohammed] the way that, much as I love him, Nietzsche has to be “dear old Fred” to me.
So, for these reasons, while I do not endorse gratuitous blasphemy and while technically blasphemy is a victimless crime since there is no God to actually offend, I support respecting people’s traditions and reverences as part of how they construct their identities. I do not support respecting them as ideas and practices insofar as they are bad ideas or practices deserving refutation. In the battle of ideas we should not give them any special deference they do not earn through argument. But we should be respectful insofar as they are indifferent parts of people’s habits and customs. The only, but nonetheless vital, reasons to go out of our way to deliberately offend such rituals and customs and sacred figures are to assert our rights not to treat them as holy and set apart, our rights to offend whether accidentally or on purpose, and our rights to criticize religious ideas and institutions as vigorously as we may any other ideas or institutions.
Blasphemy Day is worthy of being deemed a holiday if you believe that free speech is sacred. Blasphemy and dissent against governmental authority are the two most quintessential acts of free speech available to us since it is religious and political authorities alone from whom anyone has ever had to worry about coercion against the right of free speech. So if we believe that ultimately nothing is sacred except free speech itself then the only true holy day on the calendar is the day in which you celebrate free speech itself by exercising it in defiance of those forces of authoritarianism who blaspheme against freedom by inventing the concept of a blasphemy in the first place.
And here’s more on why non-believers should not accommodate religious to the point of treating as venerable what we do not actually venerate, against our own consciences:
The key problem to me with deferring to religious sensibilities when you don’t share them is that you wind up treating as holy (i.e., separate, special, inviolable) what they want to be holy. Their religion says, “no one may ever draw this or say that or take a position like that” and then when you go out of your way to not draw this, say that, or take a position like that, you are in practice acknowledging and deferring to that religion’s ability to dictate what you do and what thoughts you will express. You then are effectively treating and thinking of what they call “holy” as, well, holy—things which it would be wrong of you to ever challenge or treat with anything less than utter respect and deference.
Religions should not be able to dictate this much from people who aren’t their adherents.
We activist atheists who challenge faith-based religion (sometimes angrily) are not the average atheist. There are countless atheist academics and journalists who recoil at the thought of publishing aggressively against the pieties of others. For the extremely high rates of atheism in academia, how paltry few take any thing like a public atheist’s role?
And I know that even as an outspoken, well-known village atheist in the circles I travel in I feel the pressure to be polite and to not offend is great on me too. And all the scoldings we outspoken atheists get from other atheists should indicate that the last thing the average atheist wants is to offend. He or she, quite often, would rather treat religion’s taboos as his or her own than do that.
And that is part of why we passionate activist atheists are so adamant. It is just as much to instill pride in our fellow atheists as it is to call our religious friends’ to higher standards of belief. It is also why I can sympathize with some of the anger atheists express, even when they clearly go overboard in venting and deserve criticism.
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