Three Cheers for Blasphemy Laws!

Today is International Blasphemy Day, inaugurated as a protest against the new Irish blasphemy law, the Muslim furor over cartoons of Muhammad, and every other law or social norm intended to protect religious ideas from criticism. From the Blasphemy Day website:

The last day in September is the anniversary of the original publication of Danish cartoons in 2005 depicting the prophet Muhammad’s face. Any visual depiction of Muhammad is considered a grave offence under Islamic law.

…The newspapers which chose to publish these cartoons were in many cases blamed for the outpouring of violence which followed. This unfortunate yet inevitable sequence of events clearly demonstrated a dangerous misconception that had piggy-backed into the 21st century on the shoulders of ignorance, fear and apathy, that all religious beliefs and ideas deserve respect and are beyond criticism or satire.

International Blasphemy Day is a movement, not just a day, to remind the world that religion should never again be beyond open and honest discussion or reproach. Our future depends on it.

I know the usual thing to be done here is to criticize blasphemy laws as outdated relics of a medieval era, an unjust infringement on free speech, a tactic of power-hungry religious theocrats, etc. I don’t disagree with any of those characterizations, but today, I want to take a different perspective. The way I see it, anti-blasphemy laws, both de jure and de facto, do us atheists and skeptics a favor. Namely, they let us know where to focus our rhetorical fire by pointing out the ideas whose advocates don’t think they can withstand criticism.

As I wrote in “Doubting the Sun“, any idea that was obviously true, or that could be defended by resort to the evidence, wouldn’t have to be protected from criticism. The truth never has anything to fear from even the most searching examination. It’s only ideas that can’t withstand inquiry that need to cower behind a shield of protective laws threatening any who would dare to call them into question.

In the short run, blasphemy laws wreak destructive and unjust consequences on individuals who transgress them, especially the barbaric versions that exist in countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But in the long run, they achieve nothing other than highlighting these religions’ vulnerability. The internet has made it possible for anyone’s speech to be heard in every corner of the world, and despite the inevitable and futile attempts at net censorship, no national government can stifle criticism from skeptics everywhere on the planet. Those who try have handed us a potent weapon, by letting us know which truths they fear the most. (This analysis isn’t just true of religion; it also applies to countries like China that try to censor any information deemed embarrassing or dangerous by their political rulers.)

When Chinese autocrats try to suppress historical facts about the Tienanmen Square massacre or the Tibetan independence movement, that’s how we know those facts should be communicated to people under their control. When Muslim mobs start howling for blood when essays and editorials criticize Islam as a violent and backward religion, we should take that as encouragement to write more of those essays. When Christian fundamentalists demand to remove certain books from libraries – or even demand to burn them! – then we all know what books we should be giving our children and young people to read. And when peddlers of woo and superstition threaten critics with frivolous lawsuits, they let us know exactly what we should be saying to weaken and undermine them.

If these rigid ideologies believe they have something to fear from this information, they’re probably right. That’s why the rest of us should work all the harder to spread that information, to broadcast the truths that they don’t want to be known. In this way, we can accelerate the breakup of every church and every political system that denies humans intellectual freedom. The only ones that will be left standing, in the end, will be those that have nothing to fear from reason and skeptical inquiry.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Maynard

    You are so god damn right!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Well-written, goddamnit.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Damn you as well, Maynard. Damn you.

  • 2-D Man

    Good call.

    In honour of Blasphemy Day, God can go fuck himself.

    He actually can, he’s supposed to be omnipotent, right?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Yep!! love this. Religion is never looks more ridiculous than when it gets its dander up over some petty joke or criticism. Christianity and Islam should take a leaf out of Judaisms book in this respect, at least they can take a joke (and tell a few too).

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    “is never looks”? Oh well you know what I mean.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    It’s only ideas that can’t withstand inquiry that need to cower behind a shield of protective laws threatening any who would dare to call them into question.

    Goddammit! Beaten! I just wrote something yesterday (which I’m now revising) called “Faith needs protection. No joke.” Ah, well. There’s nothing new under the Sun, after all.

    But yes, you did a fine goddamned thing right there. That’s a very good point, these ridiculous laws serve as “magical glowing weak point” hiliter, just like video game bosses.

  • Alex Weaver

    So, in other words, outlawing an opinion or line of criticism as blasphemous is essentially the equivalent of painting a button red and writing “DO NOT PRESS” above it.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I love this too. Everybody blaspheme tonight. Though, you can’t really blaspheme if you know it’s BS, can you?

  • Demonhype

    Push the big red shiny button?

    I’m gonna blaspheme until I fall down! :D

    I wish I’d heard of this before yesterday, or I would have planned better! Well, there’s always next year….

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMFG. Ireland should be ashamed of itself. I was planning on visiting, but now I refuse. The funny thing about the law is the layer upon layer upon layer of inscrutable requirements. The blasphemous language has to be sufficiently insulting (definition?) to any religion (definition?) AND a substantial number of the religion’s adherents (definition?) must be outraged (definition?) as a direct result of the uttered or published blasphemous material. Disgusting. And utterly idiotic. This is the asinine BS that results when you mix morality and the law. But, really, if we stay on the path we’re on in the US, it won’t be long before we see this sort of thing over here too. Ebonmuse is right — everybody publish as much blasphemous material as possible.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    you can’t really blaspheme if you know it’s BS, can you?

    I know what you mean Sarah. Actually in normal conversation I try to avoid it in the same way I try to avoid saying “god willing” or “god knows” although it’s almost a culturally ingrained reflex given some cues. I like for example Ebon’s “for truth’s sake” as an expletive and I sometimes use it to raise eyebrows, but it is always a conscious choice to do so rather than a phrase that trips naturally off the tongue.
    Anyway for my contribution to blasphemy day let me offer the incredibly talented Tim Minchin who, coincidentally I am going to see live on Friday night. Oh Yeah!!

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com Lou Doench

    “you can’t really blaspheme if you know it’s BS, can you?”

    Blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder, or the ear of the behearer I suppose. For instance I can tell Jove to go fuck himself and I doubt anyone will consider it blasphemy since there aren’t many Romans around. If I substitute Jesus for Jove, then I’ve blasphemed.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Now that I know about Blasphemy Day, I’ll have to nark my calendar and celebrate it more heartily next year. For now, I’ll just say, goddamn Ebon, you’re right again!

  • valhar2000

    Jesus Titty-Fucking Christ that was a good post!

  • Alex Weaver

    I know what you mean Sarah. Actually in normal conversation I try to avoid it in the same way I try to avoid saying “god willing” or “god knows” although it’s almost a culturally ingrained reflex given some cues. I like for example Ebon’s “for truth’s sake” as an expletive and I sometimes use it to raise eyebrows, but it is always a conscious choice to do so rather than a phrase that trips naturally off the tongue.

    I’m personally rather fond of “Jesus Mythical Christ!” I’ve used “For Fuck’s Sake” with a parenthetical note about “swearing by something I believe in,” too. ^.^

  • Alex, FCD

    Well by God’s blood and God’s wounds, I wish I had my copy of the Pardoner’s Tale around so I could look up some more old-school blasphemy.

  • Lyndi

    Effing beautiful. Every time I think I know everything ;) Ebon comes around and makes me say, “Damn! That’s a really good point!!”

  • Archimedez

    Punishment for criticizing religion, whether it is imposed legally or informally by pious citizens, is the main factor keeping religions going. When the punishments are removed, the religions gradually (a) die out broadly, and (b) weaken in terms of political, legal, and social clout. We are seeing this now throughout the West. It is happening somewhat slower in the more highly religious Western countries such as the U.S. in particular, where religious hard-liners try to impose social costs on disbelievers who publicly express criticisms of religion. Yet the U.S. disbelievers are perhaps more protected legally than in most other Western countries, which have various limits on free expression that often happen to protect religious groups above and beyond other groups.

    (Interestingly, it is widely accepted in Western countries that some forms of expression, such as threats and defamation, are, rightly, illegal. Yet here religions get a special exemption, as believers in the Bible and Quran, for example, simply by sincerely and piously quoting their texts, are making threats against and are defaming non-believers. Of course, I’m not arguing that these texts should be banned. It’s far more useful for us to have these books available so that we can expose and criticize them.)

    As non-believers, we have to struggle, verbally and politically, to even express our views in public. There is a social cost associated with expressing our views in public, which is a carry-over from the times when blasphemy penalties were imposed. We need to cheapen the social cost of “blasphemy” by flooding the marketplace, so to speak. Let the criticism of religion flow.

    Yet we need to pick our spots and proceed intelligently. Prioritize; pick the worst offenders and the biggest problems. When criticizing, research your topic first and give a serious and intelligent presentation. There are occasions for well-placed ridicule, but this should not be the main content. Avoid being misunderstood. Stick up for others who are persecuted for expressing their criticisms of religion.

    We are now living in a time when blasphemy punishments are returning. This is the central issue in our struggle, the one issue upon which all the other issues depend. If we do not have freedom to criticize religion publicly, then we won’t be able to do much else about it either. Blasphemy penalties silence the critics and pave the way for the religious hard-liners to impose each of the items on their agendas, attaining the far-reaching legal, political, and social powers they seek. Opposing the blasphemy penalties, then, is a top priority.

  • Danikajaye

    I just tried to find on google a nice “blasphemous” poem on google and I could find news reports on controversial blasphemous poems but nobody seems willing to print the poems themselves. GOD DAMN RELIGION and its GOD DAMNED undeserved respect! FOOEY to you Jebus!

  • chronomitch

    Blasphemy is, after all, a victimless crime.

  • paradoctor

    Here’s a small question, perhaps off-topic…

    What’s with the phrase “My God”? People blurt that out all the time, but what a strange thing to say! “My” god? As opposed to yours or his? Do people say “my sky”? “My moon”? “My space-time continuum”? No, they say “the” sky, “the” moon, “the” spacetime continuum; the idea being that sky, moon and spacetime exist independent of us and our perception of them. So when people blurt out “my god”, aren’t they giving away the subjective nature of the gods? And if there were a god, then wouldn’t claiming ownership be a grand blasphemy indeed?

    So… Blasphemy Day? My God!

    Oh, and one more thing: now that it’s October, get ready for Ussher Day, October 23; according to Bishop Ussher, that’s the birthday of the Universe; number 6012 this year. Light a candle and let the wind blow it out!

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    On atheistic oaths, I’ve taken to exclaiming either, “By the stars that died to make us,” or simply, “By the stars!” I’m going to stop there, before I get carried away with the cussin’.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What’s with the phrase “My God”?

    It’s down to taste. Perhaps the archaic “By God’s wounds” would be more appealing to you.

  • anon

    What’s with the phrase “My God”?

    Maybe it’s part territorial. Our God is better than their god! Us vs. them mentality.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    As I wrote in “Doubting the Sun”, any idea that was obviously true, or that could be defended by resort to the evidence, wouldn’t have to be protected from criticism.

    Yeah yeah… then next week you’ll go on about why we shouldn’t let the ID’ers talk in school. Get consistent.

  • Polly

    next week you’ll go on about why we shouldn’t let the ID’ers talk in school.

    On the off chance that you’re not being facetious:
    Fully grown adults debating a point is not even close to the same thing as children being taught superstition as fact by an authority figure where they are a captive audience in the very place that they are supposed to acquire the tools to become self-sufficient thinkers.

    Moreover, the argument is that ID is not science and therefore should not be taught as science in a science class. I don’t recall Ebon saying it should never be mentioned in school at all.

  • Alex, FCD

    Yeah yeah… then next week you’ll go on about why we shouldn’t let the ID’ers talk in school.

    Well if you’d like to keep thumping on about ID because you consider it a weak point, we’ll be more than happy to keep mocking you.

  • Alex, FCD

    On atheistic oaths, I’ve taken to exclaiming either, “By the stars that died to make us,” or simply, “By the stars!”

    As long as you’re comfortable sounding like the ancient scientist from an obscure science fiction short story.

  • Archimedez

    Can anyone here name one political leader who currently holds office anywhere in the world who says unequivocally that people should be able to freely criticize religions just as they would criticize any other subject?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    So, in other words, outlawing an opinion or line of criticism as blasphemous is essentially the equivalent of painting a button red and writing “DO NOT PRESS” above it.

    Heh. Well put, Alex. :)

    On another note, Paul Kurtz, the former head of the Center for Inquiry, has written a protest against his own organization for organizing Blasphemy Day. I’m quite astonished. (And not just because, as current CFI president Ron Lindsay points out, Kurtz himself expressed diametrically opposite views in 2006.)

    I find it hard to comprehend why any atheist would oppose an effort like this. I understand the desire not to give needless offense. But if our goal is to break down the unearned and undeserved respect so frequently offered to religion, if our goal is a society where it’s generally agreed that religious ideas can be questioned, debated and challenged like any other kind of idea, how in the world else are we going to achieve it? How are we going to win the right to criticize, other than by openly and fearlessly expressing criticism? I’d much rather see too many attacks on religion than too few.

  • http://reasonvsapologetics.blogspot.com jim

    Danikajaye:

    Sorry to chime in late like this, but I wrote a rather blasphemous poem you might like.

  • http://reasonvsapologetics.blogspot.com jim

    And then of course, there’s this one.

  • Archimedez

    We need to make the world safe for people like this:

    Former Muslim receiving death threats
    The Tulsa atheist was critical of all religions, including Islam, in a Tulsa World interview.

  • Archimedez

    Re Paul Kurtz’s latest comments, I’m disappointed too.

    I thought the “Jesus Does His Nails” painting was a clever, funny illustration of the concept that God/Jesus, being one Deity controlling everything, putting in his own “nails.” It highlights an absurd aspect of Christian belief. Kurtz has really gone overboard claiming that this image is like the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis. The image makes an ironic comment on a key tenet of mainstream Christian belief, and does not demonize Christians. (Maybe Kurtz thinks that ridiculing beliefs = demonizing everyone who holds the belief. If that were so, and were applied consistently, all ridicule of all beliefs would have to come to a halt).

  • Archimedez
  • Reginald Selkirk

    On another note, Paul Kurtz, the former head of the Center for Inquiry, has written a protest against his own organization for organizing Blasphemy Day. I’m quite astonished.

    I’m quite disappointed to see Kurtz using inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric like “fundamentalist atheists.” Perhaps the CFI was right to put him out to pasture.

  • ComplexStuff

    “peddlers of woo and superstition”
    - I wants to be a peddler of woo. Sounds cool!!!

    PS Another great post.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    When Christian fundamentalists demand to remove certain books from libraries – or even demand to burn them!

    “In a Christian society such books (like Harry Potter) wouldn’t need to be burned due to their miserable failure in the marketplace.” ~shotgunwildatheart (from my long and wasted foray on Atheismisdead, formerly Atheismsucks, blog*)

    So, you see, “they” wouldn’t need to advocate burning books if “we” would stop buying them. It’s “our” fault that “they” need to burn “our” books.

    *On a side note, I was terribly amusing there, even if I was the only one laughing. You know people who are their own worst critic? I’m the opposite of that.

    cl “Yeah yeah… then next week you’ll go on about why we shouldn’t let the ID’ers talk in school.”
    Oh you and your woo. I’d say more, but others beat me to it, simply because they were here before me.

  • John Nernoff

    “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” (Matt 12:32)

    The Holy Ghost can go get fucked.

  • Caiphen

    Damn, I missed the fun. It’s better late than never. Abraham, take all your faiths and stick them where the sun don’t shine! I can’t believe that I entertained any of these faiths even for a second. Damn!

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Though I think blasphemy laws are silly religious nuttery, Paul Kurtz is so on point here I can’t believe so many of you people don’t see it:

    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.

    Blaspheme on, ye intolerant! Like Hemant the friendly atheist said,

    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.

    Factum fidei, Hemant. Blaspheme on, ye jerks!

    Polly,

    Fully grown adults debating a point is not even close to the same thing as children being taught superstition as fact by an authority figure where they are a captive audience in the very place that they are supposed to acquire the tools to become self-sufficient thinkers.

    Correct. I didn’t say it was. I just thought Ebonmuse’s comment was hilariously ironic.

    Alex, FCD

    Well if you’d like to keep thumping on about ID because you consider it a weak point, we’ll be more than happy to keep mocking you.

    Mock yourself; after all this is a blasphemy day post and you are your own god, right? Anyways, I’m not “thumping on” about anything here other than the facts that I think blasphemy day is a religio-political mistake that passes the microphone to the wrong people, and I found Ebon’s comment ironic on more than one level.

    He says, “..any idea that was obviously true, or that could be defended by resort to the evidence, wouldn’t have to be protected from criticism.” Yet, he himself often takes certain measures to protect his own ideas from criticism: banning, moderating, closing threads, etc. Yes, some of these times – probably almost all of them – such happens after discussion has ensued and the people involved are vitriolic idiots.

    In those instances I would support Ebon’s disagreement, although I will never support his censorship. But, those aren’t the instances I allude to.

  • Alex, FCD

    Mock yourself; after all this is a blasphemy day post and you are your own god, right?

    No thank you; no, that was last week; and no I am not. If I believed that I was, in fact, God, I would not be an atheist. Unless I were also a solipsist. Or something.

    Anyways, I’m not “thumping on” about anything here other than the facts that I think blasphemy day is a religio-political mistake that passes the microphone to the wrong people…

    Ah, so that’s what you were getting at when you made an entirely unrelated remark about intelligent design.

    He says, “..any idea that was obviously true, or that could be defended by resort to the evidence, wouldn’t have to be protected from criticism.” Yet, he himself often takes certain measures to protect his own ideas from criticism: banning, moderating, closing threads, etc.

    I wonder what incident this could possibly refer to.

    Yes, some of these times – probably almost all of them – such happens after discussion has ensued and the people involved are vitriolic idiots.

    I have no comment.

  • other scott

    I think blasphemy laws are in existence for the same reason that laws that prevent people from cursing or swearing are put into place. I don’t see it as a matter of the church trying to protect itself. For the same reason you can’t go out and scream profanities in the middle of the street, it would be wrong to go into a church and start blaspheming. If you know what you are going to say is going to offend people, it is simply polite not to say it.

    I don’t agree that blaspheming or swearing should be illegal simply because they don’t actually harm anybody, but there are plenty of people who have no regard for manners or are just so insensitive they don’t realise that what they are saying can offend people.

    The word ‘cunt’ doesn’t offend me in the slightest. But I still would not walk around saying it to everybody in the street because I know I am likely to offend somebody. In the same way, I have no problems blaspheming, but it is wrong to purposely go out of my way to offend somebody with my blasphemous words. People do not have a right not to be offended, but a little bit of politeness and discretion never hurt anybody.

  • Caiphen

    Alex

    If you were a God you’d be worthy of worship. I’m sure you wouldn’t let a human die in a gutter in downtown Delhi or allow 1000 people plus be crushed to death in an earthquake in Sumatra. What’s Yahweh’s or Allah’s excuse I wonder? I know, zip, zero, zilch. Or perhaps some bullshit of free will or showing humanity the horror of Satan. What crap.

    I can’t believe I made such a nut of myself at one time being a person of faith!

  • Caiphen

    I hope I don’t read like a vitriolic idiot.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    While we are all having fun with the idea of blasphemy day, I don’t really see it as a reason to yell “Jesus is a tosser” at the top of my voice. It is after all supposed to highlight the right of anyone to challenge religious beliefs with impunity rather than an excuse to gratuitously offend. I would rather use blasphemy day to say something like ” have you ever considered the possibility that Mohammed was either self delusional or cynically manipulating religious belief for political ends?”

  • Caiphen

    Steve

    I agree with you but I can also understand where everyone else is coming from. To state the obvious, many of us, including myself, are expressing our frustration with religious dogma by being somewhat vulgar in the way we express. This site is our outlet.

    Your point is still greatly appreciated.

    I doubt anyone who visits this site would yell ‘Jesus is a tosser’ in the street.

  • Archimedez

    cl,

    Atheism means lack of a belief in god(s). Hence, your claim that an atheist views himself/herself as a god is nonsensical.

    You quoted Ebon: “As I wrote in “Doubting the Sun”, any idea that was obviously true, or that could be defended by resort to the evidence, wouldn’t have to be protected from criticism.”

    You replied: “Yeah yeah… then next week you’ll go on about why we shouldn’t let the ID’ers talk in school. Get consistent.”

    Note Ebon’s mention of “evidence.” As soon as IDers present objective experimental or observational evidence showing the existence of the designer in question, Ebon and others might agree with ID being discussed as a relevant theory in biology class.

    You wrote: “Yet, [Ebon] often takes certain measures to protect his own ideas from criticism: banning, moderating, closing threads, etc.”

    Banning, moderating, etc., are actions that are normally taken by the owners of popular blogs and fora that allow commenting. There are numerous reasons for these actions. I’ve seen no evidence that Ebon has used these routine editorial or maintenance operations for the purpose of “protect[ing] his own ideas from criticism.”

  • Caiphen

    Archimedez

    I agree with you about Ebon not protecting his ideas from criticism. In addition, I find that he promotes criticism by sometimes allowing a thread to continue until it’s been whipped to pieces by a theist’s strawman after strawman. Not the least of these being mine prior to my deconversion!

    To be honest, his patience is a lot better than mine.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Archimedez,

    That part of the comment was meant to be read tongue-in-cheek. I’m aware atheism is lack of belief in God(s) and that no atheists really view themselves as gods. I wasn’t “making a claim” as much as responding in the highly cynical context of blasphemy day.

    My point in mentioning ID wasn’t to imply that it should be taught “as a relevant theory in biology class,” just noting what I see as a double standard that exists in the atheist community – reflected here in this post.

    Lastly, whether you’ve seen the evidence or not is irrelevant. Ebon moderates me, and has banned others. It’s his right of course, but fact nonetheless. Like Caiphen notes, such doesn’t mean he doesn’t promote criticism in other areas, it just means that for whatever reason, Ebon also protects his ideas from criticism in some subset of instances.

  • mack

    Perhaps a little late, but hearkening back to the original concept of blasphemy laws as strong indicators of weak beliefs – I note that a play depicting Jesus in a sexual, romantic relationship -Corpus Christi – was yanked from the stage because of religious intolerance in Texas. What, I wonder, does that say about Christianity and the homoerotic idolization / devotion to Jesus?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Chaplain wrote an interesting post about that, mack, on the topic of what she calls “Jesus is my boyfriend” Christian pop music.

  • Jim Baerg

    Regarding Laws against Blasphemy: What could be more blasphemous than falsely claiming to speak for God Almighty.? Surely God can speak for himself.

    If there are to be laws against blasphemy shouldn’t we hang those who make such claims (starting with such people as the pope, the mullahs running Iran etc. If they really are speaking for God then God will strike the gallows with lightening before the sentence can be carried out. ;-)


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