An Iowa College’s Response to Blasphemy Day

Trevor Boeckmann was the president of the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI) this past year and he tells the story of what his group did for Blasphemy Day in the latest issue of Free Inquiry.

His group chalked the campus that day with the understanding that “religion does not deserve any special protection from criticism.”

What happened as a result?

I will never forget that night — scrawling the words of Richard Dawkins in front of the music building, quoting Deuteronomy in front of the campanile, and drawing stick figures of Muhammad on the way to the business building. The response was immediate. Curious onlookers approached, many of them engaging us in conversation. Shortly after came the defacing.

My phone started ringing off the hook. People all over campus were defacing our chalking. Some were walking around with water bottles, washing out what they could. Others were spitting on it or scratching it out with their feet. Still more were chalking back.

We started riding down a sidewalk and saw derogatory messages written in response to ours. Next to Thomas Jefferson’s “Question with boldness even the existence of a god” was the less elegant “Imagine my cock in your eye socket, fun times you cunts.” At the end of the sidewalk, hunched down by another of our chalkings, was the author of that sentiment. We raced to him and snapped some pictures, inquiring as to what he was doing. “Don’t worry,” he protested, “we’re fixing it.” We explained that we were the ones who originally did the chalking. He was rendered motionless by the realization. Then he lunged at my camera, managing only to graze it before sprinting away.

This is why Blasphemy Day is so important and why I’m now such a strong supporter of it.

It’s not about mocking religion or calling a believer names.

It’s about the freedom of speech and the idea that religion (along with other strongly-held beliefs) should be open to criticism.

No one should be able to silence you because they don’t like what you say.

Incidentally, the Center For Inquiry has launched their Campaign for Free Expression Video Contest. Make a video explaining why free expression is so important and you could win $2,000!

  • Ian Reide

    Big congrats to Trevor and his team. I greatly admire your dedication and your work.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I love the idea of blasphemy day. I didn’t do anything for it last year, but maybe I’ll write something this year.

  • http://godlessartist.blogspot.com/ Kilre

    >>“Imagine my cock in your eye socket, fun times you cunts.”

    What a mature way to respond. And the camera grab was golden.

  • fritzy

    The more faith it takes someone to believe something, the more they react with anger and hatred when that idea is challenged in any way. Typically, you see the kind of utter destruction and censorship this post is describing. How can well-reasoned, emotionally balanced individuals compete with this, particularly when they are in a minority despised by a large portion of the population?

  • Don Rose

    Yeah, that sounds like the response I would expect. Anything less would have been a pleasant surprise.

  • Robert

    On behalf of the Christian community, I apologize for that idiot’s response. I don’t think his phrase is anywhere in the Bible

  • Lisa

    “Imagine my cock in your eye socket, fun times you cunts.”

    The words and love of Jesus are beautiful, no?

  • http://www.bornagainyesterday.com Justin

    Blasphemy Day is about nothing but mindless disrespect and is unbelievably stupid. It achieves nothing of any value while riling up not only the true-believer but also those on the fence. If our goal as a “group” is to drive as many as possible away from the idea of being open about their latent doubts and lack of belief, Blasphemy Day is the greatest tool we’ve thought of to reach that goal. An atheist in Oklahoma, I’m deeply embarrassed by having to explain to my neighbors that, no, one doesn’t have to become a mindless jerk when one leaves god behind.

    In other words, Blasphemy Day practitioners, you’re not helping: stop it. The stupid, as they say, it hurts.

    A much smarter idea would be to insinuate oneself into the community one lives in, in the arts, local charity work, etc., and let people know by our character that we who don’t believe are good people. That’s much more convincing than organized vandalism ever could be.

    It’s impossible for anyone with integrity, for example, to protest the vandalism of a “One Nation Indivisible” billboard while supporting Blasphemy Day. How do we win if we become exactly like what we’re fighting?

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    @Robert: I appreciate your response.

    @Justin: I don’t think the vandalism and Blasphemy Day are a good comparison. It would be similar if they were actually vandalizing other people’s property with the blasphemous statements.

  • Roxane

    Blasphemy Day seems to me to be rather the equivalent of a Gay Pride march. I “came out” as an atheist so that Christians would have to deal with the idea that somebody who was as engaged in the community in constructive ways as I have been was going to burn in hell for all eternity–because I have done what Justin is suggesting. Blasphemy Day is an attention-getter, and we need those, too–just as we need Hitch/Dawkins/Harris to call people out, and Hemant to make the connections.

    Yes, people will get mad. But a lot of the people who were initially appalled by Gay Pride marches, and wished that gays would stay quietly in their closets, no longer hate gays.

  • John

    @Justin

    Blasphemy Day is about nothing but mindless disrespect

    On the contrary, it is mindful disrespect of ideas that deserved no respect in the first place.

    Did you somehow skip over the message that the atheist group chalked? “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” You don’t agree with that? You feel the need to distance yourself from that? People get upset at the mere expression of such a thought, and you lay the blame on the speaker?

    Who is it again that’s not helping?

  • http://littlelioness.net Fiona

    I like how Roxanne put it :) Unfortunately there’s still alot of haters. It’ll be awhile yet.

  • Ben

    I can see both sides of this issue. However, I’m a little annoyed at this college kid having nothing better to do on a given day in Cedar Falls than to basically shout “Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”
    I’m an Atheist… I have no need for religion. But, it does seem rather obnoxious for this kid to go out shouting and marking stuff. For what? If free expression is your thing, then you also need to know that there are people who aren’t going to agree with you. That’s fine. But don’t be so damn shocked when you get a response, however it may come. It goes all across the board. In fact, there is no need for me to talk about something that doesn’t exist. We live in a constitutional republic. The dying days of religion are at hand and they are flailing their hands about because they know it’s coming. I just wish I live to see it.

  • Erp

    Robert Ingersoll 130 years ago thought the dying days of religion were at hand (or at least the science rejecting religions); he was wrong. It is only 40 years ago that people were still being arrested for blasphemy in the US (charges tended to get dropped fairly quickly but a couple of high school students spent some time in jail as they couldn’t make bail [they had printed a paper describing Jesus as a bastard {in the legal sense}]).

    If you don’t want to do Blasphemy day, perhaps Banned Books week might be an alternative, September 25?October 2, 2010. Blasphemy after all is just banned ideas (or at least the expression of them).

    http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/bannedbooksweek/

  • Matt

    @Justin

    An atheist in Oklahoma, I’m deeply embarrassed by having to explain to my neighbors that, no, one doesn’t have to become a mindless jerk when one leaves god behind.

    So, atheists are jerks because they chalked some quotes from the bible and past historical figures around their university? They’re jerks because they wanted to make themselves visible instead of cowering in the closet?

    How about the Christians out their defacing their harmless quotes? How about the psychos threatening violence for a simple display of public expression? How about the constant presence of Christianity in this country that is thrown in our face day after day after day?

    We write some Thomas Jefferson quotes on the sidewalk and we are jerks? The Christian reacts by writing derogatory trash about cocks, attempting assault, and blatantly lying about their actions to the police.

    We are the jerks? Why the hell do you feel ANY need to apologize? Why the hell aren’t you out their grilling your Christian neighbors, embarrassing them, making them explain to *you* that, no, one doesn’t have to be a mindless jerk to be a Christian. Have them explain the daily shame they should feel for their fellow Christians.

    I think you need to grow some balls and tell your neighbor to fuck off. That or move out of a state that is so badly infested with such a disease.

  • Dan W

    I like the idea of Blasphemy Day, but from the article it sounds fairly dangerous if you’re one of the people doing the blasphemy. The threats, the insults, the campus police not even bothering to support free speech, and so on. I’d do it anyway, I suppose. We need to get rid of the idea that religion automatically deserves respect. It has not earned the respect it gets, and like all things should be open to criticism.

    I’m not surprised that some Christians were jerks. So many Christians are jerks when around people not like them. Which is odd, because if their god is so powerful he shouldn’t need them to defend him. What surprises me most about this is that this happened at UNI. UNI isn’t far away from my college! Less than an hour away on the highway. There was an attempt to start a non-religious group at my college, but I’m not sure if that group is still going. Either way, I’ve marked Blasphemy Day down on my calendar.

  • PapaJay

    Justin, below is a direct quote from Trevor Broeckmann’s piece:

    “Chalking was an option open to all student groups, but there were no policies in place to prevent others from removing that chalk.”
    It doesn’t appear that it was “organized vandalism” as you imply. Then you continue by telling them to “stop it”. Are these students not allowed to express their opinion in a purely legal manner? They chose their course as you have chosen yours. You are more than welcome to lend your opinion on their actions, but telling them to “stop it” sounds repressive to me, IMO.

  • ElitistB

    I think Dan W strikes the nail on the head with his first line.

    “I like the idea of Blasphemy Day, but from the article it sounds fairly dangerous if you’re one of the people doing the blasphemy.”

    Anyone like Justin is completely ignoring that fact. That fact alone is the reason justifying the practice. Whenever someone tries to bully you, you cannot submit, otherwise they will continue. They bully because they think they can get away with it.

    As an atheist in Oklahoma, I am not embarrassed in the slightest when I explain to people that simply because I question their mythology does not mean that I am a dick.

  • Caroline

    I am not sure how I feel about the idea of Blasphemy Day, however I want to encourage people to remember that religion is often a deeply cultural thing as well.

  • Kamaka

    @ Justin

    In other words, Blasphemy Day practitioners, you’re not helping: stop it.

    The point of Blasphemy Day is to stand up to the people who would make it a crime to say “religion is bullshit”, or worse, to say Islam is a buch of made-up crap and it is doubtful there ever was a prophet Mohammed… that one is punishable by death.

    Jesus Christ on a stick, wanting to kill me for free expression of ideas is far worse than any supposed blasphemy. It’s long past due time to stand up to this version of religious repression.

    Too bad if their puny little sensibilities are injured.

  • muggle

    The thing I really don’t like about blasphemy day is limiting it to one day. We should always blaspheme.

    Especially when yet another person has been persecuted for doing so. Every time Canada or the UN makes a horse’s ass of a decision against blasphemy, we should all spend the day in a t-shirt saying something blasphemous in protest and solidarity.

    I think a nice t-shirt simply reading there is no god (or the religion is bullshit from kamaka above, I like that) would suffice nicely. I do, frankly, finding chalking sidewalks rather immature.

  • http://twitter.com/alexandra_opny Lexy

    Hmmm, with all the LGBT pride analogies being thrown around, I think what atheists, skeptics, agnostics and non-believers of every stripe need is a symbol. I pretty much don’t leave the house unless I’m wearing my rainbow PRIDE bracelet. It’s not just to say “hey look I’m a lesbian!” It’s to say, “Hey look! I’m a nice person who otherwise you may not have known is a lesbian!” Yeah, it offends some of the more religious people I meet. I’m sure I’ve lost potential friends because of it. But at the same time I’ve probably changed some peoples prejudices about the LGBT community, and lent more visibility to LGBTs

    Maybe if atheists et al had some sort of symbol that outsiders recognised, we’d become more visible and start changing the minds of those who shun us.

  • muggle

    Lexy, I’ve long given thought to getting a personalized necklace or bracelet reading Atheist for just that reason. Probably time I got off the stick and did just that!

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  • Rieux

    “Justin”:

    In other words, Blasphemy Day practitioners, you’re not helping: stop it.

    Wait… a… minute… “You’re not helping”? That sounds so… familiar….

    Tom Johnson?” Is that you?

    “Tom,” “William,” “Patricia,” “Milton,” “Polly-O,” “bilbo,” now “Justin,” among who-knows-how-may other pseudonyms… gad, man, how many socks do you have in that drawer of yours?

  • Edwin

    Blasphemy day is a good idea as political protest in places where blasphemy is illegal. Other than that it just upsets superstitious people. For the most part religion is a conditioned, not rational process and all that public demonstrations of blasphemy does is to make the believer circle their wagons.

  • Rieux

    Other than that it just upsets superstitious people.

    So you’ve decided to just ignore every point Hemant and Trevor make in their respective posts? The ample positive consequences of this event that they describe are all such nonsense that you don’t even need to address them—or, indeed, even notice the assertions that said positive consequences exist?

    How arrogant.

    [A]ll that public demonstrations of blasphemy does is to make the believer circle their wagons.

    Did you even read these posts?


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