My Thoughts On Blasphemy Day

My Thoughts On Blasphemy Day September 30, 2009

So today is “Blasphemy Day.”  Here’s what it’s about:

Blasphemy Day International is an international campaign seeking to establish September 30th as a national day to promote free speech and stand up in a show of solidarity for the freedom to mock and insult religion without fear of murder, violence, and reprisal. It is the obligation of the world’s nations to safeguard dissent and the dissenters, not to side with the brutal interests of thugs who demand “respect” for their beliefs (i.e., immunity to being criticized or mocked or they threaten violence).

So if you support free speech, and the rights of those who disagree with religious views to voice their opinions peacefully, support our group and join the cause!

(via Pharyngula)

I am of three  minds on the topic of Blasphemy Day.  I am not really a deliberate blasphemer by temperament.  Of course I enjoy a good sacrilegious joke as much as any non-fundamentalist with a sense of humor does.  I enjoy ridiculing what is ridiculous in absurd beliefs.  But I do not and typically have no desire to go out of my way to denigrate religious symbols or texts or phrases for the sake of causing offense itself.  I am happy to express my reasons against religious ideas and institutions in a vigorous and scathing way which spares no rhetorical flourish, as long as I am saying what I really think.  I am happy to post videos that have sharp, funny satire that makes important points.

But blaspheming in the sense of saying things which somehow curse revered religious figures or texts rather than make a philosophical case against them or a genuinely funny joke at their expense?  That’s not my style.  And for ethical reasons: it’s rude, it’s obnoxious, it’s disrespectful to people who care about those things.  The reasons why they care about them may be problematic, but they care nonetheless.  And it’s some sort of combination of self-centered, cruel, insensitive, arrogant, impolite, and tactless to go out of one’s way to denigrate things people care about just to insult them.

If there is a philosophical point at stake and stressing that God is an “imaginary friend for grown ups” or something, then that’s fair game.  Part of argumentation is to challenge received attitudes by forcing people to reconsider something they improperly revere and demonstrate irreverence towards it as a way of trying to combat the spell it has on someone.  A philosophical mentor of mine is in the habit of referring to Nietzsche, my philosophical obsession for many years, in denigrating terms or dismisively as “dear old Fred.”  Why?  I think it’s because it was a way of sending a message to me that he’s not to be taken too seriously.  Because no one is to be taken too seriously.  And because I’ve spent years studying Nietzsche and writing a dissertation that spends several chapters explicating him.  And, more importantly, I and others who study Nietzsche can sometimes be tempted to elevate him into an unquestionable authority—or at least to quote him as though his voice did have a superior authority beyond his ideas’ abilities to stand up to vigorous questioning.

Now, I’ve never worshipped Nietzsche and I freely and unhesitatingly disagree with him on various points.  And even when I was in the phase of citing him as though his ideas were authoritative just for being Nietzsche’s ideas, I knew all along that it wasn’t because the great and hallowed intellectual giant must be right on anything about which he writes.  What I was doing was being a good scholar and immersing myself in his thought so that I could understand it as well as possible.

By frequently and reflexively putting on the Nietzsche glasses and trying to assess everything in his terms for several years, I was not ceding my rights to disagree, but rather I was trying to understand what there might be to learn by trying not to disagree.  I was trying to figure out the best possibilities for reading him, the maximum possible insights that might be in his texts if we try to reason out how they could answer what might seem prima facie like devastating objections.  The goal was not to subsume my thought forever in his but to learn to think like him as much as possible so that I could then ascertain his insights as much as possible and then make decisions about where I disagreed with him that I could feel completely confident in.

Like with my former Evangelical Christianity, I can say of Nietzsche that when I disagree, it’s not because I am dismissing a caricature of something I do not understand.  I lived, ate, breathed, and slept Evangelical Christianity from the time I was 5 until I was 21 and then I lived, ate, breathed, and slept Nietzsche from 21 to 31.  There is so much understanding possible only through this method.  Throughout the Nietzsche years many of my Nietzschean attitudes were only hypothetical—as much as I’d argue for them academically, I would also privately argue for things I knew were at cross-purposes with Nietzsche.

And finally, as my dissertation started to reach its final phases, in my final chapter, after years of zealous advocacy for Nietzsche, I settled into the phase of being ready to criticize and to do so with no compunction.  I readily was able to say, I just think he’s wrong here and wrong there and that in my own philosophy I have to part ways with him and move on from him.  I think I have benefitted an immense amount from living with Nietzsche the last ten years of my life and I am extremely happy with the ways that he has infused my perspective with irreplaceable insights.  I look forward to teaching him to students for the rest of my career and to mining his works for a myriad of insights I still have not discovered even in 10 years of intensive concentration on him.  I still find debates within Nietzsche scholarship  about how to interpret him fascinating and still have a whole career of making what I’ve already developed in my dissertation public ahead of me.  So, I’m not done with Nietzsche by any stretch.  He’s been a terrific influence and I still want to refine and publish all I’ve learned about what he has to offer.

But, now he’s no longer Nietzsche to me but, in many ways, “dear old Fred.”  And that’s a vital and important thing.  Because, as Nietzsche himself writes in the “On The Bestowing Virtue” section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”

And it was surprisingly helpful to me mentally to have that towering, bullying mind of Nietzsche dismissed as just the mind of “dear old Fred.”  The mockery of my own seriousness about Nietzsche was important for me to enter the stage of pulling me out of my immersion stage and making possible my shift into criticism.  It was important for me to “break my revering heart” (“On The Famous Wise Men,” Thus Spoke Zarathustra) as the first step towards truthfulness about Nietzsche’s shortcomings.

And it is in this 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 religious morally harmless 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”) or the co-option of 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 start to see their overhyped religious leaders as “dear old Ben” or “dear old Mo” the way that, much as I love him, Nietzsche has to be “dear old Fred.”

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 (as Pat Condell argues below) 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.

But, since I’m not really the type to go be disrespectful, even for the purposes of a holiday, I’ll have to leave it to one of the grand masters of disrespect to religion in the name of political freedom, Pat Condell himself:  UPDATE, June 10, 2014: I no longer unqualifiedly endorse Pat Condell’s work, given the way he has blurred the line between fair criticisms and bigotry in more of his work that I’ve seen since I originally posted this article.

Finally, Friendly Atheist has important information about efforts to challenge Ireland’s recently enacted blasphemy law and how people can help out.  I encourage you to read up and take seriously this threat to free speech.

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