Radio Freethinker

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Blasphemy Day 2011 and Why We Need It.

Posted by Ethan Clow on September 30, 2011

Today, Friday the 30th is International Blasphemy Day (sometimes referred to as Blasphemy Rights Day) Either way, Blasphemy day, as I like to call it, was founded in 2009 by the Center for Inquiry Transnational.

The purpose of the day is to celebrate free speech, free expression and to draw attention to blasphemy laws that exist all over the world. These laws, which make it a criminal offence to blaspheme, are considered by secular and civil liberty groups to be egregious violations of the notions of free speech and free expression.

Today groups all over the world are staging events and activities celebrating Blasphemy day. Check out the link to the Facebook group to see if there are any local events near you.

So what is blasphemy anyway? Blasphemy includes mocking, irreverence, or sacrilege towards religion or religious objects. Anything from saying “religion is wrong” to “the Pope is a criminal” or “that communion cracker is just a cracker.” Essentially, speaking out as an atheist would be considered blasphemy. There’s also a nice definition over at the blog Skeptic Freethought.

It’s not much of a surprise why secularists oppose blasphemy laws.

And yet some secularist oppose Blasphemy day.

The argument against blasphemy day rests on a number of points, such as:

1. This serves no purpose except to offend religious people

2. This violates the notion of hate speech laws.

3. It encourages anti-religious* persecution (*insert Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim depending on the situation)

I think these are all valid objections. In fact, I would even agree that these are potential problems with Blasphemy day. Don’t take my word for it though, some people a lot smarter than me have already voiced such concerns. Paul Kurtz, the founder of the Center for Inquiry has written about the subject here.

A couple years ago, back when I worked for the Centre for Inquiry, I attended the annual meeting at CFI headquaters in Amherst, NY and along with all the other branch leaders from all across North America debated the merits of Blasphemy day. I can say there was no real consensus. People were divided over the notion of it and it really reached an impasse. We couldn’t even agree what to call the event, (the whole Blasphemy Day or Blasphemy Rights Day)

Despite the potential problems that can arise from celebrating Blasphemy Day, or the real objections raised about the holiday, I still approve of it and encourage you to as well.

I’d like to address of a few of the objections to Blasphemy day as I’ve already had a few conversations with fellow free thinkers about it and I’m hearing a lot of the same rhetoric that I don’t think holds up to skeptical scrutiny.

To address point number 1: This serves no purpose except to offend religious people

No one has the right to go through life not being offended. This is not a harsh statement. Imagine for a moment what life would be like if you did have that right. Every time you were offended there was some offence police who came and investigated. The first thing to go would be satire. Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Jonathan Swift…all gone. Someone, somewhere, was offended by them.

Consider what going to university would be like. I’m not even sure how to imagine university without the possibly of being offended. And that’s not because all my professors were jerks who just insulted us each day but because they challenged us. That’s the job of university professors! Hell, it’s the job of any teacher. We challenge not only our academic abilities and our physical limitations but also our values and beliefs. Without pressure to examine our core beliefs, there wouldn’t be pressure to change and grow.

Offending religious people…offending anyone…is the collateral damage that goes with exploring new avenues of thinking.

So, I reject the notion that offending people is inherently bad.

I also reject the notion that blasphemy isn’t a serious issue. Anyone with the ability to read the news should recognize the need for people to be able to freely criticize religion. To anyone who disagrees with that, I would ask how they can support free expression in criticizing government, corporations, sports teams, special interest groups, NGO’s and not support criticizing religions groups?

I also reject the notion that the purpose of Blasphemy day is to solely offend religious people. I especially reject the idea that it’s some childish game of lobbing insults (as some pundits have characterized it) Look, if we agree that offending people isn’t de-facto bad, and that blasphemy laws are de-facto bad, how can a day celebrating the right to be blasphemous be wrong?

Point number 2: This violates the notion of hate speech laws.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers on this complicated issue. Free speech vs. hate speech laws. I honestly think it’s a very nuanced debate. I generally fall on the side of free speech trumps hate speech. But I think this can be generally irreverent to blasphemy day anyway.

Saying “Jesus is not the son of God” is blasphemy. It might offend Christians, but it’s not hate speech. If I were to say “Christians are evil and we should kill all the Christians” that would qualify as hate speech. When you’re attacking an idea, that’s an expression of free speech, when you’re attaching a person or a group of people with an incitement of violence or attempts to dehumanize them, that’s hate speech.

Again, I don’t pretend to be an eloquent speaker on this, however Crommunist, a friend of the show, is an eloquent speaker on this and I think his opinions are at least worth of consideration. Check out his post about this issue.

Point number 3: It encourages anti-religious* persecution (*insert Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim depending on the situation)

At a previous Blasphemy day (or possibly Draw Mohammed Day), a group here in Vancouver encountered problems when people started using the event to write racists remarks and high-jacked the situation to promote intolerance towards various religious groups. Obviously, this is a disaster and no rationalist group wants to engage in this.

This is one of the big concerns groups have with Blasphemy day, the potential for some racist jerks to make the whole group look bad. The problem as I see it, is this potential PR nightmare exists for any event a free-thought group might have. There’s nothing stopping a jerk from showing up at a regular old skeptic event and voicing anti-Semitism for example. In fact, this happens. My friend Daniel has told me how conspiracy theorists will show up at club day’s events and voice their concerns of how the Jews are controlling the banks and on and on. Occasionally, people come to our events and rant about Islam in a very Islamophobic way. It happens and we as a group (any group actually) need to make a very important distinction:

We respect people, not ideas.

In my opinion Blasphemy day is no different from any other event a group might hold. And the fear that it might get derailed by jerks needs to be countered by a clear message that blasphemy (like skepticism) is directed at the ideas and concepts and not the people and individuals who worship such ideas.

Some people might suggest that the demarcation line between attacking people and attacking ideas is indistinguishable. Indeed, many people are offended by the mere fact that we atheists even exist, let alone actively criticize their religion.

However our existence isn’t something we’re willing to compromise on. And we shouldn’t compromise on special privilege for religion in law and society either. If we allow valid criticisms of religion to go unheard because they can hide behind the shield of blasphemy law, then the freedoms and secular institutions we hold are in danger.

The Freethinker of UBC have a booth for Blasphemy day, please come by and show your support. In addition, see this video produced by the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI) to show why Blasphemy day is needed.


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