Commemorate Blasphemy Rights Day—Have a Bake Sale or Read the Bible

September 26, 2010


I’ll give you the reasons for what may seem like strange suggestions in a moment, but, first, a few words about the name change. You will probably recall that last year CFI sponsored the first ever International Blasphemy Day. CFI had several reasons for sponsoring this new holiday, but the principal motive was to emphasize the importance of the right to express oneself freely about any subject, including religion. (See my blog post from last year on The Importance of Blasphemy .) CFI firmly maintains that religious beliefs should be examined and criticized just like any other belief, whether that criticism takes the form of a scholarly essay, a speech, a cartoon, or a quip. But in a textbook example of poisoning the well, soon after CFI’s announcement of Blasphemy Day some opposed to CFI’s mission redefined the purpose of Blasphemy Day, claiming that CFI was sponsoring Blasphemy Day solely to ridicule and belittle believers. Unfortunately, this tactic had some success. Mud does stick. In an effort to eliminate any confusion about the purpose of this holiday, CFI decided to insert the word “Rights” in its name. The name change does not in any way imply muting our support for the freedom to blaspheme. It’s a new name, but the underlying message remains the same.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, let me explain my suggestions. On a day devoted to freedom of expression, there is not and should not be one “proper” way to commemorate the holiday. There are any number of different ways to commemorate International Blasphemy Rights Day, and our branches and campus affiliates are showing creativity in how they go about it, with some having discussions, some having performances by comedians, some creating free expression zones in which both the religious and nonreligious are invited to air their views, and some having bake sales. (I have not asked whether hot cross buns will be among the offerings.)
Some other suggestions regarding IBRD are found on our Facebook page .   

Reading some passages from the Bible (or, if you prefer, some other allegedly sacred text) is my idea. I’m not making this suggestion for the fairly obvious reason that holy scriptures can provide material for some humor. There are more substantive reasons.

Sacred texts remain powerful influences on the outlook and beliefs of billions of people. Their influence underscores the importance of critical examination of religion. Obviously, as part of that critical examination of religion, it is useful to have some acquaintance with the texts upon which religious beliefs are based. To put it another way: good, insightful blasphemy requires a basic understanding of the beliefs being blasphemed.

Moreover, reading a sacred text shows respect for believers. Believers claim these books will provide us with the ultimate truth about the universe and the meaning of life. So if we have the time, we should take a look at them. My suspicion is that any person armed with a modicum of critical reasoning and a willingness to ask questions will not be persuaded to accept the authority of any of the sacred books. But the value and significance of these texts is something everyone should decide for themselves. Unlike some believers, we do not think books should be suppressed.

The religious want us to consider their claims to know The Truth; they want us to take them seriously. Let’s do that. We owe them that much, as fellow members of our community. Let’s take their beliefs seriously—and point out their flaws. Blasphemy shows that we care.


#1 John P. Sullivan (Guest) on Sunday September 26, 2010 at 3:13pm

The “New Atheism” not hip anymore as it was last year for Blasphemy Day?  Now we are entreated to show respect for sacred texts on this day by reading them? What is going on at CFI under the new management?  You seem to be careening from one end of the spectrum to another in a quest to find yourselves. This article is condescending claptrap.  What makes you think that the average CFI is not already very familiar with the contents of the Bible?  I’m sure most are.  You don’t think most of us have already “taken their beliefs seriously.”  I think most of us have.  And many of these, myself included, are okay with the idea that ridiculous ideas—no matter how they’re dressed up and no matter how sacred they may be to someone—merit ridicule, not disingenuous displays of respect.

#2 Daniel Schealler on Sunday September 26, 2010 at 8:20pm

Thomas Paine had a similar idea. We should all read Age of Reason first. Followed by the book of Numbers. Then Deuteronomy. ^_^

I’m with you that religious and scriptural literacy is important for everyone so long as religion is such a driving force in contemporary culture. But all the same, I like PZ’s latest idea regarding the appropriate response to scripture to be more appropriate than yours. ^_^

#3 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday September 27, 2010 at 5:38am

@John Sullivan We’re not “careening.” We have been and remain on a steady course. We have steadfastly insisted that religious beliefs should not be immune from criticism and that criticism of religious beliefs can take any number of different forms, including pointed comments and humor. That was CFI’s position last year and it’s CFI’s position this year.

I make no implication that atheists generally are unfamiliar with the Bible or any other sacred text. It would make no sense to make such a blanket statement. Obviously the degree of familiarity with these texts will vary from individual to individual. I’m pretty familiar with the Bible, but not so familiar with the Koran. I probably should become better acquainted with it. Certainly Sam Harris and many others have urged that it would be a good thing to know more about what the Koran says.

Nor have we changed our position by stating that our focus is on erroneous beliefs, not the believer. We want to demolish false beliefs and we should be unsparing in our criticism. Moreover, we should not withhold our criticism of these beliefs merely because some claim our criticism is offensive or hateful. However, that position is perfectly consistent with saying we should respect the individual believer. S/he may be seriously mistaken, but that does not imply s/he is no longer a member of human community and has forfeited the right to be treated with dignity.

CFI’s mission statement is unambiguous and we adhere to it—last year and this year. We are uncompromising in our willingness to engage and confront false beliefs and we are uncompromising in our defense of the rights of the individual, including the individual believer. This uncompromising stand earned has earned us the enmity of some who think we need to mute our criticism of religion and now apparently the enmity of some who confuse respect for the individual believer with groveling to religion. But we are not going to be dissuaded from following our mission.

#4 Robert Schneider (Guest) on Monday September 27, 2010 at 6:45am

Knowing the opposition’s playbook can be useful, but ends in us repetitively playing on their field. We’ve got to stop ceding that ground.

Getting individual believers to change their minds rests (in large part) on figuring a way to get them to relinquish the belief that a text (any text) is holy, revealed, or unequivocally true.

Citing their text, or its discrepancies, rarely if ever works to this end.  I think the “Gnu Atheists” strategy of refusing to give away home field advantage is a useful change of tactic in the long running conflict between “faith” and non-believers.

So on blasphemy day, be sure to make it clear that “I unequivocally deny the assertion that your holy text is anything other than a book.  Regardless of what deep meaning it has in YOUR life, I am not required to respect it, read it, or engage with it as a source of civil/secular law.” 

When the “faithful” want to give up their trump card of insisting others abide by their book, then we can perhaps have an open, equal discussion on issues of how to best form a pluralistic secular society.

#5 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday September 27, 2010 at 7:20am

@Robert Schneider Good Points. And good sports analogies (I mean that sincerely). I would only add that getting believers to stop accepting anything as holy writ may, for some of them, require as a first step getting them to question the authority of their own particular scared text. Or to take your analogy further, home field advantage is good, but championship teams know how to win both at home and away.

With the foregoing remarks, I have, of course, revealed something terrible about myself. It’s bad enough to be considered a fundamentalist atheist (in the view of Kurtz and company) or someone hostile to atheists (in the view of Coyne and company). But now I have confessed to being a baseball fan.

#6 Robert Schneider on Monday September 27, 2010 at 12:06pm

@Ronald A. Lindsay:  I see no signs of Baseball in your comments, up until the unforced confession… but that’s neither here nor there. 

Ron, I fear you may have missed my point.  Atheists have been doing a bang up job over 2 millenia of arguing the existence of God.  There are tomes upon tomes of solid, as-yet-unrefuted arguments against the existence of any of the Gods proposed by various sects through the ages.

We’ve been playing away for ever, and to totally abuse sports analogies, by accepting the term “Atheist” we’ve been losing the coin flip every time and always playing defense.  The assumption that theism is a legitimate starting point need not be “granted.”

The road trip must end.  The non-believing community (Gnu and otherwise) must forcefully and fairly insist that the other team bring something useful to the table in terms of justifying their central pre-supposition:  God exists.  The burden is upon them, and it is time we cordially but firmly remind them that the game will not begin until they provide some level evidence supporting specific truth/belief claims.  Until then, we’ll just end up spending more time fending off the recurring strawman attacks like those offered by John Shook on HuffPo recently.

(As an aside, I once saw Stephen J. Gould give a talk on evolution, with the subtitle “Why there are no .400 hitters anymore.”  So, is there more than a correlation between love of baseball and “accommodationist” atheists?  Ask Chris Mooney how he feels about baseball, for one more data point.)

#7 John P. Sullivan (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 1:07am

@Ronald Lindsay: Obviously we have to distinguish respect for individuals and respect for their religious beliefs.  Spending the former Blasphemy Day making a show of reading Scripture seems to blur this distinction.  It has always been my impression that most atheists and agnostics are better informed about religion and theology than are most believers.  Now a Pew study shows this to be the case.

#8 John P. Sullivan (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 1:27am

[comment above was cut-off]

#9 John P. Sullivan (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 1:35am

#10 Robert Schneider on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 6:21am

John Sullivan’s comment was cut off by inclusion of an HTML tag, however his full comment was sent out via e-mail.  Here is what was truncated:
by John P. Sullivan…
So these recent admonitions from you and John Shook for us
(athiests/agnostics) to bone-up on the Bible and/or theology in order to be more “insightful” in our criticism and to show believers that we “take them seriously” are misplaced, seems to me. In general we understand and take more seriously than they do the claims of their faith(s). That’s how and why we wound up atheists.

#11 J. J. Ramsey (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 7:30am

@John P. Sullivan: “Respect” does not necessarily mean “treasure” or “be nice to.” I can respect an extremely hot pepper, a fire, or a tiger in the sense that I am aware that they are dangerous and can harm me if I don’t take the proper precautions. A military commander can respect Rommel even if he is an outright enemy. (A certain quote attributed to Patton comes to mind.) That sort of respect even an atheist can give to religion, and give the power that religion has, it’s just the sort of respect that atheists should have.

#12 Skepticus on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 7:32am

I’ll not be reading the Bible any time soon.

The discussion so far is fairly interesting and more than once now I’ve thought of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

I grew up as a Catholic and although I fully understood Richard’s arguments concerning the Bible - I thought to much attention was paid to it and the claims of it’s literary importance overstated. Richard’s book nearly demands one become very familiar with the Bible and he leads the way in many instances. 

Starting early in TGD Richard starts out in a section called “The Argument from Scripture” [pg. 117] with six pages of biblical criticism and even mentions a few books of criticisms that are detailed biblical treatises, including Berlinerblau’s book “The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously”. Throughout several areas of the TGD, Dawkins takes on the Bible.

Then in Chapter 9 of TGD, Richard has a section called “Religious Education as Part of Literary Culture” where he starts out saying:

“I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was.” [Snip] “The King James Authorized English translation includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right, for example the Song of Songs and the sublime Ecclesiastes. But the main reason the Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture.”

Though, reading some of the results of the new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll with results like: “Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God did slightly worse than average, while those who say it is not the word of God scored slightly better.” maybe those that say “Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist” [Penn], have a point. “The more you know, the less you believe?”

#13 fishywiki (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 8:05am

This idea is simply wrong: books promoting invisible friends do not deserve respect, nor do the readers of such books. They should be openly criticised, without fear of reprisal, just like any other drivel.

However, I don’t want to change their beliefs, I just want to not be subjected to them: no religion-based educational systems, no religion-based political movements, no religion-based censorship, no religion-based decisions on when I may or may not buy beer. And especially no laws that say that because someone has an invisible friend, I may not criticise them.

#14 Robert Schneider on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 8:30am

J.J. Ramsey… healthy respect of chemicals or peppers aside, your definition of “respect” seems more like “cower in fear of those who might hurt you.”  That is precisely the attitude that a “Blasphemy (Rights) Day” is designed to put an end to: 

No idea is immune to criticism, and it is not acceptable to imply or enact violence as a response to another person’s expression of idea.  No matter how sacredly you hold YOUR text, it implies no right for you to demand I also hold it sacred or “respect” anything in it.

You, <insert religion/emperor here>, may not threaten us with your “power” so that we will remain silent in discussing your lack of legitimacy/clothing.

We are demanding that the scorn be placed where it belongs from this day forward:  On the person/persons committing crimes against fellow humans.  In case you’re still confused, the crime being committed is incitement to violence, or acts of violence in response to speech or ideas. 

Blasphemy itself, or criticism of religion, is not a crime (might even be a virtue).

#15 J. J. Ramsey (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 10:25am

Robert Schneider: “your definition of ‘respect’ seems more like ‘cower in fear of those who might hurt you.’”

Nonsense. I don’t have to cower in fear of fire to not get burnt, and Patton hardly cowered in fear of Rommel, either.

#16 Robert Schneider on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 11:23am

@J.J.—Play all the semantic games you want with equivocal definitions of “respect.”  When you wrote this…
“That sort of respect even an atheist can give to religion, and give (sic. I presume you meant “given”) the power that religion has, it’s just the sort of respect that atheists should have.” comes off as a threat that atheists will suffer the wrath of religion if they do not “respect (fear)” the power of religion.

There IS no self-asserted “power” of religion that deserves respect, nor is there a reason to respect threats.

#17 J. J. Ramsey (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 12:04pm

Robert Schneider: “it comes off as a threat that atheists will suffer the wrath of religion if they do not ‘respect (fear)’ the power of religion.”

Actually, it’s more like saying that one should know one’s adversaries and not underestimate them. Again, you ignore the Patton/Rommel analogy that I had used from the very beginning.

I shouldn’t have to point this out (but perhaps in your case I do) that negative consequences need not take the form of violence, and realistically speaking, you should worry more about blasphemy causing you to lose face because you come off looking like a jerk or an ignoramus. Suppose, for example, that you decided to show a depiction of the Virgin Mary that implies that she’s doing an obscene act. What you’ll probably succeed in doing is confirming in onlookers all the nasty things that their religion has taught them about atheists. And if you did that in front of Christians who aren’t that sensitive, whose reactions would be an eye roll or a “Stay classy, Robert,” that would be all the worse for you. Instead of finding a weak point in their intellectual defenses, you’d be doing the equivalent of running headlong into a fortress wall.

#18 Robert Schneider on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 12:45pm

@J.J.  Actually, very well said, and much more nuanced than earlier.  We disagree about tactics for certain, as I am not seeking a weakness in intellectual defenses (at least in the use of a “Blasphemy Day,” or say, participating in “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

The assertion of a “Blasphemy Day” or a “Blasphemy Rights Day” is at root: “I can say what I want about the things you hold holy.  You can think I’m a jerk.  You can call me a jerk.  But you may not criminalize my behavior, nor take retribution in the name of your faith or God.” 

Just stating that doesn’t have the conviction of one’s belief that actually committing a “blasphemy” does. (I use scare quotes because I really mean “speaking an opinion or expressing an idea” when I use the word blasphemy.)

The degree of vulgarity in the act of “blasphemy” will have different effects on viewers, ranging from supportive cheers to an empathetic, “Oh, dear… now THAT just goes too far” to a “KIILLLL the Heathen!!”  All of those effects are out of my control.  I tend for less vulgar blasphemy, but it is really hard for me to define the “necessary” level of blasphemy required to achieve the goal.

All I can control is my acts, and every one of them is a bit of a gambit in a chess game.  At this moment I feel it is an important act to assert the right to free speech and stand up for it.  Will I regret blaspheming?  Will my opponent be angry that I called their bluff?  Will others gain courage from my act, or perhaps be driven deeper in fear of religion because of retribution for my act?

Time will tell.  Will I have cowered in the corner, afraid to state my true beliefs for fear that my opponent might crush me?  NO.  Will I have couched my views in muddy, safe, double-speak to avoid conflict (all the while allowing the opponent to maintain THEIR behavior unabated)?  NO.  Will I have blasphemed in isolation, without simultaneously expressing WHY I’m doing it, so someone might learn or change? NO.

I hope I have the backing of many people, including my society’s legal and judicial system… but most of all, the backing of others who have grown tired of the unresisted exertion/insertion of religious preference into debate and into society at our (non-religious people’s) expense. 

So you may choose your tactics, and I may choose mine, and we can all have a nice debate about whose tactics were more responsible for our blissful secular society… once we get there.

Final aside (for this post.
Were Gandhi’s tactics wrong? Were MLK’s?  Were Harvey Milk’s?  John Brown’s? Provocation in service of catalyzing issue movements has a LONG, productive history in civil rights.  It is unfortunate that my examples were all killed, but they acted on their beliefs in service of a goal they thought worthwhile.

#19 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 2:13pm

Thanks to everyone for their comments thus far. The discussion has been lively.

@Robert Schneider #6 You are right that logically the burden should be on the believer. There should be a presumption of atheism. Anyone who claims there is a spirit or a spook should have to come up with some evidence first. But we need to distinguish logic from persuasion, and the fact is that for some believers, pointing out the flaws in their understanding of their holy text is a necessary first step to getting them to think about the question of belief in God at all.

There is, of course, no formula for how best to engage believers. Abstract philosophical arguments may work for some, arguments relating to scripture may work for others, some may respond to non-argumentative forms of persuasion, and some will be so firmly locked into their beliefs that nothing may work. I’m just suggesting that we be as prepared as we can be for all contingencies.

@John Sullivan Yes, you are quite right that many atheists are more informed about religion than believers are. Certainly, that has been my experience. But, of course, the degree of knowledge will vary from individual to individual, and, in any event, there’s likely to be some room for improvement.

@fishywiki I agree with you that our primary objective is not to change the beliefs of others. CFI is not a missionary organization. However, to get where you and I want to go, which is a society in which religion can no longer influence laws and public policy, we do need to have more secular people than we currently have, at least in the United States. We don’t need a majority of the population to be skeptical, and I’m not sure that’s something that will ever happen. But we do need a critical mass, and my sense is we’re still short of that critical mass.

I also agree with you that beliefs of any sort — political, scientific, literary, or religious — should be openly criticized if they are flawed. I would disagree with you, however, about what our attitude should be toward those who hold mistaken beliefs. A person can lose their entitlement to respect in a number of different ways, such as by attempting to censor and oppress others, which, sadly, some religious individuals have done. But I do not believe that people lose their right to respect merely because they have a mistaken belief. I don’t think we should forget that many people who are now atheists were once religious themselves.

#20 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 2:25pm

@Robert Schneider #18 Yes, smart provocation can work. The best forms of provocation are those that gain sympathy from people who may be sitting on the fence or undecided. Those usually are actions that make the other side appear the unjust aggressor. So a coordinated campaign of refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance could be a good thing, or not singing God Bless America at games (Sorry, it’s the baseball fan coming out again). Blasphemy can work also, especially if there is an attempt to suppress it and that suppression strikes many as unfair. As a tactical matter, that usually means the cruder forms of blasphemy may not be the best choice.

BTW, I agree with all your examples except John Brown. He was not a smart provocateur.

#21 Robert Schneider on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 3:50pm

OK… I’ll give you John Brown.

You make my point, re: vulgar blasphemy.  You only need “enough” blasphemy to get the deluded extremists to react. This will POSSIBLY cause the semi-sane middle to say, “No… we Christians don’t act this way just because someone said something we disagree with.”  Going to vulgar extremes can lose the middle… but even as I type that I hear the tinkling ivories of “The Accommodationist Rag” running through my head.  It’s certainly a balancing act, and I’m not certain I’m prepared to condemn the person who takes a more aggressive, or vulgar approach here as being wrong… because in principle the acts are the same: words/ideas/images, none of which a civilized society allows to be avenged with violence.

#22 Steve (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 4:14am

Atheists, by definition, cannot “blaspheme.” The act itself implies the existence of something that, of course, we all reject. I’m afraid “Blaspheme Rights Day” is no different than any other for people like me! I hold nothing sacrosanct (again, impossible) and therefore none of it is off-limits…ever.

#23 Robert Schneider on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 8:04am

@Steve:  Agreed, except the day is not called “Blaspheme Against My Own Beliefs Day.”

Participants assert the right to express opinions that OTHERS would hold to be blasphemous, without fear of reprisal or violence.

“Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” (one of my favorite bumper stickers.)

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