A Provocative Critique of Religious Beliefs—from Believers

December 31, 2009

A billboard that pictures Joseph and Mary in bed, under the statements: "Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow." Unforgiveable ridicule of religious dogma? Hate speech from atheists?

Hardly. The billboard in question was recently put up by a church in New Zealand.  The Washington Post quoted a representative of the church as stating that the church wanted a provocative message to draw attention to its position that "to find out about God and Jesus, you don't have to hang up your brain, you don't have to believe in supernatural things."

Not unexpectedly, some religious believers disagreed. Indeed, some believers characterized the billboard as that horrible, vile, and unspeakable thing -- you know, blasphemy.

But that did not bother the church. The church representative explained that it is important that people don't take themselves too seriously and place their beliefs beyond criticism.

My hat is off to this church. I don't share its view that belief in the supernatural is extraneous to religious beliefs, but that is beside the point. The church understood that to convey its message, a concise, pointed, somewhat humorous statement was both necessary and appropriate. If the statement was critical of traditional religious belief, so what?

As some may recall, CFI's own commemoration of Blasphemy Day was not greeted by all humanists with enthusiasm. Moreover, although some of the objections were responsible, and arguably made some valid points, some of the objections bordered on hysteria. Some humanists argued that in commemorating criticism of religious beliefs, CFI was emulating Nazis and encouraging hate speech. It is refreshing to see that some religious take a more reasonable and relaxed view of religious criticism.

And who says humanists have nothing to learn from the religious?


#1 guergues kamel youssef (Guest) on Saturday January 02, 2010 at 6:53pm

it does not bother me anymore to read or see things criticizing dogma , and saints, even jesus and mary < it only does irritate my ego , cause it is something unfamiliar, we are accustomed to venerate and honour our symbols of christianity , but some bishops here in egypt tell jokes about saint peter for example , they say why peter denied his master jesus, it is because jesus healed his mother-in-law, waw , it is not so funny, and peter was playing golf with jesus, jesus thres tha ball , it went over three hundred yards and fell in the hole, peter said , we dont agree on miracles , he he he, also not funny , but we still tell jokes about ourselves , and it does not bother me, thanks

#2 J. (Guest) on Saturday January 02, 2010 at 8:58pm

Christians making jokes about Christianity or discussing their religion in a way that skirts blasphemy is not a recommendation that it is wise for Humanists to do the same. Jews, both religious and secular,  make jokes about Jews, Judaism and Jewish culture but experience a certain kind of resentment it when non-Jews do the same. Perhaps Jews and every other religious group and ethnicity shouldn’t be so sensitive about being ridiculed for what they believe and who they think they are but they do. Is there more benefit in provoking the resentment and enmity of nonbelievers or in seeking alliances for the civic and many other goals that we share?

#3 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday January 03, 2010 at 6:31am

J: First, I assume you mean provoking the resentment of “believers.”  Second, I would not adopt your characterization of the alternatives available to us.
I am going to address your comment at some length because I have heard many humanists make similar comments, essentially suggesting that we must mute our criticism of religion so we can work on common goals with the religious.  As a general principle, I don’t accept this. Granted, if have entered into an alliance with some religious group on some discrete issue, it’s probably not prudent while we are discussing tactics with our ally to launch into a critique of the Trinity, the authenticity of the Koran and so forth. It wouldn’t be relevant to the issue at hand and it would make us look like cranks. But, respectfully, to say as a general matter that we have to choose between criticism of religion and seeking alliances with religious groups to further common goals we share makes little sense to me.  First, if the price of working with other groups is that we have to stay in the closet and keep silent about the fact that we find religious beliefs to be mistaken, then what is the point of having any sort of nonreligious advocacy group? CFI, the Council for Secular Humanism, the AHA, the Secular Coalition and so forth should just dissolve and individual nonreligious can support whatever groups happen to be working on issues that appeal to them, whether it’s the ACLU, Amnesty International or the Cato Institute. Do people contribute money to CFI and other secular organizations just so we can join 30 other groups in a Coalition for [fill in the blank]? The benefit of that is what precisely? Seeing the name of our organization on a list of dozens of other organizations supporting some legislation or policy? Providing our representatives with an opportunity to attend a wine and cheese reception and have a photo op with a congressional aide or a mayor? Presumably, we have nonreligious advocacy groups because we believe we have a distinctive perspective. And part of that distinctive perspective is that we maintain religious beliefs are not supported by evidence and should be rejected and, on the whole, society would be better off without them, at least to the extent that religious dogma influences public policy. Necessarily, this implies we are critical of religious beliefs.
So I would characterize the alternatives as a choice between: 1. maintaining out integrity and advocating for a secular perspective or 2. treating our rejection of religion as an entirely personal matter, irrelevant to any larger issue, and a view we dare not share with our religious friends for fear of offending them.
Of course, if we choose alternative 1 and accept that we can, and should, engage in criticism of religion, then how, when and where we articulate our criticism of religion are all legitimate subjects of discussion and debate. Nonreligious can disagree about whether a particular message on a billboard is tactically prudent or the extent to which we should emphasize our nonreligious perspective in a particular setting. But that’s different than saying we should always stay silent about our rejection of religion lest we lose the opportunity to work with religious groups on shared goals.

#4 J. (Guest) on Sunday January 03, 2010 at 4:08pm

Dr Lindsay, I am grateful for your response to my views which many other Humanists may also share. Open discussion of this issue between CFI leadership and friends is most needed. I do think that it is possible and advantageous to CFI to consider more nuanced alternatives. My comment, perhaps, does oversimplify and flatten my views but I plead the excuse of brevity. It is hardly necessary to tell believers (not non-believers as you correctly pointed out) that atheists don’t agree with their religious beliefs. Surely believers know that already and I doubt that telling them will convince them to change their minds. I don’t care what they believe about god as much as where they stand about the separation of church and state. There are certain religions that seem to be criticized only rarely by humanists because they support many of the same enlightened political or social or ecological goals as do most humanists. Do Universalists or Native Americans, for example, need our criticism of their beliefs and do we need to criticize them? I don’t think that not pursuing that particular dead end does any violence to my sense of honoring naturalist and humanist approaches to what I want to encourage in our society. My bias, I confess, is to favor pragmatism.

#5 MarkthePoet on Thursday January 14, 2010 at 3:32am

they say laughter is the best medicine. perhaps this absolutely hilarious billboard is a case in point; good medicine for the sickness of what we politely call ‘belief’, and, ironically erected by a church. the texts in question do not strongly support the idea of a virgin conceiving and delivering a child, and in fact, if read from a logical point of view, tend to indicate an ‘out of wedlock’ conception between two young unmarried lovers, both descendants of the house of David, the favorite king of Judaic history. if the ‘virgin birth’ is such a significant feature of the whole story why the dearth of references to it in the later letters and writings? Luke only mentions it because he gathered information from other sources, not because he was a first hand witness. the whole story has landed in the hands of old men with sexual hangups and any intrinsic value it may have has been crushed under the jack boots of the roman state religion. when you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you:-)

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