Blasphemy and Ridicule, Yet Again

As God once said, and then repented of saying it (Genesis 6.6), “I don’t do sequels.”

Follow-ups about such trivial strategies as the Center for Inquiry Blasphemy Day are a waste of everyone’s time.

But there has been a bit of action on this front, something just short of a news splash–which seems to be the only reason the press-and-media-starved organization concocted this idiotic venture in the first place.

On its own website, former Center for Inquiry chairman Paul Kurtz sensibly distanced himself from the Animal House antics, writing that Blasphemy Day is the active promotion of insult and ridicule, not a defense of free speech but a deliberate attempt to promote indignation through ridicule.

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way… it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance. One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures borders on hate speech. What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society. I apologize to my fellow citizens who have suffered these barbs of indignity.”

Smart words from the former leader and philosopher. They call attention to the fact that the promotion of tolerance includes the right to criticize, but not the need to be deliberately offensive.

It’s also troubling that CFI isn’t connecting the dots between vicious caricatures of Jews, Irish and Polish Catholics, African Americans and the social, educational and economic deprivation these groups suffered as a result of ridicule.

Is this category of insult “different” because it is said to be directed (or so we are urged) at belief rather than at the people who hold the beliefs? Or is dumbness of this magnitude excused because it is sponsored by an organization that touts “reason” and “science” as a basis for its irrational acts and incoherent approach to the values it sees as part of its mission.

In a wayward and hormonal reply to Kurtz, lawyer-turned CFI-CEO Ron Lindsay argued that “Blasphemy cannot be equated with ridicule of religion.”

Of course it can. Blasphemy is just the name given to ridicule, insult, or disparagement when it’s forbidden by religious canons or other laws protecting particular doctrines and practices. The only difference is that what the CFI crowd are doing isn’t blasphemy because there are no laws against their doing it. That’s what makes it ridicule. Moreover (obviously) why then do it?

To try to turn this circus into a temple of reason or a crusade for free speech rather than an exhibition of contempt simply cheapens an organization fast becoming known for taking the low road. Far better if the unfunny architects of Blasphemy Day would simply confess that they decided to sponsor this instead of a “Biggest Atheist Penis Day.”

The Catholic League noted that the “blasphemy contests” were being directed toward Christians rather than Muslims. Why? “Because even the atheists know that Christians can be counted on to react to their antics like good Christians.” More likely, they will ignore it, the same way you cross the street to avoid eye contact with odd-looking people. People like P Z Myers, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, known for intentionally desecrating a consecrated communion host. (Ah! Achilles, What Bravery is Here!) He says the day was established to “mock and insult religion without fear of murder, violence, and reprisal.” and is quoted as saying he wants every day to be Blasphemy Day.

But the sharpest commentary comes from a particularly folksy, commonsense article in the Indianapolis Star by Robert King: It may be true, he writes, that this “test of wits” designed to see who can come up with the most offensive (sorry, “blasphemous”) image, poem, or tie-dyed T-shirt is protected speech. “But this blasphemy contest strikes me as beneath a crowd of folks who pride themselves on relying on reason and science to find their way through the world. They even offer silly suggested blasphemies, such as ‘God is the Santa Claus You Never Stopped Believing in’. The whole thing strikes me as a bit juvenile — like something a group of teenage boys would come up with around the lunchroom table.”

Oh, come on. Teenage boys have better things to do. Like throwing food.

Blasphemy Day 2009! Fighting Yesterday’s Battles

jesus does his nails

Once upon a time people thought that if they took the name of God in “vain” they would be struck dead.

The idea of sacrilege—the misuse of sacred formulas, names, holy vessels, places, etc.—goes back to the earliest days of religion. That means to the days of our intellectual infancy. Remember how Moses had to take off his sandals on Sinai and how God won’t actually tell Moses his name, for fear he might tell someone else?

Remember the temple veil (supposedly) cracking at the death of Jesus? Ever wonder why? Because the death of the son of God was a blasphemy against God.

The idea of blasphemy against God dates from the time when only the highest paid priests were permitted to invoke the holy name, hoi polloi being reduced to saying “Adonai” (Lord) or “El” (god) as a way of not saying it. Or just being quiet and hoping for the best.

When it came to God having a sense of humour about his “real” name, he didn’t. Maybe it was Randolph. But in the same utter compassion he showed to Adam in not fencing off the tree of knowledge with an electrified barrier, so he protected the species from sudden death by just keeping them in the dark about what to call him. Now that’s compassion.

Since no one actually ever dropped dead for saying the unspeakable name, religious states (the majority in antiquity) took it upon themselves to do God’s dirty work. By the Middle Ages, sacrilege had become a concern of canon law, which prescribed punishments ranging from excommunication to death for religious crimes: desecrating the the Eucharistic host, denying the trinity, even striking a priest (when priests used to be thought of as special vicars of Jesus and not just a threat to altar boys).

In various ways, laws against insulting God, religion, sacred books, lingered into the twentieth century where they died a slow and deserved theological death–in most places.

In the Islamic world, they soldier on: in July, 2009, nearly 100 Pakistani Christians were murdered for a rumour that a Christian, somewhere, no one was quite sure where, had desecrated a Quran. Among the pious denizens of that world, Insulting Islam (the same as insulting God, his Prophet or his eternal book) is about where blasphemy and sacrilege were in 1185 in the West.

That is why the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in Danish media about five years ago was a cowardly act. It could only have been relevant to the concept of blasphemy if it had taken place in Islamabad. Copenhagen? Get real. Blasphemy is not insulting other people’s religion. The word for that–with no intention of complaining about the occasional legitimacy of such acts–is ridicule. Let’s get that straight.

In another space, apropos the UNHRC’s preposterous idea that “defamation of religion is the cause of religious violence” I made the claim that religions as social entities do not have rights, and thus cannot claim the right not to be defamed, and moreover:

“Religions occupy not sacred space but real space regarded as sacred. The languages they use, whether Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit, or Urdu, are human languages that can be used for liturgy, poetry or to incite to riot and murder. The practices they encourage, ranging from Pentecostal highs to requiem lows, find their explication within the life of the religious community: no one outside the group is beholden to find it meaningful, moving, rich or true. When it is called insignificant, backward, intrusive, or harmful the redress of the religious community is not to seek legal protection for private systems of belief. The oxymoronics of victimology need to be outed: the bombing of abortion clinics by pro-life Catholics and the killing of Muslims at prayer by differently-inclined Muslims in Jamrud is not the exercise of free speech. It is not discourse. It is not the pursuit of the higher good. And it is certainly not ’caused’ by defamers.”

So why would anybody who thinks that also think that the celebration of Blasphemy Day 2009 is one of the most asinine, underthought, irrelevant and desperate attempts to create a stir ever stirred in the name of free expression?

First because there is a difference between legitimate concerns about the right to religious dissent and laws that inhibit it—a la Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—and the gratuitous desire to be offensive to religious people.

But in the American intellectual tradition, the significance of the informed conscience has been a guiding principle. The maxim “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial unto me” comes from St Paul, not Magna Charta or the United States Constitution. (It was one of Emerson’s favorite verses, a man not known for embracing supernaturalism.)

The right to cry “There is no God” in a crowded theater, just like the right of a yahoo to carry a gun to the outskirts of a presidential event in New Hampshire, may well be protected by our theoretically secular democracy. But in both cases, to quote St Paul again, the question is “What doth it avail?”

Second, because Blasphemy Day has the intellectual quantum of a pep rally. It targets (not sure) because of (what?) in order to defend (who knows?). Is the point to defend the supremacy of the atheist position through the ridicule of religious positions? That is a noble eighteenth century cause. And while the most devout Christians and Jews (and Muslims) are not known for their liberalism in matters of intellectual freedom, the majority of groups one and two would be hard pressed to organize a Pro-Blasphemy Law Day in Chicago.

I think the last of the Blue Laws in Boston fell during my student days there and were rooted in statutes that dated back to puritan Massachusetts. And, yes, they are related to blasphemy laws. And, yes, I do like to buy a bottle of wine after 5 PM on Sunday and I regard it as heinous that in some places God doesn’t want me to.

But, this preposterous exercise in how to be religiously offensive is as tactless as it is pointless. Pointless because when it’s over I still won’t be able to buy wine after twilight in New York. And selling Buddy Christ statues outside Liquormart or St Agnes’s before the ten o’clock mass won’t make it happen.

BD is also intellectually incoherent: this from a spiel accompanying the pretty crappy paintings of a painter whose image adorns this page and is titled “Jesus doing his nails,” (nails, get it?): “Artist Dana Ellyn says her ‘Blasphemy’ paintings are a tongue-in-cheek expression of her lack of belief in God and religion. The self-described ‘agnostic atheist’ [sic]—she doesn’t believe in the existence of any deity but can’t say for sure one doesn’t exist—says her introduction to religion was in college when she studied art history. Stories from the Bible, she says, are just that: stories. ‘My point is not to offend, but I realize it can offend, because religion is such a polarizing topic,’ Ellyn said of the exhibit.”

Awe-some. Like really. It can be soooo polarizing. How do we prevent that? I know, let’s make fun of the crucifixion.

The cure for the conditions under which “blasphemy” is relevant in the modern world is not simple ridicule. It is not to shy away from criticizing the extremes of religion, the horrific consequences of religious violence, the stupidities of entrenched religious opinions that violate rational discussion and common sense. But I fail to see how the moderate core beliefs of good women and men, however irrational they may seem to the atheist, invite this demonstration. It seems…unreasonable.

Do we really trust–need–organizations who give out prizes for being moronically satirical on the pretense that they are really doing “investigative” critical research, “to expose all religious beliefs to the same level of inquiry, discussion and criticism to which other areas of intellectual interest are subjected.”

Our best colleges and universities have been doing this for fifty years—without the posters in the classroom and without the giggles.

But for those who have some time on their hands and an appetite for fllaky attention-grabbing schemes, this from CFI:

— a Blasphemy-Fest! at CFI Los Angeles that will feature a talk about free speech followed by three provocative films;

— supporters worldwide have been encouraged to take up The Blasphemy Challenge ( by uploading their denials of faith to YouTube. A typical recording: “Hi, my name is Ray and I deny the Holy Spirit. (pause) No lightning. Maybe next time.”
myths are for kids

Or just wait for the movie.

Of Pharisaic Humanism

caiphasI’d like to coin a phrase: Pharisaic Humanism. The phrase describes what I think is the tragic flaw of so-called “secular humanism.”

Humanism has never been one thing. Renaissance humanism was a bundle of things, unified mainly by a principle we all learned (or were supposed to) for that literature exam back in college: it shifted the focus from giving God the glory to giving man his due–an adequate summary of what the never-much-read essay by Pico della Mirandola was doing in the first humanist manifesto, his Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Mind you, Renaissance humanism was not about subtracting from God’s glory. It simply saw humanity as his crowning achievement, endowed with beauty, intelligence, creative power and free will rather than some pitiful mob of sinners begging for mercy and salvation.

But it’s a short step from that to Newtonian Physics and Hume’s philosophy and a sequence of movements that put God and religion on the defensive, as if the creature had at last learned to stand on his own two feet, think for himself, and was ready to make his own way in the world without papa’s rules.

In the Enlightenment, without much flourish, it was permissible for God to die. Maybe that’s why the era produced the most poignant Requiem Mass ever written–Mozart’s–because its real sadness springs from the loss of the hero of western religion. If you have never wept at its Dies Irae, you have never wept for the right thing.

Arising out of this new self-confidence were new theories of government and social order, including America’s secular democracy. Kings were uncrowned. Revolutions were fought. Money under new theories of wealth became popular: greed was transformed into investment and venture, and the virtue of poverty was laid aside as a lingering superstition of the Middle Ages, like the Eucharist and biblical miracles.

These secular and rationalist movements were not the essence of humanist thinking—and the term was, as far as I can tell, almost never used to describe them. But without a doubt they were consequences of what had taken shape in the sixteenth century, across Europe. The eighteenth century, which both Kant and Diderot called “enlightenment,” was to ideas what the previous centuries had been to art, music and literature.

They were also self-satisfied, arrivistic, a bit too spiteful. Of course, we all applaud Hume, puzzle with Kant, laugh with Voltaire, and nod in agreement with Hegel. If God was spared the executioner’s blade, as Charles I and Louis XVI were not, he was at least put on notice and a renewable contract without tenure.

His good behaviour was demanded by a world that in its European format anyway increasingly found his word and commandments onerous rather than sources for progress and material good. His limitations were surprisingly similar to those imposed on the surviving monarchs under evolving ideas of constitutionalism: he had the right to warn and to be advised. In America he had the additional privilege of being the source of certain “rights” that people possessed apart from those defined by usurious kings.

But let me just linger over the word “self-satisfied.”

Early humanism was all about the power of the human imagination—not just as it gets expressed in Shakespeare’s plays or the Sistine chapel ceiling (although those are worthy coordinates), but also in the cartoons of Da Vinci and the scientific spirit of Francis Bacon. In the theological era, before the eighteenth century, self-satisfaction was another word for pride, and considered the greatest of sins, that “by which Satan fell.”

Making yourself like God, however, was not an especially Christian idea. It keeps Gilgamesh from his prize, gets both Achilles and Agamemnon killed, Prometheus shackled, Job broken and doomed to listen to the rants of gossips–the worst of all puinishments.

Part of the irony and beauty of the death of Jesus and the death of Socrates is that they die “in the right,” but not because they are trying to be godlike. They are innocent of vanity (Socrates a little less than Jesus perhaps), or to use the biblical trope, they humble themselves to be exalted. The sophists and aereopagites of Greece were to that process what the priests and pharisees were to Jesus.

In Dante’s Hell the proud are regarded as defective in love and generosity. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, pride is the idolatry of believing in an imperial Church or in the Stuart monarchs’ claim to divine kingship. The point is not that a succession of thinkers was correct in their condemnation of vanity, idolatry and self-satisfaction, but that with loss of a theological ideology to keep things under control—the idea that pride is a dangerous course of action, the idea that an unrelenting fate or a supreme God punishes pride—the stage was set for a new kind of idolatry.

I speak of scientism, secularism, the conviction that the idols of the tribe are superior to the God of human history. Pico’s claim was fairly modest in the fifteenth century: God must be pretty remarkable because man is truly remarkable. In the sixteenth, Shakespeare makes Hamlet exclaim, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

The verse is often quoted out of context, minus Hamlet’s conclusion–the bit that keeps it from being an instance of self-worship: “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not.” What we miss—or rather, what we don’t really have—in a world in which human intelligence, the natural order, and material progress are the measures of all things, is distance.

What we get in exchange for the idea of Adam and his heavenly maker is the idea of a being infinitely small but elementally the same as the boundless cosmos. We are what we see. Carl Sagan’s insipid chorus that “We are star stuff” makes perfect sense if you honestly believe that it is the universe defined by physics that evokes what Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. But I personally doubt many people have their peak experiences in meditating on the analogy between themselves and the dust on Mars. It is simply an attempt to endow science with the awe, mystery and wonder that people possessed when awe, mystery and wonder were religious, the sort of wonder Donne examines in “I am a little world made cunningly.”

What we get in exchange for the idea of having infinite worth derived from an infinite being who raises that smallness to dignity is the idea that we have more in common with what we eat than what we pray to—much more, since what we pray to doesn’t exist at all.
Away with the idea that we are made for higher things. In with the idea that we are about as “high” as it gets, and that what we feel and know are adequate instruments (or at least the only instruments available) for leading fully human lives.

The distance between the aspirations of man, as Aristotle realized, and the physical realities of our existence are the stuff of comedy. We have always wanted immortality and ended up dead. We have always wanted complete knowledge and ended up settling for glimpses of the truth. Science is one of those glimpses, not the True Gnosis of the Elect.

Spun differently, this distance can be the source of tragedy, compassion, challenge, heroism, and creativity. But our lives without distance, without a sense of proportion and humility, are merely farcical. The darker legacy of the Enlightenment in the form of the cult of science and the religion of naturalism gave us farce and deprived us of the tragic and the comic. There was no humanism in that, just self-glorification. Only pride.

I reject the idols of self-esteem, the whole philosophy called “secular humanism” as an oxymoron, in the same way Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ claims to piety and righteousness.

First, because there is no true humanism that is not based on a profound sense of humility. A parochial form of atheism may divide the world into Brights and Dims with the same glee the church fathers once divided the world between orthodoxy and heresy, but only the humanism of the Pharisees would be content with such a self-satisfied and facile division of the world.

“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘My God, I thank You that I am not like these sinners’.”

Humanists cannot side with the uncompassionate because any humanism worth its salt will, secondly, begin with reverence for human life and a sense of gratitude that among all the creatures of the earth we are endowed with knowledge and understanding. When Job challenges the theology of the backbiters, those are the grounds he uses in his own defense: “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you in any way.” We do not need to deny God’s existence, or for that matter have any position on it, in order to give man the credit for the accomplishments of human civilization.

Real humanists have to believe in a common humanity based on intelligence, not on some falsely deduced “global community” held together by a tissue of inconsistent ethical norms carved out in blissful ignorance of the religious values it despises.

Finally, I charge secular humanists with hypocrisy and a failure of philanthropy. The most maligned and self indulgent religions can exhibit charity, bury their dead, visit the sick, fund hospitals and medical research, feed the hungry, create orphanages, give to the poor. Say what you will about Christianity, it is a matter of record that the church virtually invented charity—so much so that the emperor Julian scolds his pagan priests for not doing enough for the poor of the Empire.

The Pharisees were notorious for piling on empty phrases, full of critique and challenges and legal posturing, proud of their tithing, careful to do just enough. Secular humanism has never built a hospital, never paid a teacher’s salary, never endowed a college, never funded medical research, never founded a hospice, never sent workers to deal with a health crisis in Malawi or plant trees in Zambia and never dried a grieving eye. It has never expressed the humanist virtue of compassion in a material way.

If many secular humanists are wealthy, it has to be because they find the tradition of Christian charity more objectionable than the virgin birth. Intellectual critique is easy and cheap; competing with the charitable impulses of religion is expensive. If the answer is that religion can afford to do these things because the church is rich, I say Christians developed these habits when they were poor and in part because they were poor.

Does the secular humanist aversion towards charity arise out of the Pharisaic sense of knowing better and therefore “being” better? Is it because too many of the poorest and most vulnerable are also Dim, or at least religious? Or is it because the word “humanism” has been so thoroughly divorced from its cognate “humanitarianism” that the words have become antonyms. Is secular humanism merely a sense of confederation among those who think they know there is no God, without practical application, without a sense of responsibility for the human consequences of such a position?

What is humanistic about an elitist philosophy of life that has no room for the application of virtue and whose identity seems simplistically derived from its mere opposition to the philosophies and feelings it considers inauthentic or unreasonable? Secular humanism is that kind of humanism and therefore no humanism at all. It has pilfered a term it cannot define and has never actualized in good deeds.

Pharisaism was not the whole of Judaism but an ideology, a sect. The slant we get on it in the New Testament is the slant of a new “faith”—one also rooted in Jewish ideas—that saw the Pharisees as hypocrites, lawyers, and loudmouths—all words and no action, all talk and no walk. Secular humanism as an ideology has become an ossified form of atheism rooted in a blunt rejection not only of religious ethics and ideas but of other forms of humanism as well.

The Pharisees disappeared from the scene before the end of the first century, probably still praying loudly and secure in their righteousness as the tides of history swept them away.