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 (http://www.blasphemychallenge.com) 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.”
Or just wait for the movie.
Thank you. Pockets of sanity are always refreshing.
I had a fascinating email exchange with the painter of those pictures, Dana Ellyn, for my blog posting on International Blasphemy Day. The outcome was hilarious. If you want to check it out, here’s the link:
My newspaper column on International Blasphemy Day is here:
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