Cartoon Cavalcade! CFI Protects Free Expression

[I read somewhere that the Center for Inquiry Blasphemy Contest, since redubbed the Blasphemy Rights Contest, has come round again as part of its super-popular “Campaign for Free Expression.” “It made me nostalgic for this 2010 piece, so i woke it up.  rjh]

Ladies and Germs. No, Really. Heh, heh.

It is not often that we have an opportunity to salute the defenders of free speech. Why should tonight be any different.

Badda bing.

And who says free expression can’t be funny?

The Center for Inquiry, that’s who.

“As part of its contribution to the Center for Inquiry’s Campaign for Free Expression, the Council for Secular Humanism invited professional and amateur artists to submit their sharpest, cleverest, and most ingenious creations touching on that most sensitive subject: religion.”

Can it only be yesterday that the Center was awarding prizes for slogans like “Faith is no reason.” Yes it could.

I have taken some heat on this site for claiming that atheists qua atheists are not especially funny. Now I have proof.

I’d rather have pudding. Badda bing.

When atheism goes on the attack it usually doesn’t know where to aim.

Whaddya do when you don’t know where to aim.

That’s right, Sally: Aim low.

Whaddya call an army of freethinkers? Nothing, they won’t come when you call.

So, in keeping with the noble tradition of failed stand-up comedy of a genre that would not even place in a college newspaper competition:

Number One:

Comment from prizegivers: “A stinging indictment of the Catholic Church’s pedophilic priest scandal that allows absolutely no room for the predictable apologetic defense. Left me laughing and wincing at the same time!” Not sure how an organization that prides itself on truth, justice and The American way (“It’s a bird, it’s a plane. Naw, it’s only Father Flaherty committing suicide.”) can get by with stinging pre-trial cartoon indictments. But boy, could I be wrong!

Number Two:

Prizegiver: “Dramatic art of the empty-eyed victim who has fallen prey to what Richard Dawkins calls religion’s ‘virus of the mind.’ Employs the over-the-top hype of a B movie advertising billboard to make its point. Good use of contrast and color. Scary!” Masterfully objective. CFI uses “science and reason,” and as we all know has discovered both the God gene and the Religion virus, so this is scary indeed. Unless…

And three:

CFI Judge: “A sweeping commentary on the negative effects of religion on society- from law, to science, to war, to culture.” This shows how little I know about cartoons. I thought this was incredibly stupid and confused, kind of the opposite of sweeping and stinging.

There was also an amateurs section for the “free expression” cartoons, the most incisive of which is this:

The prize-giver said he “laughed out loud at this one.”

I have to admit, I didn’t, mainly because John’s arm is on backwards and he’s going to throw the rock on the ground.

Hilarious, and worth every penny in prize money.

NeoHumanism: A Center for Intellectuals?

I have happily signed Paul Kurtz’s statement on the principles of Neohumanism and hope to review the document on this site in a week or so.

It’s enough to say, read it and understand that it comes at a critical moment in the history of the humanist movement. It calls upon freethinkers to do something they almost never have to do–except with respect to the totally inconsequential question of the existence of God: Make up their minds.

For those of us whose humanism is not limited to the Big Question, or whether the First Amendment is inspired writ, or whether civilization commenced with Darwin, there is plenty in the statement to think about.

A warning: it is a very long piece of work so bring a sandwich and a glass of Pinot Grigio with you to the read.

Readers should also have a look at the response of the Kurtz-founded Center for Inquiry, penned by lawyer turned guru Ronald Lindsay (a status he seems to think came with the parking space) and the Huffington Post‘s comments on the statement.

Writing on the CFI website Lindsay recorded that he could not “in good conscience,” sign the statement, though he was pained by having to refuse. (Flash: Jiminy Cricket is dead.) The reason for CFI’s demurer probably has as much to do with New Directions and with the growing rift between Kurtz and the New Regime, which is really not so much a “new” crew as a raft of rudderless old sailors from Buffalo trying to reinvent themselves as first-class seamen on the backs of Celebs like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Prediction: It will never work.

Which brings me to the two things we already know about freethought–a quaint and sometime polite word that can mean everything from muscular disbelief and cantankerous opposition to God, incense and apple pie to quiet disapproval of dogma, (religious) holidays and divine inspiration.

One is that freethought thrives on contrarian impulses. The whole “Who says so?” attitude of many secular humanists leads to purist rigor, one-upsman-ship, even soteriology: The God I don’t believe in is bigger than the God you don’t believe in. The harm religion did me was more serious than the harm religion did you. The full-frontal unbelief I represent is truer and purer than the unbelief you’re espousing. Reason saves, faith enslaves. (That’s pretty good: try it on a coffee mug.) In the past, I’ve used the word “Pharisaic” humanism to describe this posture, but because the culprits don’t know who the Pharisees were the allusion has not become…code.

For all their principled reliance on evidence and fact, in ordinary discourse atheists ( at least the cranky ones) are more prone than almost any other single group to denounce the views of others as mere opinion. So, as happened in the case of the Neohumanist Statement, Write a manifesto, get a zucchini for a thank you.

When CFI ran its Blasphemy Day competition, awarding prizes for the most obtuse display of tasteless rhetoric against religion, I suggested that prizes should be given on the basis of how many things an avowed atheist doesn’t believe about God–and no fair saying “any of it, or Him.” It’s ok not to believe in talking snakes, but you still have to believe in gardens, Babylon and human predecessors. My premise was that anybody who doesn’t believe in God should at least know something about the subject. Otherwise, not believing in time or in the molar mass of an element–both bloody difficult to see–may as well be next on your list.

The second thing you can count on among freethinkers is that they can’t laugh at their own positions. My theory is that this is because there are so many of them that if they started laughing they could never stop. They take their belief with the same seriousness a Pentecostal takes the surety that Jesus loves him and his Christian comic book collection.

I once repeated a Woody Allen joke in front of a heavily atheist audience, having just told it the week before at a local, liberal temple. “I don’t believe in an afterlife but just in case I’m taking a change of underwear.” My Jewish audience was tickled pink. My atheist friends looked at me as though to say, “Are you saying you do believe in an afterlife”? Twice-born atheists can make an outsider feel as unwelcome in the Temple of Bright as a secular humanist would feel in a tent meeting down in Tuscaloosa. (You know, where Groucho says they take the elephants because it’s easier to remove the ivory there).

That’s why, as far as I’m concerned, any call for humanists to recognize that humility and humor are at least as important as being bright and right is a welcome change from the arrogant, carping, smirking, puerile atheism that is becoming the face of the base.

It’s hard to imagine that the attention-getting strategies of a CFI will ever add up to a coherent vision or a systematic approach to problem solving. Saying you’re for science and reason is a bit like saying you’re for peace. Who isn’t?

But how do you get there? And at the end of the trip, do you get the good life or just the T-shirt?


The word “community” goes back to the Greeks, who used it to mean a circle of people who shared common interests, memories, sexual preferences, and beliefs. –Koinonia

We can’t do better than that definition.

Communities were not just groups but occasions for drinking, story-telling, arguing, remembering.

Religion fell to the use of the term by default. Stories about Jesus and even the Eucharistic banquet were memorial occasions, originally informal and probably even competitive, judging from Paul’s warnings about the gluttony, libertinism and selfishness of the Corinthians.

–Then formalized and a little dull, as the stories get written down and a lid is clamped on what the “official” stories are. How dull canon is, or as the immortal Emily might say, “How public like a frog.”

Perhaps nothing is more fatal to community (in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern style anyway) than literacy. Except for the drinking, the words of the Prophet of Islam were remembered in similar ways–by fires and moonlight, and even the teachings of the Buddha and the aphorisms of the (almost certainly) fictional Arjuna. Let literacy come along, you get books, bishops, mullahs, dogma, the trinity, jihad. Ah! For the food and the wine and the arguing.

In my imagination, Muhammad received his first revelations after a moonlit night of Arabian debauchery, and Jesus, at the last supper, told the apostles he was going out to pray for a while before his arrest, sent them away, went into a room with Mary Magdalene, and, well…you know. Prove me wrong. Because the cover-up story in Luke 22.39-46 looks pretty suspicious, I can tell you.

Communities are designed to make people feel a part of something. They are not sure-fire safeguards against conflict, dissent, and outright mutiny.

Being a part of any family includes that risk. Catholics and Jews aren’t immune to community friction. I am guessing that even Quakers feel it from time to time, as they wait in absorbed indecision to feel the spirit move among them. But feeling a part of something—a family, a church, a revolutionary movement, a political party, a linguistic or racial minority—is another way of acknowledging that it is very hard to feel part of everything.

I am skeptical that there is any such thing as a global community, no matter how many times I listen to Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, et al. sing “We are the World.” Truth to tell they’re just a fraction of it, a peace-and-justice-loving-singing community.

I worry that people think virtual communities are the same as real communities, that chat rooms are as good as a drunken Athenian symposium. I worry that virtual classrooms are seen as being at least as good as real classrooms—maybe better–and that “real” classrooms are becoming virtual—“smart.” Don’t get me wrong: I love images. I love PowerPoint. I just don’t want to become one. I like to know that a student disagrees with me, nods because I have said something interesting, frowns when I say something idiotic or unfunny or that the price tag is still on my coat sleeve. True story. A classroom community is a real thing.

I find it sad that my daughters can spend eighteen hours a day—ok, twelve–messaging friends, checking inboxes to see who loves them, racing from the dinner table when a ding tells them a new message has arrived, pouring over images to tailor their appearance to how a thousand unknown onlookers (some of them creeps) will see them on Facebook and MySpace.

Isn’t the very phrase MySpace coded to mean the opposite of community, as in Get out of…? And doesn’t the conglomerate term Face-book tell you that what you are getting instead of a relationship is fraud and chit and poseurie rather than anything you can possibly remember the next day or take to the bank? You can’t have a baby or a hangover in a virtual community. Or maybe you can, but both will be painless, because the defining thing about a virtual community is lack of feeling.

But the desperadoes, both Millennials and Submillennials, worry me for another reason.

They worry me because in leaving the dinner table they are leaving behind the traditional location where community happened. Symbolically, they are anti-eucharistic, anti-narrative, anti-memory. Anti-old. There, I said it. A community of Now cannot be a community of When.

In days of yore, when community meant human voices raised in song in churches and pubs (not that different, actually), when there were bards and story-tellers and corner-table philosophers and prophets and flirtatious women (blackguards and wenches) and scuffles, the possibility of opting out of your context was slim. Community was local, not global.

There were people you could hate, even ne’er do-wells you might want to murder. Now all fights happen in the Matrix. Virtual violence is the only show in town. New York, a community of communities, is one of the safest cities in the universe. Something is wrong: does this mean that if we had had handsets and Wii (“a seventh generation console”) in 1968 nothing would have exploded, neither Bedford Stuyvesant nor Bobby Kennedy’s head?

Communities have always been composed of people, people who are just like you. They look a little like you, sing the same songs, sleep with similar people, like the same food, share the same prejudices, usually vote the same way.

But these real communiteers are not people you could just “de-friend.” The proof of the collapse of community is the fact that getting rid of someone who isn’t worth your attention is now as easy as compiling them as friends in the first place: they cease to exist when they suffer the humiliation of being made ritually inaccessible on a virtual page. In that kind of community, in MySpace I have all the power, and I can use it how I want. Imagine a Jew cutting off Israel, a Catholic Holy Mother Church. My Bad? Eat shit motherfucker and die. I don’t Need You. I kissed a girl. You burnt. Sexually I mean, Yo Mama is so fat. Ex setera.

I have a theory. It’s a sensory theory of community. It’s all about smell. The difference between real and fake community is that you can smell as well as see a real community.

Remember those high school dates? Wow. You wore English Leather, she wore Chanel 22. You knew sex was at hand when in equal measure the scents began to yield to other smells, then blend into something the manufacturers could only have guessed at. Sorry to be vulgar, but it’s true.

Your father wore real Old Spice (as opposed to “Original,” WTF!) and your mother a trace of “Midnight in Paris,” (well, mine did, but she was unusual, which is why she was always home late from choir practice). Ever notice how scents are now described by kinetic genre or velocity: “Old Spice High Endurance” or “Fusion” or “Pro-Clean,” as though what you want to avoid at any cost is the human stain?

Deodorant is a prophylactic. It neutralizes you in the same way being defriended excommunicates you. To be a part of a real community means you conform. To be a part of a virtual community puts you in charge. It is a rush, isn’t it? Let’s not even talk about Viagra.

In the twentieth century, people were still motivated by the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and gendered definitions of community—by the difference between insiders and outsiders. America, with its melting- pot configurations, was divided between sectors who thought that breaking down barriers was cool and those who felt that barriers were fortifications to keep people apart—black-white, protestant-Catholic, rich-poor, gay-straight. No one stopped to think what might happen when the walls were toppled. Does anyone know yet?

America’s mixed-success melting pot was Europe’s postcolonial implosion. All of a sudden it was not unusual for a Jamaican or a Pakistani to say “I am an Englishman.” Quietly, of course, there was disagreement. Scene: Melbourne 1988. Two cops in front of me are watching a drunken Asian leaving a club with his “Australian” girlfriend. “Fuckin’ wog,” one says to the other. “Roight,” says the other. The same two, at a pub on Saturday, know Americans as “Fuckin’ septics.” That’s community my dears.

I wonder why (sometimes) no one noticed that for a black man to say “I am an American”—a country without a racial, linguistic, or religious pedigree—was rather different from saying “I am an Englishman.” The answer is that America had been a hodgepodge of communities for a very long time–England, a hodgepodge of dialects with social consequences and insignificant racial variation before 1950. It’s so easy to be a community when there are no…Others.

In general, I agree with Frost, the poet, not the toff journalist: walls are a tribute to our inability to understand each other. Viz., Gaza, Berlin, Jericho, the US border with Mexico.

But really, walls are built when community fails and sad alliances take their place. That’s why the Jews need to fence in Gaza, why “America” needs to fence out Mexico. In the future, there will only be smart communities and dumb communities.

History is proving that. Who hates Barack Obama the most? Whites? America? The Chinese? No: Stupid people the world over. Because he defies our “sense” of community by belonging to too many of them.

Oh, community! The part of me that prefers the days of wine, women and song (and religion and pubs) is strong. The part that despises virtual community is fiery. The part that detests walls is steadfast and sure. Where do we go from here?