wielding blasphemy in a religious world
Long time atheist Paul Kurtz is continuing his promotion of non-theist thought not with a bang but with a rather accommodationist-like whimper, expressing his shock that groups like the CFI are encouraging blasphemy to skewer pious pundits in an atheist magazine. According to him, atheists should be like children in a strict household; seen but not heard until someone asks them to, and if they talk, it better not be something mean, lest they be ridiculed as those “shrill, uppity heathens.” And of course, they certainly shouldn’t be making light of religious groups that demand unquestioning respect for their dogmas, much less draw cartoons like this…
In case you’re wondering, this cartoon is the winner of the CFI’s Free Expression Cartoon Contest and one of the targets of Kurtz’s ire. Personally, I’m not sure what’s so rude about it since far harsher cartoons appear in newspapers, and the fact that the Vatican has been covering up its supposedly celibate priests’ pedophilia for centuries is a lot more offensive than any joke we can make about it. We can respect others’ right to have religious beliefs as secularists, but we certainly don’t owe any fawning or self-censorship to people who were allowed to commit crimes that that even the most hardened and violent criminals consider to be the lowest of the low. Likewise, we don’t owe any respect to fiery dogmatists who think they have God on mental speed dial and can tell us what to believe, what deity to worship, with who we should be having sex and in what position. If they’re not going to give us the courtesy of leaving us alone, why should we respect them? Because they run towards something they call tradition and arrogantly blab about their supposedly superior morality?
Kurtz is right in one respect. There should be a line between exercising one’s right to blaspheme in the public square without fear of reprisals and to show that you’re not afraid of religious demagogues, and simply being the reverse of a born-again Christian, an atheist who discovered non-theism as a new way to be a rebel. In nations where religious institutions hold too much sway and consider any disagreement with their doctrine to be blasphemy, people are killed, imprisoned, or outright fined for speaking their minds. Just look at the brutal religious police in Saudi Arabia, or Irish blasphemy laws, or the Polish pop star being threatened with fines or jail time just for speaking her mind about her lack of faith. If we don’t establish that self-appointed pontificators who think that wearing a fancy collar, or a black robe, or holding a certain book have more rights than anyone who doesn’t, can’t infringe on our right of free speech and that their days of absolute rule are on the wane, we can and eventually will lose that right.
So while Kurtz is warning us to be polite, timid and inoffensive as not to annoy the snarling priests and clerics, he’s missing what the main points of Blasphemy Days and organized heresy are all about. They’re about free speech and defending non-theists’ rights to be non-theists. They’re about showing that you’re not afraid of the self-righteous, their condemnations, and their fire and brimstone speeches. And the big challenge we have to face there is how not to make it about offending the believers just for being believers, but to use our heresy as a sign that we’re free to make up our own minds about the world, and that no one can force us to bow before a religion by threats of lawsuits, eternal torture, self-aggrandizing speeches or brute force.