Friday, March 06, 2009


Blasphemy Day?


There’s a Facebook group called “Blasphemy Day International” that’s advocating the 30th of September as Blasphemy Day, “a national day to promote free speech and stand up in a show of solidarity for the freedom to mock and insult religion without fear of murder, violence, and reprisal.”

The MediaWatchWatch blog says, “Blasphemy is a joyous, funny, socially progressive, and profoundly moral act.”

Characteristically, PZ Myers is promoting it, adding, “I only have one reservation. Every day should be Blasphemy Day.”

You all know, of course, how I feel about religion. You might think I’m whole-heartedly in favour of this. Up with blasphemy! Down with religion!

I’m not.

As I’ve said before, my own opinion of religion as fantasy and superstition is one thing. Insulting my friends and neighbours is another. And this just strikes me as gratuitous insult. Mocking and insulting people may feel joyous to some, but it’s not funny, not “socially progressive”, not “profoundly moral”.

Everyone must, of course, have the right to say what they like. The ads on the buses are fine, though I wish they were unnecessary — I’d like things to be back as they were when I was young, and people kept their religion to themselves, mostly. Of course we must all be free to write opinions, draw cartoons, and say whatever we want to say for or against religion, “without fear of ... reprisal.”

Organizing a day when we encourage people to “mock and insult” others is not the way to do that. It will have quite the opposite effect, steeling “believers” against the attack. This isn’t productive, and it’s not the way to treat our friends and neighbours, most of who will be targets of Blasphemy Day mockery and insult.

Shall we next have “Laugh at the Badly Dressed Day”? “Kick a Cripple Day”?

I’d love to live in a world where everyone saw things in a way I consider “sensible”. This is not that world. And I’m not going to turn it into that world by shouting insults to people who don’t agree with me.

Update, 10 Mar: In the comments, Natalie Jones gives a perfect explanation of what this is really all about, and why it’s necessary. Go read that comment.


Katie said...

I'm all for "laugh at the badly dressed" day, or perhaps "throw eggs at Hummers" day, or perhaps ......

Michelle said...

Personally, for me, every goddamn day is blashphemy day, but I guess that would be international, cos I'm not national.. but Christ, I agree with you actually, there's nothing to be gained by going out of your way to piss people off just for the sake of it.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I'm agnostic, but I've never really appreciated it when people feel a need to rudely mock other people's beliefs. Doesn't seem like it's apt to be remotely constructive.

TW said...

Its not about tossing insults, except for a very few childish members of the group. Its about protesting things like the recent UN anti-blasphemy measure. Its about protesting laws which allow for imprisonment or execution of blasphemers. Protesting things like exhorting people to murderauthors like Salmon Rushdie.

Anonymous said...

You do realize that South Park is blasphemy, right? George Carlin's routines about religion are blasphemy. Father Guido is blasphemous. The group opposes laws which would make these illegal.

Glacian said...

[Mocking and insulting people may feel joyous to some, but it’s not funny, not “socially progressive”, not “profoundly moral”.]

Actually, it is. A vast deal of comedy is based off of mocking people, and it IS funny. Nobody thinks twice about mocking George W. Bush for being damn-near retarded, or for mocking people’s nationality, gender, etc. and millions of people enjoy comedy shows like Southpark. Even less gratuitously offensive programs that regularly mock and insult just about everything. But the moment you insult religion – that’s going too far? Why?

Second, if you took a moment to look at the reasons why this group exists, one of the main ones is that the UN is trying to pass a binding resolution to BAN criticism of religion. This group didn’t spring into exist merely to get kicks out of insulting people, but because there is no movement with enough nerve to stand against the tide of censorship the UN and the world threatens us with in the name of tolerance.

Why would people be so uncomfortable with blasphemy that they wouldn’t want to get behind it? I know why – but that’s precisely the point, and precisely the barrier I want to break down, that somehow “blasphemy” is a taboo we shouldn’t support. I support it not merely as a free speech issue but because I agree with blasphemous ideas: we don’t merely have the right, but the obligation, to criticize religion loudly and as often as possible. It’s been, and remains, a massive impediment to scientific and social progress.

Look at the recent events that have taken place. The Danish Muhammed cartoons. Tasteful? No. Offensive? Certainly. But what do you find more offensive: people making fun of Muhammed, or people murdering and rioting in the streets because of it? And yet here you are criticizing us, and not them. This group has become a necessity because far too many people feel that we must respect beliefs merely because if we don’t, it’ll be declared offensive by others, others who have no regard for our lives unless we respect them. Respect isn’t demanded at the point of a gun, it is earned, and the moment someone demands it at the point of a gun, they’ve revoked any “right” they claim to have to it.

Danish cartoons weren’t merely about expression free speech, they were making a point: Islam can and does inspire what can only be described as psychotic paroxysms of violence in (some) of its adherents. This is unacceptable, and the spreading threat of Islam – such as the passing of Sharia Courts into the UK – is just as alarming as infringements on free speech. They’re encroaching on our values and at the same time demanding that we respect this. We need to stop respecting religion – or at least particular manifestations of religion - , not merely because beliefs in and of themselves don’t automatically deserve respect, but because these particular beliefs positively deserve our disrespect and our opposition.

My own view about it is simply that it’s just not wrong to insult religions, even nastily and harshly. I recall Richard Dawkins commenting on how his detractors say he’s unduly harsh and insensitive to their beliefs, then he proceeds to quote from a food critique that was about as blistering as could be. Nobody blinks an eye. I want to break the barrier that protections religion and religion in particular, from criticism. This isn’t merely about free speech, but about breaking down the barrier that keeps people in fear of speaking their mind – I know there are millions around the world furious at the encroachment of Islam on values that go beyond just free speech. Many Muslims want Sharia courts the world over, spreading homophobic, misogynistic bile in their wake.

Eric said...

[Insulting my friends and neighbours is another.]

No one said anything about insulting friends and neighbors.

The group description says that they will "mock and insult religion." That is, mock and insult incoherent nonsense, NOT the people who believe it.

Ideologies that discourage independent thought, discourage the demand for extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, and have the potential to harm society NEED to be mocked and insulted. And considering the recent behavior of the UN (, standing up for the right to say whatever we want is needed now more than ever.

This isn't about the believer, it is about what they believe. And non-believer and believer alike need to recognize that it is our right to say whatever we wish about the beliefs that anyone may hold, whether they consider them sacred or not.

As Richard Dawkins points out (, blasphemy is a victimless crime.

Watch the Dawkins video. Listen to the part when he starts talking about restaurant reviews.

We can speak out against anything, generally, and no one minds. But when it comes to religion, people get nervous.

Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

Anonymous said...

If you don't like it, then you don't have to participate.

I, for one, think this day is much needed. We must exercise our freedom of speech in order to keep it, and contrary to what you say, blasphemy is profoundly moral.

Books like the bible and koran promote lots of bad things, and it is not only our right to speak out against such things, but I would say our moral obligation. Having a national day in which we encouraged people to speak out against bible verses that promote slavery and rape (for example) would be the perfect way to steer society in a more civil direction.

Barry Leiba said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.
I have little to add, beyond what I've already said. Just a few small things in response to the comments from Facebook folks (welcome!):

I absolutely agree that there should be no law against blasphemy, and I agree with protests against such laws. Absolutely, completely, fully. I just think that going out of our collective way to blaspheme is not a useful way to mount a protest.

TW says that it's only a "childish" minority who want to go around "tossing insults". Good! I'm glad to hear that, and thanks for clarifying.

I see a great difference between mocking a public figure such as George Bush (or Benedict XVI, or Bill Donohue, or whoever)... and mocking arbitrary people who've done nothing to offend and who've not made themselves into public figures. People who have demanded take-downs of "blasphemous" things (whether it be "South Park" or an Andres Serrano art photo) have given up any immunity — as have I.

Finally, I'm expressing my opinion, as are all of you. I'm not suggesting that anyone stop people from blaspheming, on 30 Sept nor any other day. What I'm suggesting is that I think it's a bad idea to do it because you think it will accomplish something useful. I think it won't.

But, well, knock yourselves out, you know? You mothers were all hamsters, and your fathers smelt of elderberries.

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, and I'll say again, because it bears repeating: Thank you all for taking the time to comment.

Eric said...

[I just think that going out of our collective way to blaspheme is not a useful way to mount a protest.]

What makes you think anyone is going out of their way? I get the impression that anybody who would join that group probably blasphemes on regular basis! :-)

[I see a great difference between mocking a public figure such as George Bush (or Benedict XVI, or Bill Donohue, or whoever)... and mocking arbitrary people who've done nothing to offend and who've not made themselves into public figures]

Again, as far as I can see from the group's description, no one is insulting PEOPLE, only ideas.

[What I'm suggesting is that I think it's a bad idea to do it because you think it will accomplish something useful. I think it won't.]

It seems like your arguments against blasphemy day are all based on the false idea that we will be insulting people. People are victims of religion, religion is the perpetrator. And we need to act against this mind virus that has been offered such a high level of protection, for reasons that I can not understand.

Have you watched the Dawkins video that I posted above?

[Oh, and I'll say again, because it bears repeating: Thank you all for taking the time to comment.]

Thank you for welcoming our participation.

Natalie Jones said...

Hi there, and thank you for your blog, it was good to read. I have to say I have a stated interest here, on both sides of the fence. I'm the agnostic daughter of a Jewish mother and an aetheist father. I'm also a member of the blasphemy day group.

Now before people jump up and down and start throwing insults let me tell you a little bit more, please?

I didn't join because I want to walk up to priests in the street and blaspheme at them. Nor because I want to advocate tearing turbans off heads or ripping veils from faces. I joined because I genuinely believe that everyone should have equal rights and freedoms.

Unfortunately giving everyone that right means sometimes you can have someone say something that upsets other people, and that's the risk you take - especially with the more childish element in society.

I want to allow people with opposing views the right to speak their minds, and at the same time to open their minds to the possibility of changing their point of view if they find someone elses argument make more sense.

We don't have to use blasphemy or any other insults to do that. But we do have to stand up for our right to free speech and free thought if we don't want to live in an oppressive society. And we have to have the right to do so without being attacked, verbally or physically, for our views.

No one has the right to threaten, intimidate or kill somebody for saying something they disagree with, no matter what their colour, race, religion or persuasion. No one in their right mind would consider the use of the "N" word acceptable any more, because we've learned that it's not the right thing to do. It's also not the right thing to say "I'm going to kill you because you drew a cartoon that lampooned my religion". Equally it's unacceptable to say "you're a moron because you believe in invisible friends".

Any abuse is an abuse, and I won't excuse that. But I will insist that I have the right to believe or disbelieve what I choose without people telling me I'm wrong, without people attacking me for it, and without people telling me I can't open my mouth and discuss it even in a light hearted manner.

As someone who considers their words carefully I certainly have every intention of standing against any law that attempts to curtail my freedom of beliefs and/or freedom of speech.

Yes, blashphemy day is probably a poor choice of title for the group, but if you can see past the title and the small but vocal element who prefer to trade insults, you'll realise that actually the people in the group are mostly those who want open minds, not closed ones, no matter what faith or science they are from.

Barry Leiba said...

An excellent explanation, Natalie, and thanks for it. I agree with you completely.