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Oh, Damn! Blasphemy Day Looks for a Target

5 years ago
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Today, September 30, is Blasphemy Day, and if that makes you want to curse, then the Center for Inquiry may be the place to register your epithet -- or send a donation. It all depends on your point of view, and whether you want to complain about an atheist whose beliefs you can't stand or denounce a divinity you don't believe in.

The Center for Inquiry, or CFI, is hoping for the second option, encouraging people to declare their contempt for God (or gods) as a way of promoting freedom of expression, which the CFI sees as threatened by growing legal and social privileges for religious beliefs.

As part of its effort, Blasphemy Day promotions include a "Blasphemy Contest" that challenges entrants "to create a phrase, poem, or statement that [is] considered blasphemous" and an exhibit at CFI's office near Capitol Hill that features the work of artist Dana Ellyn, whose painting "Jesus Does His Nails" depicts Christ applying nail polish to the nails in his hands. ("Doing his nails." Get it?)

But in dissing believers so blithely, the CFI may also have crossed a line that even its own founder, Paul Kurtz, could not accept.

In a damning essay posted on the CFI website Tuesday night, the eve of Blasphemy Day, Kurtz blasts the current CFI leadership (he is emeritus chair of the organization) for promoting caricatures of believers much as the Nazis once did of Jews. Kurtz, the widely respected godfather of much of the rationalist movement, also pointed the finger at "some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention."
"The right to publish dissenting critiques of religion should be accepted as basic to freedom of expression," Kurtz writes. "But for CFI itself to sponsor the lampooning of Christianity by encouraging anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, or any other anti-religious cartoons goes beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in pluralistic society. It is not dissimilar to the anti-semitic cartoons of the Nazi era. Yet there are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention. In doing so they have dishonored the basic ethical principles of what the Center for Inquiry has resolutely stood for until now: the toleration of opposing viewpoints."

"It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way by calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms, 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."
But Ronald Lindsay, current CEO and president of the Center for Inquiry, protested that Blasphemy Day is not about channeling Seth Rogen's comic sensibility to make fun of religion.

"We're not really out to ridicule religion," Lindsay told me. "We're not interested in crude sexual jokes." For the Blasphemy Contest, he said, "We want people to be creative, to come up with some kind of concise phrase that might indicate some of the flaws of religion. But we don't want something crude, because what's the point of that?"

On the other hand, Lindsay's wishes can be hard to square with the derogatory and even demeaning polemics of many of the so-called "New Atheists," or even with Lindsay's own sense of humor.

In a YouTube video promoting Blasphemy Day, for instance, Lindsay sits with a cuddly "Blasphemer Bear" at his side. The bear used to be called "Muhammad Bear" in honor of British teacher Gillian Gibbons, who was arrested in 2007 while working in Sudan because she allowed her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad, which Islamic authorities said defamed the faith. Gibbons was eventually pardoned after an international outcry and returned to England. In the video, Lindsay drolly explains that naming the toy after Muhammad was offensive to teddy bears because Muhammad was an unsavory character, and he went on to assert much the same about Jesus ("A guy in his 20s who never had a date?") and the Buddha and so on. So they re-baptized the toy "Blasphemer Bear."

And that's not ridiculing religion? Lindsay says no.

"You can criticize someone's political beliefs, their economic beliefs, their philosophical beliefs. You can criticize their sports team, tell them it's ridiculous to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs," he said. "But if you question their religion, suddenly it's out of bounds; it's taboo. We don't think that's right. We think religious beliefs should be subject to the same level of examination and criticism as other beliefs."

Okay. But is there anything that offends blasphemers?

Lindsay paused for several seconds. "That's a good question."

"Nothing I can think of," he says. "Nothing about my beliefs. And what we're talking about is beliefs," Lindsay said. Insulting someone for their race or a disability is "out of bounds because you're not making a point. You're just basically insulting a person for some reason."

The genesis of this first-ever Blasphemy Day was the publication four years ago on this date of a controversial series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons were viewed as profoundly blasphemous by Muslims, who consider any depiction of the Prophet as an offense against Islam, and they were especially outraged at cartoons making fun of Muhammad. The cartoons sparked violence around the world as furious Muslims rioted, and the reverberations continue to be felt.

Earlier this month, for example, Yale University Press was blasted by free-speech advocates for removing the 12 Danish caricatures from a new book, "The Cartoons That Shook the World," that analyzes the reasons behind the outrage.

The Center for Inquiry's bimonthly magazine, Free Inquiry, was the lone American publication to reprint the cartoons, and it received both praise and criticism -- as well as lots of publicity after Borders refused to stock the April-May 2006 edition out of fear of violence at its stores.

But that was then, and this is now, and some see the current Blasphemy Day observance as giving Islam a pass while turning its sights on Christianity.

They point to events that CFI is holding in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and elsewhere that include films about child molesting priests, "de-baptisms" in New Jersey, and, perhaps most provocatively, the art exhibit in Washington.

The painter, Dana Ellyn, says the depiction of Jesus applying nail polish to spikes in his hands (another about Jesus and the Easter Bunny, is titled "Silly Rabbit, Myths are for Kids") is meant to show Bible stories as tall tales that ought to be challenged. "My point is not to offend, but I realize it can offend, because religion is such a polarizing topic," Ellyn, a self-described "agnostic atheist," told Religion News Service.

Well, it takes two to tango, and Ellyn and other happy blasphemers have no shortage of dance partners.

"The stated purpose of Blasphemy Day has nothing to do with any religion but Islam, yet there is not one scheduled event insulting Muslims," says the Catholic League's Bill Donohue. "So who have they chosen to mock? You guessed it -- Christians."

CFI says its main goal in Blasphemy Day is to battle anti-blasphemy resolutions pushed in the United Nations largely by Muslim countries, some of which have laws that punish blasphemy -- against Islam -- sometimes by death. (While the U.S. Supreme Court declared blasphemy laws unconstitutional in 1952, laws regulating blasphemy remain on the books in six states -- Massachusetts, Michigan, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wyoming -- but are never enforced.)

Still, it seems clear that in the U.S. context, at least, Christianity is a safer target, and an easier one, thanks to the size of the Christian population, and the sensitivity of many of its members and leaders, though not all.

In a column responding to the Blasphemy Day initiative, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, advised believers to take the high road. "The sheer foolishness of a blasphemy contest with t-shirts and mugs betrays the lunacy of it all," Mohler writes. "They can do no better than this? One testimony to the power of God is the fact that his self-declared enemies come off as so childish and manic."

When Al Mohler and Paul Kurtz are singing the same tune, you have a sense that something is shifting in the cosmos.

But is it too late to save religion -- or blasphemy?

From Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" to a New Yorker magazine with a crucified Easter Bunny on the cover, the blasphemous can seem almost run-of-the-mill in the modern American context -- much as the sacred is often another weapon to deploy in political battles. In fact, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference, unless you know the motivation. Christian businesses market all manner of devotional objects and images in what would have once been considered crass, if not abominable, formats. Mel Gibson even advertised his "Passion of the Christ" movie by plastering images of a suffering Jesus on the smokin' hoods of speeding stock cars.

Besides, with the ranks of secularists and the religiously indifferent -- the "Nones," as they are called in a recent survey -- approaching a quarter of the U.S. population, blasphemy hardly seems like the act of rebellion it once was, but more like an invitation to a food fight.

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