Why I Choose Not to Support Blasphemy Day

As Joe Hoffmann puts it, “this preposterous exercise in how to be religiously offensive is as tactless as it is pointless.”

A few years ago, I helped organize the Blasphemy Challenge.  At the time, it was useful.  We had a target (Christians who never read the Bible).  We had a purpose (to allow atheists to step out of the “closet” and tell the world they were not afraid).  We brought atheism into the media light–even before Dawkins’ book The God Delusion (2006) hit book shelves and took off running.  We challenged preconceived notions about atheism by letting atheists speak for themselves.  This was over four years ago.

While some may say that Blasphemy Day is the same, it isn’t.  There was a message behind the Blasphemy Challenge; it was not meant to ridicule.  It was meant to awaken minds.  Blasphemy Day has no real message other than to say “We’re here, now STFU and watch while I degrade this crucifix!”    America, and the world, has already been made aware of atheists, their large numbers (as referenced by President Obama during his inaugural speech and his discussion on faith before he became president).  What possible point could such a Blasphemy Day serve?

Additionally, my ideals have changed some.  I left activism because I no longer felt I believed in the direction it was headed.  If this is where atheist activism has arrived, I am glad I stepped off the bus and turned my back on it when I did.  Secular thought, critical thinking; these characteristics used to be the staple of atheist organizations and at some point (perhaps I am a little responsible for this), it became about ridicule and isolationism.  We are isolating ourselves from other atheist communities, other freethought organizations, other humanist organizations, and now we want to isolate ourselves once again from society.  By participating in Blasphemy Day, we are saying “we’re different” rather than saying “we’re the same” and the rest of the world–who have had spent all that time rethinking what they had thought about atheist organizations–will start to develop those same stigmas again.  In essence, those atheists who promote this thinking are stepping backwards rather than moving forward.

I’m not saying that irrational beliefs do not deserve to be criticized–what I am saying is that irrational beliefs deserve to be criticized.   When someone tells you that the world was created in 6 literal days, its okay to criticize the claim.  Analyze it, discuss it–but ridicule it?  I’m not sure what simply ridiculing a belief will accomplish when the person you’re talking to can not be embarrassed.  If a person believes the earth was created in 6 literal days, they believe you’re the idiot for not agreeing with them.  Ridiculing their beliefs is only going to make them hold on tighter.

You can’t kick the crutch out from under someone who faithfully believes they cannot walk without it.  You need to first show them that the crutch is useless and let them toss it away themselves.  In effect, Blasphemy Day is a thousand people kicking at a few crutches.  There is no doubt in my mind that these people will simply hold on for dear life and, in the end, may even use their crutches to swing back.



11 Responses

  1. While that is an interesting perspective, I think you might have missed the point about Blasphemy Day. It is not the same as the Blasphemy Challenge although they are related. Blasphemy Day isn’t about ridiculing irrational beliefs (thought that certainly takes place). It is more an issue of free speech than religious ridicule. Religion has made speech a sin and in some cases have forced free speech to be much less free. Blasphemy Day is an attempt to reclaim that free speech. Remember that Blasphemy Day is a response to the Danish Riots over a cartoon while the Blasphemy Challenge dealt with particular verses in the Bible.

    Also, I think ridicule of ridiculous beliefs is a good thing. Sam Harris talked about this when he said that when someone seriously claims to have a belief that Elvis is still alive, there is an immediate price that is paid. Just some thoughts,

  2. The ongoing debate: Honey or vinegar?

    I agree with you, of course, that the Blasphemy Challenge was a useful marketing tool in a time when atheists needed marketing. I also agree that it’s served its purpose. For one thing, the Christians who genuinely care about it from a theological point of view have already worked out their explanations. They’ve rewoven the fabric of their dogma to either exclude or include whoever they want, and they are no longer shocked or outraged by teenagers saying “Fuck the Holy Spirit.”

    For another thing, atheists are clearly visible now. In fact, I believe tonight is when Richard Dawkins is slated to appear on the Colbert Report. Steven has already had several notable atheist guests, as has Jon Stewart. There was the famous (infamous) Nightline debate. There are the dozen or so New York Times bestsellers written by various atheists. There’s a president who acknowledges atheists. Bus ads. Billboards. Atheist Nexus. American Atheists. Atheist Alliance. Etc, etc. We are visible.

    Personally, I’ve always believed in a certain amount of ridicule. There’s a reason P.Z. Myers has the most popular science/atheist blog in the country. (World?) He brings a level of snark to the reporting of theist insanity that appeals to those of us who are fed up with pretending that the ridiculous is worth consideration. Put simply, I believe that some beliefs are worthy of ridicule, and I think ridicule serves a purpose.

    However, you make a solid point that the rest of us should not forget. Ridicule must serve a purpose, or it’s just inflammatory and unhelpful. I have always been an advocate of taking the high ground when it comes to people. Even people with ridiculous beliefs deserve respect.

    If you ask me, the primary goal of the “atheist movement” ought to be real legislative and societal change. Rather than sitting around ridiculing theists (which is so easy it ought to get boring) for their beliefs, we should be taking absolutely every opportunity available to press any advantage we have from our newfound visibility. We should be suing for removal of religious tests, icons, etc, and calling any and all discrimination against atheists exactly what it is — unconstitutional.

    More than that, we ought to be demanding an end to the media’s caricatures of atheists as… well… petulant children pissing on crosses.

    To that end, I think petulant children should stop pissing on crosses just because it makes them feel better.

  3. Glad to see the global change Tom. This is all good and necessary, and it will likely result in you really finding your way in academia. Good stuff!

    However, It seems that you still miss the point about the blasphemy challenge. That also was extremely negative and counter productive to your stated goals above, showing the religious majority we are no different than them. The blasphemy challenge resulted in people making public videos cleaning up dog feces with the bible and making ridiculous fools out of themselves in the name of atheism and/or in the name of the group you were associated with at the time. These videos were held up as examples of a successful “challenge” and were displayed on the website. Atheists have no right to the high horse or to ridicule and these type of stunts only serve to isolate and marginalize. At the end of the day, the only thing that happens (happened) is a larger divide. The demise of the RRS has been a very positive thing to the public image of atheists everywhere.

    If anything, atheist groups running around forming churchy clubs and cultish groups only make atheists, or “atheism” in this case, look more foolish than the religion that is emulated by these actions. Non-belief doesn’t require a club or an “ism”, it requires a brain that can think on its own. We have seen in the last few years atheist groups giving churcy ceremonies, giving on-line education (unaccredited), making claims to rationality backed by ego-boosted personal attacks coupled with the refusal to independently debate their rationality, piling on of people with alternate views, and on and on. It is frightening similar to the methodology of fringe Christian groups in this country, and the atheist ‘activists’ participating are blinded to the way they are perceived. These atheist groups have more in common with the people they criticize than they have differences.

    What should atheist activism strive to be? Nothing, at least here in the USA. We have all the rights of every religious citizen. We can work individually to show people we aren’t really the bogyman, but forming groups around non-belief in God to fight for rights we already have is downright preposterous. Fringe atheist groups help cause the problem, not solve it.

    Your stated goals of keeping church and state separate are not the goals of just atheists but also the goals of many educated religious people. Ignorance and hate are the enemies, not religion.

    Tom, good to see you moving in the right direction. Good luck with your future endeavors.

  4. I agree and this is a good point.

    Many people seem to equate “being an atheist” with “being ego-tistical and having to belittle others”

    I feel it has gotten to a point where former Theists won’t even come out and declare their atheism, especially when they hold the view that you expressed here.

  5. You completely missed the point. Did you bother to read anything about the reasons for Blasphemy Day? It sure doesn’t seem like you bothered to do that.

  6. Blasphemy Day is a protest about global freedom of speech, in response to the many attempts of governments and religions around the world to silence *any* criticism of religion.

    Blasphemy laws in Ireland, for Christ’s sake. And my last sentence could be against the law if some religious folks had their way. The recent UN resolutions to introduce ‘defamation of religion’ restrictions, as if *religions* have human rights, rather than *actual humans*! There are many countries around the world where blasphemy will get you imprisoned or killed.

    That is what Blasphemy Day is about. Not some wimpy Nelson-esque “Ha, ha!” to rub people’s noses in their stupidity. It’s about real people in real countries, under real laws that threaten or curtail their freedom of speech. That’s something worth protesting, and exercising *our* free speech is a great way to do it.

  7. Gregfl is absolutely right. It’s the same for the gay movement. The perfect gay activist would do nothing at all. Surely that will prove to all of the uptight christians that they should be treated as 1st class citizens.

    Give me a break.

  8. Hi Tom,

    I feel like the problem might have been a marketing one, not an intent one. Blasphemy Day was created because there are laws that ban blaspheming or social retaliation that can be expected in response to blasphemy in some areas. And “blaspheming” can have a broad definition. Remember “Mohammed Bear”? Many Westerners don’t have to be concerned much with that kind of free expression issue. Lucky us.

    It’s my view that Blasphemy Day has a nobler purpose than the Blasphemy Challenge ever did, and I’m surprised by your POV on the two.

    So, as I mentioned above, the problem might have been a marketing one. How much did you know about Blasphemy Day before writing this post?

  9. Hey there,

    Marketing was probably part of the problem, but I don’t know if that was the only problem. When you label something as a fight for freespeech, which I think is wonderful, you don’t have any control over content. As a result, you get people doing and saying things that can only, in the end, hurt the initiative. We’re not talking about individuals representing individuals anymore; when you sign onto a project, whether it be through publication of an article or video, and it is accepted by the project, it becomes a part of the projects credibility. When David Mills decided to pick up dung with a Bible, I did not support him. I thought it was ridiculous and more offensive than what the goal of the Blasphemy Challenge was all about. That being said, the Challenge, as a whole, accepted him and it reflected poorly on the initiative. This is why, unfortunately, you need to give people some sort of guidelines while allowing for them to express themselves individually. By throwing this project out there without any limitations, while I can understand that would make your campaign look hypocritical, all you did was allow for some of ignorant individuals who, for whatever reason, decided it was better to say ‘fuck religion’ than have a dialogue. And what do you think that impact will be? Do you think that thousands, indeed millions, of theists out there will simply give up religion because somebody decided to curse out what they believe? No. Their response will be to demand for more action against blasphemy! When you are outnumbered, you don’t send out your best soldiers first. You use them to your tactical advantage. What you did was send your best infantry into a line of aggressively-moving tanks; what did they accomplish besides getting chewed up by the media and the religious majority? The Blasphemy Challenge started dialogue, it was meant to initiate conversation–it accomplished that goal. What did Blasphemy Day accomplish besides ridicule? I’m certain it made a bunch of angry anti-theists feel better about themselves, and good for them. Did any anti-Blasphemy laws get suspended or overturned? This project was ill-conceieved and poorly executed and, worse yet, you gave way your strategic position to the “enemy”. The ball is in their court now and they will come at you swiftly and use this initiative against you when they do. And not just you, the entire free-thought community. I hope you’re prepared to slow the tide.

  10. Nice words, Tom

  11. […] and atheism in general, I’ve discussed this a great deal as well.  I did not support Blasphemy Day and had expressed my displeasure with the atheist movement as far back as 2009.  This is nothing […]

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