One of the saddest stories of the last five years was the decision of Paul Kurtz, under enormous pressure, to leave the organization he had founded in the early-eighties, the Centre for Inquiry and its two constituent groups, the Council for Secular Humanism and Committee for Skeptical inquiry.
There may be barely enough distance now to get some perspective on that event, which in various ways has been an occasional theme on this site since 2009 when New Oxonian was launched. For those who don’t know about Paul Kurtz, he was a leader and chief theoretician of the secular humanist movement in the United States. He died in October 2012.
The reason for Kurtz’s leaving CFI—the famous final straw—was a gimmick promoted by the organization as a coup for “free expression”: the Blasphemy Contest and its successor event, the “Blasphemy Rights Day” contest closeted within a larger box, the Campaign for Free Expression .
Kurtz himself, like many European intellectuals who interpreted social freedom and personal liberty against the background of the Reich and the beginnings of Communism, was interested in blasphemy laws as a vestige of the dominion of religion over the thinking and speech of ordinary citizens. In America, in a history that stretches back to the deists and Revolutionary pamphleteers, the right to insult and defame has been taken as a virtual absolute. The extreme opposite of America’s vaunted liberty in this regard, at least in the late twentieth century, was the Islamic world, in parts of which even a rumour of insult to the Qu’ran or the Prophet could get you into very deep water, often without your head. Islam thus became the natural whipping boy for the new atheists, a kind of illogical, apposite worst case scenario of what might happen if conservative Christianity ever got the upper hand.
To get to this First Amendment apocalypse, a kind of unwarranted conjunction had to be made, and was made, by new atheist writers like Sam Harris who decreed that there is no such thing as a harmless or benign faith, only degrees of toxicity, so that what can be said of Islam can also be said of Christianity, despite their very different pattern of historical development and social and political outcomes. This meant that pars pro toto poking Christianity in the eye was also a blow for freedom of speech, because all “faiths” constituted the especial ogre now called, without discrimination of type or doctrine, “Religion.” The muse of history had been slain by someone dressed up like the goddess of reason. Besides, poking Christianity in the eye in Dubuque was a lot safer than poking a Muslim in the eye in Riyadh.
Blasphemy, however, was a nineteenth and early twentieth century topic. By the time the Free Speech Movement happened at Berkeley in 1964, it was more or less taken for granted that you could say almost anything, even if there were still consequences to pay and, as George Carlin and Lenny Bruce famously proved, certain words that would get you bleeped by media censors–and certain topics that were considered impolite for public consumption in a country still edgy about religious differences and sensitivities. Long before P Z Myers spiked a communion host (to use the official term), Bill Cosby in 1969 provoked thousands of Catholics by describing his first trip to a Catholic church and watching parishioners receiving “individual pizzas.”
That seems a thousand years ago. By the time Kurtz’s organization became interested in blasphemy (mainly in researching its history; the historian David Nash from Oxford was associated with the Center), the Simpsons had debuted, followed by the studiously outrageous South Park, with Muhammad dressed in a bear costume, and Family Guy—slightly distaff of mainstream entertainment that is broadcast even in the Arab world. I can watch Family Guy on Dubai One, and last night it parodied the second coming of Jesus (pbuh) with a small Jew dressed in a linen cloth explaining to the dejected-looking crowds that people were shorter in his day. Lol.
It is hard to take blasphemy seriously nowadays because it is hard to take religion too seriously. If media can get by with this, what possible contribution can a “free expression” campaign make to the cause? It’s like the posse coming into town after the good people of Laredo have already been liberated from the Dalton gang by a bevvy of marauding suffragettes. CFI has a pattern of doing this: it published the Muhammad cartoons in 2006 ages after the real heat had been borne (not much) by other news media.
This mock bravery and swagger is all boots and no cowboy. In 2013, almost any insult thrown at religion is a virtual ringer for a cheap shot. Getting born of a virgin, walking on water, rising from the dead, ascending into heaven can be lampooned without fear of serious reprisal because only the most stalwart Christian believes in them literally. Most liberal Christians have been laughing at Christianity–their own and their neighbor’s–since Tom Lehrer wrote Vatican Rag—in 1964:
Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!
As with South Park and Family Guy, funny goes a long way in knocking the stuffing out of religion. And a primary audience for this are people who think religion needs to be knocked around a little. Offensive is in the eye of the beholder. And after all, didn’t Jesus knock the stuffing out of the Judaism of his day? (Not the schlock Jesus the atheists have created for their derision—the real one.) He did.
You may be way ahead of me. I am trying to suggest that satirizing religion, even its most sacred doctrines, has a long and noble tradition in the west, going back to Boccaccio and Chaucer, and reaching a kind of climax in the great Catholic satirists of the Renaissance and seventeenth century. Randy priests and lascivious nuns are nothing new to the history of parody. And some of the woodcuts of the early reformation depicting the Pope as a tiara-sporting demon outdistance almost anything we could throw at the Vatican today.
I am not sure why atheists, especially the New variety, think that they are the first to attack religion. But I have a theory. One is that they are jaw-droppingly stupid about the history of religion, especially (of all things!) the Christian and Jewish traditions where most of them, if they came out of anything, came from. The Church used to call it the “pride of ignorance,” but to simplify, it just means that atheist needs to understand that smart religious people have been protecting the world from the edicts of an angry God and a greedy church for a thousand years.
Give me three atheists in a secure room, and put to them the following questions:
- Name Boccaccio’s most famous work.
- In what famous work does Luther attack the sacraments and the papacy?
- Of all the priests and nuns on Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage, which one does he not bitterly mock?
- When and by whom was the following passage written:
“Almost all Christians being wretchedly enslaved to blindness and ignorance, which the priests are so far from preventing or removing, that they blacken the darkness, and promote the delusion: wisely foreseeing that the people (like cows, which never give down their milk so well as when they are gently stroked), would part with less if they knew more…”
We could stretch this list from the 12th century to the 16th (the last quotation is from Erasmus in the sixteenth in his satire, In Praise of Folly), and we would have trouble finding a decade when the assault on credulity and superstition wasn’t a major theme of men who counted themselves to be pretty religious—often better Catholics than the pope and better protestants than Moses. The prototype for the modern parody of religion and superstition are medieval and reformation parodies of superstition and religion. And hear this: most of the most bitter critics—people like Erasmus himself and even Thomas More, died in the good grace of the church. And the latter became a saint. There was a time when cardinals chuckled over their wine at a really good rip.
So my first point is that modern atheism is late to the game, and very un-new, or new only in the sense that its movers don’t know the history of the game before them.
But the second point is larger: the new atheists are terrible at satire. They don’t do parody well. I’ll give a pass to a few stand-up comics like Bill Maher, but even they are running dry with shtick and one liners. (“Hey ja hear the one about the talking snake?”) Outside the comedy clubs, atheists usually just resort to insult because they think that is what blasphemy is. And lacking the rhetorical know-how to do parody, they choose the easy road: the sort of outsourced unfunniness that made the CFI Blasphemy contest the travesty of good taste that it was.
When blasphemy was blasphemy, it was often serious philosophical or theological critique of sacred doctrines. It wasn’t posted in the back of a hay wagon; it was ‘discovered’ in treatises by Christian mandarins who were designated as official blasphemy sniffers by Rome. Blasphemy was a more direct assault on the core teachings of the Church than heresy, which was considered error, could still get you into the faggots before sundown, but might be the result of simply misunderstanding important truths. But blasphemy was not mere ridicule. It had a basis in its aversion to specific doctrines, notably the trinity and the divinity of Christ, a deliberate affront to the “fabric” of the faith, not a slip of the tongue. Luther’s theology was heretical; blasphemy in the strict sense is limited to an attack on God, or God as the church teaches him.
Please understand, I am not slapping the wrist of the atheist billboard makers and coffee mug sellers who abuseth the temple of the Lord for not understanding the things they are trying to ridicule. I am just trying to suggest that perhaps they lack the satirical savoir faire to say anything funny about religion, to point up its central absurdities in ways that make people think rather than slap their leg. Blasphemy must have annoyed the church, but it was not merely designed to get on people’s nerves.
But in addition to being incapable of anything except hipshot insult and calling it “free speech” (really?—in 2013, this is what we fought wars to attain?) atheists also need to consider the motivation for what they think of as the right to blaspheme.
Is it payback for centuries of oppression by a religious monopoly? Is it a useful measure to get people to think about what kind of speech should be (to use a word I hate) “privileged” and what kind isn’t? Is it a cold splash in the face attempt to get people to sit up and pay attention to the ignorance of religious belief? Or is it just an annoying plea for attention from a population that, frankly, doesn’t believe much of anything and doesn’t know very much about anything—whether science or religion—that isn’t sold at Wal-Mart.
When Paul Kurtz walked out of the front door of the Center of Inquiry for the last time, he did so feeling that certain principles he believed in had been trivialized by new and strangely infantile approach to the understanding of civil discourse and free speech. Unfortunately, the rarefied atmosphere of the center prevented it from being in touch with some of the key intellectual developments happening in the wider non-atheist and academic worlds which surrounded it.
Just when it became ok to “blaspheme,” the anti-hate speech campaigns began to flow through college campuses. Anti-gay, anti-woman, and neo-racist propaganda seemed to call for new ways of dealing with free expression within the context of a society that simultaneously valued the right to free expression and dissent, but claimed also to protect persons, choices, beliefs, and lifestyles that have historically been vulnerable or non-conventional. It took professorial skill that movement atheism lacked to explain the difference between what they were doing and the hate speech that increasingly infected schools, universities and the workplace. No one was buying that insult could be repackaged as a pillar of free expression and thereby dodge the suggestion that free expression depends on non-provocative and civil disagreement, moral engagement rather than simple ridicule, not rhetorical kicks to the groin. Even more crippled and contra-historical was the attempt to defend the rough tactics of the new atheism by saying that “religion” had dealt this way for centuries with non-believers.
What have we learned here, as the self-help gurus like to say.
(1) Atheists need to know that most of what they are doing is nothing new. They don’t know this because they don’t know very much about the history of religious dissent and anti-ecclesiastical parody. As I often tell my classes, the first writer to make fun of the story of a high-flying Jesus being shown all the kingdoms of the world by Satan is the second century writer Origen, and some of the funniest barbs against Christianity are stolen by the pagans from Jewish sources. The charge that Christians are superstitious and dim is two thousand years old. The charge that religion is greedy and corrupt goes back to Jesus’ rants against the doctors of the law and the publicans.
(2) Second; atheists just aren’t funny—except perhaps to each other. Go to an atheist meeting and you will notice that it has all the intellectual weight of a night out at the Elks lodge. It is bowling team, and we’ve all heard Frank’s jokes before. But what is even worse than not being funny is not being able to take a joke, to accept the corrective possibilities of satire. ‘Tis a very bad cap’n what steers his ship towards the same gale that ate the three what went afore it.” Historically, it is a problem of atheism not to be able to take correction and thus to steer its ship ever and again into the storm of unsuccess.
Religion survived in no small measure because it learned how to take a joke, and then make jokes at its own expense. It is the mark of the maturity of any social group to take it on the chin without crucifying your critics, in reality or in rhetoric. Judaism and Christianity used to do just that, stoning prophets and dispatching inconvenient teachers like Jesus. But for the most part, on a world scale and even in America’s mainstream churches, they reached that point a long time ago. We wait for atheism to catch up and show us what it’s made of.
And finally an observation: What is the market value of insult? When did it become fun to upset grandma or the lonely woman in the cancer ward whose religion is a source of consolation? Do you really think reading her a few chapters of Dawkins or Sam Harris rather than the Sermon on the Mount or Psalm 23 would see her through to the end? Atheists will say this is not their intention. Some would say it isn’t their job. They are mere servants of the truth (like Paul was a mere slave for the gospel?) and should not be judged by unintended consequences.
Atheism in its New form comes dangerously close to moral irresponsibility. In an age where civil discourse is increasingly important among people and nations, it has decided to eschew it; in a world where forgiveness and mercy are in short supply, it preaches something like the get-even ethics of the Old Testament. What this means for the long term, is that new atheism is bound to become old before it reaches maturity, and maturity is in very short supply.