The Winners Are…

I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I’ve been chewing my nails over (sorry, Jesus) more than the Public Option it’s the results of Center for Inquiry’s “Blasphemy Day” Competition.

You hadn’t heard? BD was an event designed to bring out the puckishness in organized atheism.

And high time. A lot of people think that atheists aren’t funny. Except Bill Maher. He’s very funny. But a lot of people think you have to be a Jew to be funny–a Groucho or a Seinfeld.

A lot of people think Muslims aren’t very funny but my Iraqi girlfriend, Yasmine, tells me that “infidels just don’t get it” and that I won’t either if I keep watching re-runs of Curb Your Enthusiasm and You Bet Your Life.

The idea behind having a contest was to prove to religious people that their religion is ridiculous. Of course, a lot of religious people know that already, but there’s nothing they like better than a little God-bashing to remind them.

It takes an atheist to bring religion down to comic size. An atheist like P Z Myers who teaches at the University of Minnesota. Myers is famous for snatching a Catholic communion host and driving a spike (no, I don’t know how long) into it, along with a page from the Koran, and a page of Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion.

Believe or not, he was not struck dead, but he was charged by the Library with defacing university property.

According to Myers, the point of BD was to “mock and insult religion without fear of murder, violence, and reprisal.” He says he wants every day to be Blasphemy Day. Personally, unless they include a gift-giving component I’ll stick with Christmas, but let’s wait and see how it plays out.

Meantime we have the winners. Sit down.

Ken Peters of California was first prize winner, a T-shirt and coffee cup.

His contribution, a pithy four word aphorism–“Faith is no reason.” I guess that’s Blasphemy Lite–sounds a little like Thomas Aquinas to me.

The others in no special order of offensiveness,

“There’s no religion like no religion,” submitted by Daniel Boles of Thailand, inspired by John Lennon and Ethel Merman. (Hold on to that Peace Corps job, Dan.)

“I wouldn’t even follow your god on Twitter,” submitted by Michael Hein of South Carolina, inspired by Yo’-Mama jokes.

“The reason religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous,” Michael Nugent of Ireland, inspired by a total disregard of how that slogan would look on a coffee mug.

“I survived the God virus,” submitted by Perry Bulwer of British Columbia, Canada, in a desperate attempt to prove that Canadians can be outrageous.

There were also a couple of limericks. Here’s one I didn’t understand:

“Minds harbor incongruous memes:
Religion and fairytale dreams.
Relentlessly nutty,
They turn brains to putty,
Inculcating scurrilous schemes.”

Rumour has it that some top-notch submissions arrived too late for consideration:

“Take this God and shove it” submitted by recently-deposed bishop, John McNakerney of Angel Falls, MN; “Who needs the devil when my wife still prowls the earth,” by Sol Wasserstein of Glencove, NJ, and “He only rested one day, you, you sit in that chair like it’s a throne for six,” by Ethel Wasserstein of Glencove, NJ. “Gods don’t kill people, people do because there is no God” was cited as the most confused but strangely accurate late submission.

Don’t worry if you missed the suspense and the playoffs. CFI has a new treat in store as part of its “Campaign for Free Expression.”

A cartoon contest. “We’re looking for sophisticated hard-hitting ideas and images that pose serious questions about belief and disbelief–cartoons that prod readers to think as they laugh (or maybe cry).”

Atheist Tantrums: The New Loud

atheist-sex2

What do you get when you cross a new atheist with a Jehovah’s Witness?
Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.

This will be brief. Blasphemy Day, God love it, has come and gone. Soon the giggling will stop. Dogs, horses and Episcopalians will be left wondering what the point was. The few Pentecostals who can read a newspaper will say, “See, told you so,” and head for the basement before the anti-Christ rides through town.

I was musing yesterday why, as a pretty fervent Roman Catholic in the 1960’s, I fell on the floor in paroxysms of laughter when a friend (also Catholic) played Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” for me for the first time. I still laugh when I hear it, even though most twenty-first century Catholics don’t know what a kyrie eleison is or bother to stand in line for confession. In college, a little less fervent, I knew priests (many of whom aren’t any more) who knew the song from front to back. We used to break it out on cue at Charlie’s Beef and Beer (RIP) at Harvard.

So if irreverence can be funny (and I love irreverence as much as I love Mahler) why do I think Blasphemy Day was such a fuckwitted idea?

Well for one thing, as I said in my two posts on the topic, bad art, bad jokes, and behavior designed to be stupid and offensive are seldom funny except to insiders.

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A competition to see who can come up with the worst art, the worst joke, and the most self-referentially stupid behavior will have to be judged by how funny the insiders think it is.

I’m guessing the atheist insiders peed their pants. As for those standing outside the circle (those dogs, horses and Episcopalians), let the cattle judge.

An NPR story on the subject tried to link the Center for Inquiry-sponsored event to a growing rift between old school and new atheism.

If I bought the distinction, I would be expected to say that the “old atheism” as represented by ardent secularists like Paul Kurtz was warm and cuddly whereas the newer form, usually thought to be incarnate in Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (et al.) is tactically less subtle, more aggressive, unkinder.

But I don’t buy it. The old atheism was full of cranks and angry old men, but some of them were clever. Many of them (as my grandmother used to say) knew a thing or two. The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective. At its worst, it was purely negative, abrasive and sometimes nihilistic.

The best form of the old atheism had a lot in common with certain theological trends, ranging from nominalism to religious realism and minimalism–the sort of stance you get from Don Cupitt’s best writings. The worst, rejectionist stream of atheism, was marked (or marred) by intolerance and a lack of table manners. It was an atheism for the unsophisticated young and the dispirited old. Wedged between were Philistines of all ages, one big unhappy family.

What’s now being called “new atheism” or atheist fundamentalism is really nothing more than the triumph of the jerks. Unsubtle, unlearned (but pretentious), unreflective (but persistent). They have heroes in super-jerks like PZ Myers (yes, the one who drives spikes through communion “crackers” as he calls them, and Korans) because

Edgy is what young people like….They want to cut through the nonsense right away and want to get to the point. They want to hear the story fast, they want it to be exciting, and they want it to be fun. And I’m sorry, the old school of atheism is really, really boring.

Did you get that: really? Presumably Mr Myers has tenure, but I for one would love to see his teaching philosophy unpacked when it comes out in book form. Students may also like it raunchy, naked, and loud. And that’s why we used to think a university was a good place to lead people out of the tribe and toward civilization. Not PZ. Give him a hammer and he’ll follow you anywhere.

Almost as bad is the point made by CFI executive Ron Lindsay who says that his “research” organization will “take the high road, the low road, country roads, interstates, highways, byways, — whatever it takes to reach people.” Sounds strangely like Jesus, except the bit about the low road.

To the extent this highways and hedges approach works, imagine the good news: “Rejoice greatly: for unto you this day is born in the City of Right Reason…absolutely Nothing.”

Here is my prophecy. The raw atheism of the raw atheists who have given us Blasphemy Day and probably have other delights in store for us is loud because they already know no one is listening, at least no one who matters.

The shrill tones of the movement have to be amplified for the same reason cinemas now have to pump up the volume to drown out the hundred private conversations that are going on during the film, person to person, cell phone to cell phone, tweet to tweet. It is shouting, pure and simple because loud wins. Stupid and loud is even better, and outrageously stupid and loud is best.

But while all this is going on, there are many who style themselves humanists and are not believers in any conventional sense who want to say, “Shut up-I’m watching the movie.” (More precisely, “Shut up, we’re trying to think.,” or maybe read. What we need is an intellectual resource for thoughtful humanists, the thoughtful seekers who don’t think it’s cool to “repent” of your baptism by having a hairdryer pointed at your head.

What I miss about the old atheism–even though I still find its central premises wobbly and unconvincing–is that thinking was permitted. The conversation continued. There was no infallible source of confidence. Skepticism reigned.

The new atheism is a catechism of conclusions reached, positions taken, dogmas pronounced. It is more like the Catholicism I giggled to see parodied, a church too sure of itself and its exclusive ability to save souls and reveal the kingdom.

A Prayer:

Oh Thou who hast no name and many…and may not even be there:

Bring back clever.

Smite with a bolt of intelligence all enemies of parody and good satire.

Bring low the self-assurance of the Brights, and unto the Dims give light.

With a stroke of your mighty pen lay waste the stupidity of your deniers and confound the certainty of your defenders.

Render mute, O heavenly Conundrum, the loudness of the gainsayers and the loudness of the speakers in tongues. Do it soon.

And do Thou, O King, or Something, of the Unseen Regions of my Brain, grant me the endurance to suffer religious fools as gladly as I suffer the Atheist. And failing that, send a scorching fire upon the earth, if it isn’t asking too much.

Amen.

Blasphemy and Ridicule, Yet Again

antisemite
As God once said, and then repented of saying it (Genesis 6.6), “I don’t do sequels.”

Follow-ups about such trivial strategies as the Center for Inquiry Blasphemy Day are a waste of everyone’s time.

But there has been a bit of action on this front, something just short of a news splash–which seems to be the only reason the press-and-media-starved organization concocted this idiotic venture in the first place.

On its own website, former Center for Inquiry chairman Paul Kurtz sensibly distanced himself from the Animal House antics, writing that Blasphemy Day is the active promotion of insult and ridicule, not a defense of free speech but a deliberate attempt to promote indignation through ridicule.

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way… 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.”

Smart words from the former leader and philosopher. They call attention to the fact that the promotion of tolerance includes the right to criticize, but not the need to be deliberately offensive.

It’s also troubling that CFI isn’t connecting the dots between vicious caricatures of Jews, Irish and Polish Catholics, African Americans and the social, educational and economic deprivation these groups suffered as a result of ridicule.
harpers

Is this category of insult “different” because it is said to be directed (or so we are urged) at belief rather than at the people who hold the beliefs? Or is dumbness of this magnitude excused because it is sponsored by an organization that touts “reason” and “science” as a basis for its irrational acts and incoherent approach to the values it sees as part of its mission.

In a wayward and hormonal reply to Kurtz, lawyer-turned CFI-CEO Ron Lindsay argued that “Blasphemy cannot be equated with ridicule of religion.”

Of course it can. Blasphemy is just the name given to ridicule, insult, or disparagement when it’s forbidden by religious canons or other laws protecting particular doctrines and practices. The only difference is that what the CFI crowd are doing isn’t blasphemy because there are no laws against their doing it. That’s what makes it ridicule. Moreover (obviously) why then do it?

To try to turn this circus into a temple of reason or a crusade for free speech rather than an exhibition of contempt simply cheapens an organization fast becoming known for taking the low road. Far better if the unfunny architects of Blasphemy Day would simply confess that they decided to sponsor this instead of a “Biggest Atheist Penis Day.”

The Catholic League noted that the “blasphemy contests” were being directed toward Christians rather than Muslims. Why? “Because even the atheists know that Christians can be counted on to react to their antics like good Christians.” More likely, they will ignore it, the same way you cross the street to avoid eye contact with odd-looking people. People like P Z Myers, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, known for intentionally desecrating a consecrated communion host. (Ah! Achilles, What Bravery is Here!) He says the day was established to “mock and insult religion without fear of murder, violence, and reprisal.” and is quoted as saying he wants every day to be Blasphemy Day.

But the sharpest commentary comes from a particularly folksy, commonsense article in the Indianapolis Star by Robert King: It may be true, he writes, that this “test of wits” designed to see who can come up with the most offensive (sorry, “blasphemous”) image, poem, or tie-dyed T-shirt is protected speech. “But this blasphemy contest strikes me as beneath a crowd of folks who pride themselves on relying on reason and science to find their way through the world. They even offer silly suggested blasphemies, such as ‘God is the Santa Claus You Never Stopped Believing in’. The whole thing strikes me as a bit juvenile — like something a group of teenage boys would come up with around the lunchroom table.”

Oh, come on. Teenage boys have better things to do. Like throwing food.

Blasphemy Day 2009! Fighting Yesterday’s Battles

jesus does his nails

Once upon a time people thought that if they took the name of God in “vain” they would be struck dead.

The idea of sacrilege—the misuse of sacred formulas, names, holy vessels, places, etc.—goes back to the earliest days of religion. That means to the days of our intellectual infancy. Remember how Moses had to take off his sandals on Sinai and how God won’t actually tell Moses his name, for fear he might tell someone else?

Remember the temple veil (supposedly) cracking at the death of Jesus? Ever wonder why? Because the death of the son of God was a blasphemy against God.

The idea of blasphemy against God dates from the time when only the highest paid priests were permitted to invoke the holy name, hoi polloi being reduced to saying “Adonai” (Lord) or “El” (god) as a way of not saying it. Or just being quiet and hoping for the best.

When it came to God having a sense of humour about his “real” name, he didn’t. Maybe it was Randolph. But in the same utter compassion he showed to Adam in not fencing off the tree of knowledge with an electrified barrier, so he protected the species from sudden death by just keeping them in the dark about what to call him. Now that’s compassion.

Since no one actually ever dropped dead for saying the unspeakable name, religious states (the majority in antiquity) took it upon themselves to do God’s dirty work. By the Middle Ages, sacrilege had become a concern of canon law, which prescribed punishments ranging from excommunication to death for religious crimes: desecrating the the Eucharistic host, denying the trinity, even striking a priest (when priests used to be thought of as special vicars of Jesus and not just a threat to altar boys).

In various ways, laws against insulting God, religion, sacred books, lingered into the twentieth century where they died a slow and deserved theological death–in most places.

In the Islamic world, they soldier on: in July, 2009, nearly 100 Pakistani Christians were murdered for a rumour that a Christian, somewhere, no one was quite sure where, had desecrated a Quran. Among the pious denizens of that world, Insulting Islam (the same as insulting God, his Prophet or his eternal book) is about where blasphemy and sacrilege were in 1185 in the West.

That is why the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in Danish media about five years ago was a cowardly act. It could only have been relevant to the concept of blasphemy if it had taken place in Islamabad. Copenhagen? Get real. Blasphemy is not insulting other people’s religion. The word for that–with no intention of complaining about the occasional legitimacy of such acts–is ridicule. Let’s get that straight.

In another space, apropos the UNHRC’s preposterous idea that “defamation of religion is the cause of religious violence” I made the claim that religions as social entities do not have rights, and thus cannot claim the right not to be defamed, and moreover:

“Religions occupy not sacred space but real space regarded as sacred. The languages they use, whether Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit, or Urdu, are human languages that can be used for liturgy, poetry or to incite to riot and murder. The practices they encourage, ranging from Pentecostal highs to requiem lows, find their explication within the life of the religious community: no one outside the group is beholden to find it meaningful, moving, rich or true. When it is called insignificant, backward, intrusive, or harmful the redress of the religious community is not to seek legal protection for private systems of belief. The oxymoronics of victimology need to be outed: the bombing of abortion clinics by pro-life Catholics and the killing of Muslims at prayer by differently-inclined Muslims in Jamrud is not the exercise of free speech. It is not discourse. It is not the pursuit of the higher good. And it is certainly not ’caused’ by defamers.”

So why would anybody who thinks that also think that the celebration of Blasphemy Day 2009 is one of the most asinine, underthought, irrelevant and desperate attempts to create a stir ever stirred in the name of free expression?

First because there is a difference between legitimate concerns about the right to religious dissent and laws that inhibit it—a la Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—and the gratuitous desire to be offensive to religious people.

But in the American intellectual tradition, the significance of the informed conscience has been a guiding principle. The maxim “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial unto me” comes from St Paul, not Magna Charta or the United States Constitution. (It was one of Emerson’s favorite verses, a man not known for embracing supernaturalism.)

The right to cry “There is no God” in a crowded theater, just like the right of a yahoo to carry a gun to the outskirts of a presidential event in New Hampshire, may well be protected by our theoretically secular democracy. But in both cases, to quote St Paul again, the question is “What doth it avail?”

Second, because Blasphemy Day has the intellectual quantum of a pep rally. It targets (not sure) because of (what?) in order to defend (who knows?). Is the point to defend the supremacy of the atheist position through the ridicule of religious positions? That is a noble eighteenth century cause. And while the most devout Christians and Jews (and Muslims) are not known for their liberalism in matters of intellectual freedom, the majority of groups one and two would be hard pressed to organize a Pro-Blasphemy Law Day in Chicago.

I think the last of the Blue Laws in Boston fell during my student days there and were rooted in statutes that dated back to puritan Massachusetts. And, yes, they are related to blasphemy laws. And, yes, I do like to buy a bottle of wine after 5 PM on Sunday and I regard it as heinous that in some places God doesn’t want me to.

But, this preposterous exercise in how to be religiously offensive is as tactless as it is pointless. Pointless because when it’s over I still won’t be able to buy wine after twilight in New York. And selling Buddy Christ statues outside Liquormart or St Agnes’s before the ten o’clock mass won’t make it happen.

BD is also intellectually incoherent: this from a spiel accompanying the pretty crappy paintings of a painter whose image adorns this page and is titled “Jesus doing his nails,” (nails, get it?): “Artist Dana Ellyn says her ‘Blasphemy’ paintings are a tongue-in-cheek expression of her lack of belief in God and religion. The self-described ‘agnostic atheist’ [sic]—she doesn’t believe in the existence of any deity but can’t say for sure one doesn’t exist—says her introduction to religion was in college when she studied art history. Stories from the Bible, she says, are just that: stories. ‘My point is not to offend, but I realize it can offend, because religion is such a polarizing topic,’ Ellyn said of the exhibit.”

Awe-some. Like really. It can be soooo polarizing. How do we prevent that? I know, let’s make fun of the crucifixion.

The cure for the conditions under which “blasphemy” is relevant in the modern world is not simple ridicule. It is not to shy away from criticizing the extremes of religion, the horrific consequences of religious violence, the stupidities of entrenched religious opinions that violate rational discussion and common sense. But I fail to see how the moderate core beliefs of good women and men, however irrational they may seem to the atheist, invite this demonstration. It seems…unreasonable.

Do we really trust–need–organizations who give out prizes for being moronically satirical on the pretense that they are really doing “investigative” critical research, “to expose all religious beliefs to the same level of inquiry, discussion and criticism to which other areas of intellectual interest are subjected.”

Our best colleges and universities have been doing this for fifty years—without the posters in the classroom and without the giggles.

But for those who have some time on their hands and an appetite for fllaky attention-grabbing schemes, this from CFI:

— a Blasphemy-Fest! at CFI Los Angeles that will feature a talk about free speech followed by three provocative films;

— supporters worldwide have been encouraged to take up The Blasphemy Challenge (http://www.blasphemychallenge.com) by uploading their denials of faith to YouTube. A typical recording: “Hi, my name is Ray and I deny the Holy Spirit. (pause) No lightning. Maybe next time.”
myths are for kids

Or just wait for the movie.