Secular Rock and Religious Roll

Get ready to rock America: Deliverance from the forces of darkness and superstition is at hand.  No, I’m not talking about the Republicans being on vacation.

I’m talking about the fact that the “Rock Beyond Belief” concert at Fort Bragg is going to happen sometime in March of next year.  Hooah!

In its tireless quest to appear newsworthy, the headline-chasing Center for Inquiry has spotted another star to hitch its galumping wagon to.  Here’s the Flash:

The secular festival Rock Beyond Belief will now cometo fruition at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, March 31, 2012, after military authorities there reversed course and approved the event that will feature an array of music and speakers including famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

The Rock Beyond Belief event was planned in response to Fort Bragg’s sponsorship,endorsement, and overwhelming support of the Billy Graham EvangelicalAssociation’s Christian evangelical concert, called Rock the Fort, held last year. When secularists around the country protested the government’s support of this event and requested that it be canceled, officials at Fort Bragg justified their support by stating the same level of support would be provided to anyone who organized a similar event.

That pledge proved to be untrue when Fort Bragg officials, led by garrison commander Col. Stephen J. Sicinski, initially denied Rock Beyond Belief organizers the use of an outdoor venue and financial support. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) previously condemned those discriminatory actions as both an outrageous misuse of power and potentially illegal, and applauds the base’s decision to approve and support Rock Beyond Belief.

Speaking only for myself, I can’t find the drama here, the Superman moment where America wins.

For one thing, there is an actual musical genre called Christian rock and it wouldn’t surprise me if some soldiers liked it. Including soldiers who weren’t Christians.   Given low wages and precious few other rewards for fighting two wars that nobody wants and the nation can’t afford, let ’em have what they like as long as they don’t scare the horses–the way they did at Abu Ghraib.

But othwerwise, as far as I know, rock is rock, and I don’t know that adding Richard Dawkins to the mix (even if he wears tight jeans and has his nose pierced for the occasion) creates a new genre called secular rock.

I always thought “secular” was taken for granted for music that doesn’t come out of a hymnal or a concert repertoire.  To the best of my recollection, most of the bad-ass lyrics I have to listen to as my daughter surfs the FM waves on my car radio are secular, but mainly  just bad (how’s your Bruno Mars knowledge: would ya take a grenade for me?).

True, they don’t include commercials from A C Grayling or supportive messages from Sam Harris on twilighting your faith and teaching others to do the same, but that’s the price we pay for life in a democracy, sort of.  If there’s a chance the atheist horsemen will  be touring (sort of like the Three Tenors but without Ave Maria) I want tickets.  Heck, I even offer my services as their booking agent. The only thing is, they can’t use regular rock spiked with a message and call it secular rock, as though they’re as smart as Lady Gaga or Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam.  They have to write and sing their own atheist songs, just like the Christian rockers sing about Jesus. They have to play their own gee-tars.  They have to wear T-shirts and have a name. I suggest the GnuTonians.  Otherwise, no deal.

The GnuTonians, Coming to a Military Base Near You!

Secularists are really bad at negotiating these teachable moments. It might have been the understandable position of the much maligned base commander, Colonel Sicinski, who finally approved the concert, that 98% of what soldiers listen to is secular rock.  After all, this wasn’t a debate about church music, and balancing an evangelical rock event with a secular rock event makes about as much sense as balancing feathers and bricks, or rocks if you’ll forgive the obvious.  Enter the Myth of the Persecuted Atheist:  If they [overprivileged religious persons] get their event, we want ours.  Poor Colonel Sicinski, just trying to do his job in an atmosphere where new atheist Christian-sniffers are looking for new ways to be outraged.

At least, however, the Rock Beyond Belief (get it?) organizers had the courtesy to be civil and grateful to the Colonel:  “Colonel Sicinski, Fort Bragg’s Garrison Commander has now approved the event in full, and we’re extremely grateful to him for this opportunity.”  –Not CFI, which implies his actions were “an outrageous misuse of power.”  Nothing is really exciting unless it’s outrageous or illegal, is it?  Perhaps the story behind the story is why the event became polarized and litigious so quickly, when clearly the Colonel was not balancing two apposites–like hard- and soft- rock- likers where demand could be easily understood and accommodated.  Give him a break.  This isn’t Iran.  The food is much better there.

There’s another something wrong with Rock Beyond Belief and all the joining-the-cause pedantry that CFI does these days as it tries to squeeze a little more juice out of its withering fruit.  In offering its shrinking volume of customers this kind of news, they are really attempting to spin false victories for Godlessness and Country out of utterly dumb facts.  The spectacle of an organization that now chases more famous ambulances to the scene just so it can get its name in the blogroll and call it a victory for freethought is just a little pathetic, don’t you think?

Do I think atheists should have the same right to hold a messaged-rock concert same as evangelical Christians?  Sure I do.  I suppose Catholics, Jews, Pastafarians and Nuwabianists need to chime in to assert their rights while the environment is sweet for everybody’s songs.  Everybody but Unitarians.  They have really bad music.

But equal is equal, fair is fair, and the braintrust at CFI seems to think that secular rock needs defending.  As soon as I know what that is, I’m there–on the side of truth, justice, and free inquiry. If they play Freedom, I may just go myself.  But then we have to let the NeoNazis do their thing. White Boss or The Dentists, anyone?  Anyone?  Now that will test Colonel Sicinski’s powers of judgement –and his memory.

Living Without Religion

The new atheists (aka EZs, News) to put it bluntly are taking heat.  Worse, they are taking it from some very smart,–dare we say– bright people. Florida State University philosophy Professor Michael Ruse writes.

“So my conclusion is that if someone argued that the New Atheists have a religion — or perhaps better, are religious (because of their atheism) — I don’t think I would want to say that they are completely wrong. The obsession with the topic, the nastiness, and other things like near mystical veneration of the leaders — look at the Dawkins website if you don’t believe me. But at the moment, I am not inclined to use the religion label. To me, New Atheism is more a philosophy than anything else. I don’t mean this as praise; but then, if I called the New Atheists religious, I wouldn’t be saying that as a term of criticism.”

Ruse, elsewhere, says this:  “I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.  It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.”

Jacques Berlinerblau

Close behind, but with more literary oomph, Jacques Berlinerblau who heads the Jewish Studies program at Georgetown University, summarizes his opposition to the News this way:

“American atheists—a thoughtful, diverse, and long-suffering cohort—have seen this all before. Atheism has never been a force in American politics or cultural life and a lot of it has to do with poor choices and leadership. In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism. That was followed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error. New Atheism is just the latest bad idea to grab the steering wheel.  The News are not just a disaster to American life, they are “a disaster and a danger to the well being of atheism in America.”

At some point (how about now) it must occur to the controversialists that key opposition to their agenda is not coming from religious zanies but from people, like Ruse, who are not believers at all and others, who if they are believers, have a lot of explaining to do before they get their baptismal certificates renewed.

On the other hand, it is not clear that the EZs are listening, at least not directly, to their critics, because their royalty checks and speaking fees are talking too loud.

Berlinerblau hits the nail on the head when he observes that “what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.”  –It is almost as though they believe that to the extent atheism has a history (i.e., that it has been hanging on the bough for several hundred years, probably longer if you go back to classical adumbrations), it is too easy to explain away its radical, exciting, and mind-blowing newness.   (Jacques doesn’t actually say this last bit: I did, and thus want credit for completing the thought).

And then there is this:  “Atheism” may not be a good word to describe the EZs.  Their critique involves God, but it’s really not directed at belief, or the grounds for belief.  It’s directed at believers and at the disembodied essence they prefer to describe, oceanically, as “religion.”

Unbaptism

The mode of critique is lodged somewhere between “Stupid Pet Tricks”- and “Bushisms”-style humor, a generation-based funniness that thrives on ridicule as a worthy substitute for argument: Blasphemy contests, Hairdrier Unbaptisms, Blowgun-slogans (“Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”), and my latest personal favorite, Zombie Jesus Jokes (“He died for your sins; now he’s back for your brains”). The message of the Four Horsemen, now conflated into one big message, is that religion has been nothing but retardant and deserves nothing but contempt.  The message of their EZ followers is as controlled as a post-car-smash pig-fest.

For all the activity, there isn’t much evidence that it means anything. While in olden days atheists (who preferred to call themselves philosophers and–even–theologians) started with postulates because they saw the postulates as errors in a reasoning process (Aquinas: “Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.” [ST, 1.Q2] –I know schools in Georgia where he could still be fired for saying that.)  EZs begin with the postulators, who are obnoxious and stupid. They are able to do this because (as Berlinerblau sees) without historical tribute to pay they  can throw slogans and mud around, hoping that at least some of it will coalesce into a rational critique or a policy agenda—except…“New Atheists don’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve their political goals. And one sometimes wonders if they are actually committed to figuring it out. At present, their preferred mode of activism consists of alienating liberal religious people who share their views on nearly all these issues.”

Thomas

I would add to that two other projects: (1) ensuring that there is no such animal as a liberal religious position (Harris’s absurd ahistorical view) and (2) poaching statistics to make it seem as if their ranks are much larger than they are, vires in numeris. Berlinerblau mentions Dennett’s 2004 Brights Manifesto where statistics about people who might best be described as uninformed or intellectually hazy are turned into “27 million would-be Brights” who are poised for political action.  “That figure was clearly off. The only question was whether it was off by 20 million, 25 million, 26 million, or more.”

My own naivete about the deliberate sensationalism of the EZ atheist movement was profound.  At the beginning, having seen Dawkins worthily opposed  in debates at Oxford in the 1980s, I thought the discussion was an earnest attempt to enlarge the atheist perspective, that books that were extended polemics about the evils and ignorance of religion would lead to better books and better discussion.  What we got instead was the debate script without the rebuttal.

But, as it soon became clear, the only people who the News wanted to debate, or wanted to debate them, were preposterous self-promoters like William Lane Craig and John Lennox; serious “theists” (and loads of skeptics and critics of religion) had better things to do, and it became a mark of dishonor in the Academy to take News too seriously.  There were exactly three topics in their pannier bag: the existence of God, the creation of the world (cosmology and evolution), and the resurrection of Jesus. The answer to all three by the way is No.  An early and surprising vote of no confidence in Dawkins’s approach to (or failure to engage with) theology came in a 2006 London Review of books article from former Oxford colleague Terry Eagleton: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”  It has always been a sore spot for the News that the charge of amateurism has stuck, even though they defended vigorously the right of scientists to pronounce on the existence of a being who doesn’t exist anyway.

The iconic status of the News made any criticism, after a while, blasphemy to their followers; critics could be written off as mean-spirited or simply envious of the success the writers enjoyed.

Instead of discussion we got books and more books by people who didn’t seem to recognize that Dostoyevsky (and Tolstoy, Freud, Camus,  Ionesco, Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Becket, Smetana,  Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood) had explored the ramifications of the post-God universe for the better part of a century, and even then were building on a crisis that was already fledgling in the nineteenth century.

Can you name one artistic movement, one literary school, or one serious poet, dramatist or musician of the past century who has not been affected by (or embraced) the death of God as angst, anxiety, ennui, nausea and chaos? Neither can the News.  Their skill was solely in making naive readers and listeners believe that they had discovered for the first time a situation that had been the status quo of western civilization for most of their lives.

Camus: Sisyphus or Prometheus? You choose

Instead of reflecting their superior knowledge of the artistic and literary contours of the twentieth century (the state of affairs Lippmann described in 1929 as the “acids of modernity”) the EZs wanted to locate society’s major cultural crisis in the backwater churches of Slicklizard, Alabama.  When you consider that three of the four basked in the glow of Oxford bona fides, the almost anthropological fascination with American backwardness is not surprising.  In America, unlike England, the atheist agenda could be approached with something like missionary zeal. Besides, that’s where the money was.

In the middle of it all the “Good without God” craze was born, copping a title from Paul Kurtz’s book originally titled Eupraxsophy: Living without Religion and then released in 1994 under the title Living without Religion.  In the book, Kurtz made no bones about the fact that atheism, even if implied in the secular humanist position, cannot be the end of the story.

“…I think that the term ‘humanism’ is crucial, because humanism is an effort to suggest that if we reject God and proclaim that ‘God is dead,’ we need to affirm human worth. The chief aim of humanism is to create the conditions for the good life here and now, and beyond that to build a global ethics for the world community. The purpose of humanism is to realize and fulfill all the things of which we are capable, and to advance human freedom. Accordingly, there is a positive agenda of humanism which is constructive, prescriptive, and ethical. Therefore, at the very least, we need to say that while we are atheists, we are also humanists. Humanism has a basic cognitive aspect, and it involves a commitment to rationalism. Again, the rationalist position is cerebral and intellectual–it is committed to the open mind, free inquiry and skepticism.”

For Kurtz, it is less that the individual “becomes” an atheist than that modern society operates on rational principles, principles which, if they are followed faithfully exclude the possibility of a traditional belief in God and absolutely exclude the possibility of dogmatism and supernaturalism as contrary to freedom.  No follower of the existentialists as such, Kurtz nevertheless believed that the role of humanism begins in the constructive work that “the modern situation” imposes on all of us. We are world-makers and the shapers of destiny on this planet.

This implied an educational task, outreach, a movement.  But it was not to be a movement that garnered support from people who had simply been trained to think religion was evil.  It was a movement based on the twin premises that “religion” and “atheism” do not automatically embody the rational principles of secularism and humanism, the great intellectual gifts of the Enlightenment.  It required fine tuning, this message–a high wire act.  For that reason it did not get the credit it deserved in a country addicted to one hit wonders. It was Nietzsche’s man on a rope, extended precariously between the good that God once represented and the evil that would ensue if courageous people did not act in his absence.

When Good without God and assorted bus and billboard campaigns (modeled on atheist awareness drives in Britain) started three years ago, the architecture of discussion changed dramatically.  It moved from what Kurtz would have called exuberance (a joyful response to the challenge of seeking wisdom and finding happiness, eudemonia from self-discovery—a tradition that takes us back to the Greeks) to self-defense.

The unstartling result was that atheists glommed onto the rhetoric of victimization that had been imported from various rights movements, on the most superficial of grounds:  As women, gays, blacks, and other marginalized groups had fought for recognition in spite of the social obstructions they faced, atheists could claim that religion offered no monopoly on virtue.  The case was easily “proved”:  Look at religious violence.  Look at the way religious people interfere in politics.  Look at the imbecility of the religious right.  Look at the anti-science campaigns of the fundamentalists.  That is, essentially, all the EZs looked at.

But unlike the groups which had legitimate claims to exclusion on the basis of unalterable conditions or status, atheists were asking to be judged by what they did not believe, not who or what they were. The whole pretext was absurd. And unlike the marginalized, their undeclinable position was such that they could not claim simple equality to the religious majority.

Their binary approach to reality admitted of only right or wrong–God (1) or No God (0).  For that reason, it was difficult for the EZs to admit that religions promote virtue, since their view of  belief was that religions were merely coercive and that all rely on a primitive command ethic that has never evolved and never been modified in two thousand years.

Afraid that they fatally wounded themselves with the frat-party atmosphere of Blasphemy Day 2009,  the living without religion branch of EZism, sponsored by a radically transformed Center for Inquiry adopted a more suppliant tone, while still insisting it had not been neutered.

One popular myth is that the nonreligious are immoral, or at least that they can’t be relied upon to be as good as those with religious beliefs. If you know any nonreligious people (and almost everyone does…), you already know this is not true. Human decency does not depend on religious belief. There are good believers and good nonbelievers; there are wicked believers and wicked nonbelievers. You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.

Another prevalent myth is that the lives of the nonreligious are empty, meaningless, and dominated by despair. This, too, is false. The nonreligious experience the same range of emotions, sentiments, and sensations as the religious. They are joyful and sad; they feel sympathy and disgust; they experience pain and pleasure. They have aspirations; they are concerned about others. They love and are loved.

One reason this myth persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love. We don’t deny that the religious may find inspiration in their beliefs—but our religious friends should not presume that accepting their beliefs is necessary for a fulfilling life.

We who are nonreligious lead meaningful lives without reliance on the supernatural. Moreover, we believe anyone can find meaning in a life that is human-centered and focused on the here and now instead of the hereafter.  Some people have parted ways with traditional god beliefs intellectually but hesitate to give up their faith because they’re afraid of what life might be like without the beliefs and practices they have found so comforting. They’ve heard myths about the nonreligious, and they may think these myths are all they have to go on.

I’m pretty sure that whoever wrote this had never read the most prattlingly self-serving of all the speeches Shakespeare gave to any of his characters, Shylock in Merchant of Venice.  But it is the same genre:  Confronted with the evidence of his excesses Shylock immediately turns his personal vice into a discourse on antisemitism:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that?” The Merchant of Venice,  Act III Scene I).

Confronted with the reality of excess (and fishing for a message that might appeal to the unchurched and the wavering Brights and “Nones”), the atheists at CFI now claim to care about your heart.  We care, we love, we hope, we bleed.  Just like you Christians.

Almshouse: the Church and Care of the Poor

I am happy that atheists care about caring, loving, hoping and the full range of  human emotions.  But is there really a general movement  afoot to tar atheists as emotional defectives?  The subject they are changing is not whether they have the same basic feelings  as religious persons, but why in this latest plea for attention they have adopted Shylock’s position toward their adversaries.

This is not a real question by the way: it is an assertion.  I want to suggest that these campaigns are not about ideas but broadening a financial base–and an admission that the anti-religion volume was pumped up way too high to attract the attention of anyone.

But the campaign suffers not just from wooden prose, defensive tenor, and a lack of pizazz: it also reveals that distressing ignorance that Berlinerblau detects in the atheist movement.  “You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.” Sure you can: the “metaphysical” ideas of a terribly religious person who felt that he was receiving instructions from a god named Chaos and who wanted to advance his plan for liberation by killing people, and those of a terribly warped unbeliever who felt the same way, didn’t use the term god, but targeted people according to their religious views might be relevant in assessing moral character. That is not an extreme example: it is the metaphysics of most genocides since the Middle Ages.

Cambodia

Or this “One reason this myth [that the lives of the nonreligious are meaningless] persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love.” I frankly don’t know any religion that would put it quite that way, though I do know religions that make ample room for hope, caring and love as correlates of a loving God.

It grieves me of course to say that the most eloquent example of this sentiment comes from a religion. In the most famous discourse on the subject (1 Cor 13) St Paul doesn’t mention God at all, and makes faith a decidedly inferior virtue:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

St Paul

All of which brings me back to Berlinerblau’s central point: an atheism that moves from intellectual respectability to Mission Accomplished-pride (Dawkins: “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument”) and then to begging for status is a humiliating outcome for a once-proud tradition. It’s what Allister McGrath projected in 2004 when he said that under the new atheist regime, exciting possibilities have been rendered dull.  We only know what they don’t believe.

But it has only itself to blame. It has been disrespectful if not downright dumb about its history and origins and rude to its conversation partners. Skeptics who have their doubts about religion are also smart enough(like Sartre’s aunt) to be skeptical of atheism.  The recent upward trend in criticizing new atheism suggests only that it has boiled down to marketing strategies, and that people know it. People know that the shop window is empty.  The organizations, having not much to sell except the signs above the shop will try Commando-tactics one day, Victimization the next (I am trying to remember the date of the death of the last atheist martyr), and Misunderstood the day after.  The closest analogy are the versatile rain dances of the Quapaw Indians in Missouri. On the up side, overhead is low when you’re not actually making anything.

Empty windows, lots of signs?

CFI Proves Idiom True!

The Fine Art of Contradiction

The Center for Inquiry’s Statement on the Ground Zero Controversy

CFI fully supports the free exercise of religion; protecting the rights of believers and nonbelievers is central to CFI’s mission. Accordingly, CFI endorses President Obama’s recent statement reminding the country that Muslim Americans enjoy the same rights as other Americans and should not be treated as second-class citizens. There should be no legal impediment to the placement of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, just as there should be no legal impediment to the placement of a church, temple, or synagogue near Ground Zero.

Ground Zero Mosque, Winning Plan

Further, CFI laments the effort by some to turn the proposed Islamic center into a political issue. Government officials and candidates for office should not intervene in disputes over the alleged offensiveness of a place of worship. Such conduct violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Establishment Clause. Government officials should not be deciding who is a “moderate” Muslim any more than they should be deciding who is a “moderate” Christian or Jew.

A number of private individuals have protested the proposed Islamic center. The tone and substance of these protests covers a wide range. Some protesting the Islamic center have raised legitimate questions, but to the extent the objections to the Islamic center mistakenly equate all Muslims with Muslim extremists, CFI condemns them.
CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.

CFI’s unequivocal support for the legal right of Muslims to place a community center near Ground Zero does not imply that CFI views the new center as an event to be celebrated. To the contrary, CFI is committed to the position that reason and science, not faith, are needed to address and resolve humanity’s problems. All religions share a fundamental flaw: they reflect a mistaken understanding of reality. On balance, CFI does not consider houses of worship to be beneficial to humanity, whether they are built at Ground Zero or elsewhere.

This statement supersedes any prior statement issued by CFI regarding the Ground Zero controversy.

Unofficial Translation

The Ground Zero Mosque (placeholder name) hubub is getting a lot of attention. CFI would like to get a lot of attention because frankly no one pays any attention to what we say anymore. This is the kind of issue we ought to say something about so, here we are.

A couple of days ago we said some silly things, or maybe said things that gave our readers the idea that we approved of religion.

So forget all that and let us try again. Number one, however: We do not like religion, or as we like to call it “theism.” Theism is evil, but that doesn’t mean you should not tolerate it. Just because your neighbor is a pervert doesn’t mean you should burn down his house, right? This is our core philosophy about such things. Violence doesn’t solve anything. Ridicule does.

As a free speech advocacy group, we support the right of anyone to say anything. We have even taken the lead in being offensive and insulting toward religion, just to make our point.

As a super-charged First Amendment Rights organization, we believe that everyone is entitled to practice their faith as they see fit. Or not to practice any faith. Commitment is the real issue. We also think the jury is out on Mormons,especially the sexual multitaskers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other annoying groups, but they’re not in the news right now, are they?

Some people think that because we spend most of our time ridiculing religion that we would oppose building the Ground Zero Mosque (placeholder name). They have another think coming. We are full of surprises and this is just one of them. Politicians should butt out and not try to politicize this. That’s for groups like ours. This isn’t about who loves America most. It’s about who’s right.

Basically we believe that a mosque is like a porn shop. You may not like what it sells but a guy’s got a right to make a living. Or it is like your evil neighbor’s house. You choose the best analogy.

Like we said before, Islam is just another religion. You can’t really draw any conclusions from the fact that there are maybe a zillion times more extremists in Islam than in any other religion. If there were a zillion more porn shops in Lincoln, Nebraska than Peoria, Illinois, what would you conclude? Exactly. That reminds us of a joke: How many altar boys does it take for a bishop to change a lightbulb?

Another thing we think is that Muslims need exercise. Not just driver’s-ed, weight- training with heavy explosives, running, and diving but maybe pilates, tae kwon do, twenty minutes on a non-exploding treadmill, maybe a few laps in a warm pool with a Michael Bublé track playing in the background. We think the Community Center attached to the Ground Zero Mosque (placeholder name) might be a good idea. Maybe a small side chapel, the way Catholics have their tabernacles or wtf nowadays, but all the rest of the space for exercise and International Menu Nights–focus on veg.

CFI looks forward to joining the residents of the Ground Zero Mosque at its groundbreaking along with people of faith, people of no faith, people with yellow teeth and people who are just passing by. Like all freedom-loving Americans, we celebrate our differences, along with people of colour and people of no colour.

We celebrate the fact that our Constitution gives us the right to paint our crappy house purple on a street of well-maintained Victorian clapboard whites. We believe we have the right to insult or not to insult and to be offended or not to be offended. We’re not too sure about carrying sidearms to public rallies. But we’re working on a position paper and you can bet it will be awesome.

The key thing is consistency.

Cartoon Cavalcade! CFI Protects Free Expression

[I read somewhere that the Center for Inquiry Blasphemy Contest, since redubbed the Blasphemy Rights Contest, has come round again as part of its super-popular “Campaign for Free Expression.” “It made me nostalgic for this 2010 piece, so i woke it up.  rjh]

Ladies and Germs. No, Really. Heh, heh.

It is not often that we have an opportunity to salute the defenders of free speech. Why should tonight be any different.

Badda bing.

And who says free expression can’t be funny?

The Center for Inquiry, that’s who.

“As part of its contribution to the Center for Inquiry’s Campaign for Free Expression, the Council for Secular Humanism invited professional and amateur artists to submit their sharpest, cleverest, and most ingenious creations touching on that most sensitive subject: religion.”

Can it only be yesterday that the Center was awarding prizes for slogans like “Faith is no reason.” Yes it could.

I have taken some heat on this site for claiming that atheists qua atheists are not especially funny. Now I have proof.

I’d rather have pudding. Badda bing.

When atheism goes on the attack it usually doesn’t know where to aim.

Whaddya do when you don’t know where to aim.

That’s right, Sally: Aim low.

Whaddya call an army of freethinkers? Nothing, they won’t come when you call.

So, in keeping with the noble tradition of failed stand-up comedy of a genre that would not even place in a college newspaper competition:

Number One:

Comment from prizegivers: “A stinging indictment of the Catholic Church’s pedophilic priest scandal that allows absolutely no room for the predictable apologetic defense. Left me laughing and wincing at the same time!” Not sure how an organization that prides itself on truth, justice and The American way (“It’s a bird, it’s a plane. Naw, it’s only Father Flaherty committing suicide.”) can get by with stinging pre-trial cartoon indictments. But boy, could I be wrong!

Number Two:

Prizegiver: “Dramatic art of the empty-eyed victim who has fallen prey to what Richard Dawkins calls religion’s ‘virus of the mind.’ Employs the over-the-top hype of a B movie advertising billboard to make its point. Good use of contrast and color. Scary!” Masterfully objective. CFI uses “science and reason,” and as we all know has discovered both the God gene and the Religion virus, so this is scary indeed. Unless…

And three:

CFI Judge: “A sweeping commentary on the negative effects of religion on society- from law, to science, to war, to culture.” This shows how little I know about cartoons. I thought this was incredibly stupid and confused, kind of the opposite of sweeping and stinging.

There was also an amateurs section for the “free expression” cartoons, the most incisive of which is this:

The prize-giver said he “laughed out loud at this one.”

I have to admit, I didn’t, mainly because John’s arm is on backwards and he’s going to throw the rock on the ground.

Hilarious, and worth every penny in prize money.

NeoHumanism: A Center for Intellectuals?

I have happily signed Paul Kurtz’s statement on the principles of Neohumanism and hope to review the document on this site in a week or so.

It’s enough to say, read it and understand that it comes at a critical moment in the history of the humanist movement. It calls upon freethinkers to do something they almost never have to do–except with respect to the totally inconsequential question of the existence of God: Make up their minds.

For those of us whose humanism is not limited to the Big Question, or whether the First Amendment is inspired writ, or whether civilization commenced with Darwin, there is plenty in the statement to think about.

A warning: it is a very long piece of work so bring a sandwich and a glass of Pinot Grigio with you to the read.

Readers should also have a look at the response of the Kurtz-founded Center for Inquiry, penned by lawyer turned guru Ronald Lindsay (a status he seems to think came with the parking space) and the Huffington Post‘s comments on the statement.

Writing on the CFI website Lindsay recorded that he could not “in good conscience,” sign the statement, though he was pained by having to refuse. (Flash: Jiminy Cricket is dead.) The reason for CFI’s demurer probably has as much to do with New Directions and with the growing rift between Kurtz and the New Regime, which is really not so much a “new” crew as a raft of rudderless old sailors from Buffalo trying to reinvent themselves as first-class seamen on the backs of Celebs like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Prediction: It will never work.

Which brings me to the two things we already know about freethought–a quaint and sometime polite word that can mean everything from muscular disbelief and cantankerous opposition to God, incense and apple pie to quiet disapproval of dogma, (religious) holidays and divine inspiration.

One is that freethought thrives on contrarian impulses. The whole “Who says so?” attitude of many secular humanists leads to purist rigor, one-upsman-ship, even soteriology: The God I don’t believe in is bigger than the God you don’t believe in. The harm religion did me was more serious than the harm religion did you. The full-frontal unbelief I represent is truer and purer than the unbelief you’re espousing. Reason saves, faith enslaves. (That’s pretty good: try it on a coffee mug.) In the past, I’ve used the word “Pharisaic” humanism to describe this posture, but because the culprits don’t know who the Pharisees were the allusion has not become…code.

For all their principled reliance on evidence and fact, in ordinary discourse atheists ( at least the cranky ones) are more prone than almost any other single group to denounce the views of others as mere opinion. So, as happened in the case of the Neohumanist Statement, Write a manifesto, get a zucchini for a thank you.

When CFI ran its Blasphemy Day competition, awarding prizes for the most obtuse display of tasteless rhetoric against religion, I suggested that prizes should be given on the basis of how many things an avowed atheist doesn’t believe about God–and no fair saying “any of it, or Him.” It’s ok not to believe in talking snakes, but you still have to believe in gardens, Babylon and human predecessors. My premise was that anybody who doesn’t believe in God should at least know something about the subject. Otherwise, not believing in time or in the molar mass of an element–both bloody difficult to see–may as well be next on your list.

The second thing you can count on among freethinkers is that they can’t laugh at their own positions. My theory is that this is because there are so many of them that if they started laughing they could never stop. They take their belief with the same seriousness a Pentecostal takes the surety that Jesus loves him and his Christian comic book collection.

I once repeated a Woody Allen joke in front of a heavily atheist audience, having just told it the week before at a local, liberal temple. “I don’t believe in an afterlife but just in case I’m taking a change of underwear.” My Jewish audience was tickled pink. My atheist friends looked at me as though to say, “Are you saying you do believe in an afterlife”? Twice-born atheists can make an outsider feel as unwelcome in the Temple of Bright as a secular humanist would feel in a tent meeting down in Tuscaloosa. (You know, where Groucho says they take the elephants because it’s easier to remove the ivory there).

That’s why, as far as I’m concerned, any call for humanists to recognize that humility and humor are at least as important as being bright and right is a welcome change from the arrogant, carping, smirking, puerile atheism that is becoming the face of the base.

It’s hard to imagine that the attention-getting strategies of a CFI will ever add up to a coherent vision or a systematic approach to problem solving. Saying you’re for science and reason is a bit like saying you’re for peace. Who isn’t?

But how do you get there? And at the end of the trip, do you get the good life or just the T-shirt?

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.

nails

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.