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Posted by on Jan 8, 2013 in Philosophy, Politics | 3 comments


A recent invitation to “like” the Center for Inquiry’s Blasphemy Day Facebook page got me thinking about how my attitude towards how we should engage with religion had changed over the years. Ten or so years ago, I’d happily have joined in. But now, it sometimes simply feels cruel to offend so eagerly, and it often doesn’t seem in the least bit productive.

Before getting to that, a little history for those who aren’t familiar with Blasphemy Day. It started in 2009, and is held on September 30 – the anniversary of the original publication of the (in)famous Danish Cartoons. When they launched, the website (now redirecting to the CFI) bore the headline “because your god is a joke”, which I guess makes the point fairly clearly. In recent years, it’s been bundled as part of the CFI’s campaign for free expression.

Free expression is clearly valuable, and would be one of the goods I’d defend most enthusiastically. I’m largely in agreement with Mill on the value of free expression, and the costs of stifling it. And while I of course agree that your god doesn’t exist, and that people should be free to say so, her non-existence nevertheless gives rise to a plethora of choice in terms of responses – some of which are critical, some offensive, and most of which are somewhere in between.

On Blasphemy Day in 2009, I happened to be giving lectures on morality, which included a discussion on how religion isn’t necessary for morality. In the course of the lecture, some implications of deriving morality from religion were teased out, and I did so in a manner which involved some teasing, which seemed to cause offence to a few of the students.

One came to me afterwards to indicate that he thought my treatment of the subject was inappropriate – I had “disrespected” something that he (and many of his peers) took seriously. I suspect that he was somewhat surprised by my response, in that I basically said that yes, I had disrespected his beliefs in this instance, and that was because they are beliefs that don’t merit respect. I reminded him also that one can disrespect beliefs without necessarily disrespecting the people who hold those beliefs.

But Blasphemy Day seems to call for us to go further than this. I raised questions which might offend believers, but without setting out to offend them – if they were offended, it would be at least plausible to claim that they were hypersensitive to criticism. I wasn’t merely mocking them, but rather offering instruction which included comments that could be interpreted as disrespectful. Blasphemy Day, by contrast, tends to involved images and writing that seems to have little intent but to offend (not provoke thoughts, but merely provoke). And each of us are asked to be more provocative than the previous person, because what was shocking last time around is often less so on repeat viewing.

Given a climate – in some parts of the world, at least – of a fair degree of hostility towards atheists for their perceived (and often genuine) stridency or fundamentalism, I remain sceptical as to whether offence (mostly) for its own sake is good strategy.

Opinions were then and no doubt still are divided. Paul Kurtz argued that Blasphemy Day “betrays the civic virtues of democracy“, while PZ Myers claimed that “edgy is what young people like” and that  “the old school of atheism is really, really boring”.

That may be so, and it may be that we should do “whatever it takes to reach people”, as Ronald Lindsay claimed in that same article. But that leaves the question of how we reach people, and how they respond to what we do and say, completely open. If we care simply that they know we exist, then of course shock-tactics may be most effective, and free speech affords us the right to shock as much as we like.

But I increasingly find myself unable to care about simply getting the attention of theists. Instead, I’m increasingly concerned simply with changing people’s minds, or rather their thought-patterns, in that critical thinking and scientific skepticism will tend to undermine theism, and are a far easier sell than saying “your god is a joke”. I can’t recall many times that I’ve changed someone’s mind through teasing them – usually I’ve just made them more intractable.

We’ve certainly got the right to poke fun or tease whomever we like, and I think the offended parties are daft for getting upset over it – even though I fully understand them doing so. And it can be fun to provoke people with foolish beliefs – but doing so doesn’t strike me as an activity that humanists should be seeking out.

Simply put, while there might be some victories that are achieved through these loud forms of blasphemy – such as reassuring silent atheists that it’s okay to be a heathen – I’m not convinced that the victories outweigh the losses, and that days like blasphemy day aids the secular cause on balance. Believers will be further encouraged to ignore us, because we appear to be uninterested in debate, and perhaps, those occupying some sort of middle-ground might ignore us too – simply because we appear to be intolerably rude.