Founded by the secular Center For Inquiry in 2009, Blasphemy Day is observed every September 30 in order to promote the idea that religion should be subjected to same kinds of analysis and critique that other beliefs are. While it’s generally acceptable to engage in rhetorical free-for-alls about political issues such as immigration, gay marriage, and the top marginal tax rate, it’s often considered taboo or at least poor form to approach religion in the same way.
This is because deep down most people know that religion is fundamentally defenseless. Not only does it have no evidence, it doesn’t even pretend to have any. The Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other holy texts are all revealed wisdom from god(s) as far as their respective followers are concerned. God says it, and the believer believes it. That’s how religion works. It has never relied on fact to perpetuate itself. Rather, it depends primarily on tradition and intimidation, and one way to intimidate people is through blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy laws are most prevalent and most harsh in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. They occur most frequently in Muslim-majority countries. Interestingly, neither the Quran nor the hadith prescribe any punishments for blasphemy, but this has not prevented some scholars and clerics from deeming it a grave offense, often worthy of death. On the other hand, the Bible is quite concerned with blasphemy, and even advocates stoning for those who speak irreverently of god and the divine. However, Christian-majority countries have by and large phased out draconian laws and punishments for this offense.
In addition to tradition and intimidation, religion also depends on something else for its survival: reverence from people outside the faith. As secular as Western society is relative to other parts of the world, there is an awful and dangerous tendency to defer to the sensitivities of people of faith. The September 30 observance of Blasphemy Day is not random, but was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the publication of several “blasphemous” cartoons of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, in a Danish newspaper in 2005. As a result of their publication, violence broke out across the globe. In Damascus, rioters set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies in response. The Danish embassy in Beirut was also set ablaze. In Benghazi, the Italian consulate was torched as well. In Nigeria, 11 churches were burned and 16 people were killed.
The reaction to the reaction was deplorable. Pope Benedict XVI condemned the violence, but also the cartoons, as if the whole business came down to bad behavior on both sides. More incredibly, a U.S. State Department spokesman denounced the cartoons, saying, “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.” For their part, several major U.S. news outlets chose not to show the cartoons in question.
Later on, South Park, too, came under intense scrutiny when creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone planned to depict Muhammad in a 2006 episode, after already having done so in 2001. Eventually, it was censored, and Muhammad was placed inside a bear suit (though Muhammad actually turned out to be Santa Claus).
These rows were reminiscent of the criticism of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s. So offensive was that book to religious sensitivities, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the writer’s death — a fatwa which has not been fulfilled, though to this day Rushdie takes extra precautions when moving about. While the diktat from an extremist like Khomeini was hardly surprising, the condemnation from literary figures such as Roald Dahl and John le Carré was more unexpected. Former president Jimmy Carter even got in on the act, calling the book “an insult” to Muslims.
Implicit in these condemnations is a disturbing qualification of free speech, which is to say human rights. The way stop this puerile and violent nonsense is not to assent to the demands of the offended, but to ignore them. There is no such thing as the right to not be offended, which is why we need to stop acting like there is. It’s time that the religiously sensitive become desensitized and recall that age-old adage: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but blasphemy couldn’t possibly hurt me.
Image credit: JesusAndMo.net