About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, October 02, 2009

A tale of three generations: CFI and Blasphemy Day

The Center for Inquiry recently made a decision to sponsor Blasphemy Day, 30 September - the five-year anniversary of the publication of the notorious Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Unfortunately this decision has produced a split between CFI Founder, Paul Kurtz, who opposes the decision here and here, and the organisation's current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, who strongly supports it.

Kurtz is in his mid-eighties, easily old enough to be Lindsay's father, and comes from a generation more used to decorum and formality than baby boomers like Lindsay, who came of age during the tail end of the Vietnam War era and the Sexual Revolution. For the moment, boomers and older Gen Xers - people in their late forties and fifties - have their hands on the levers of power and influence. But there is a still younger generation making waves: the brash, cyber-savvy younger X's and Gen Y's: people such as those who dreamed up the idea of Blasphemy Day in the first place.

While men and women of Lindsay's generation (and mine) may respect our elders, including statesmen like Kurtz, we have very different life experiences. And we also have to accommodate the attitudes of those coming up behind us, or else the movements we're involved with will die. This is going to make for some interesting policy dilemmas over the next decade or so.

Meanwhile, who is right, Lindsay or Kurtz? I can't help feeling that Kurtz has a point. The CFI is a corporation, and indeed has a strong corporate brand. It needs to satisfy all its stakeholders as far as it can, and it needs to avoid tarnishing its brand, one that connotes a certain dignity in its critique of religion and superstition. It appears to me that the CFI may have embraced Blasphemy Day so wholeheartedly that it has unnecessarily upset some of its more conservative stakeholders.

But that's not to say I'm with Kurtz. The idea of a right to "blaspheme" is important and compelling. I think that the CFI was correct to give some support to Blasphemy Day, even if not to the extent of encouraging artworks and actions that (arguably) conflict with its carefully established brand image. The promotion of symposia to discuss the idea of blasphemy and its political suppression, some general support for the idea of Blasphemy Day, perhaps some clarificatory reservations about blasphemy merely for its own sake (rather than to dramatise a point, as Blasphemy Day no doubt does) may have served the CFI and its stakeholders better. The CFI did some of this, but perhaps it went too far in involving itself in the business of apparently gratuitous ridicule ... though it could certainly have made statements defending the right to engage in this, on free speech grounds, without harming its own brand.

Still, I think it was correct, given the various vectors involved here, to give at least some recognition and support to the Blasphamy Day concept.

Like other corporate bodies and associations, such as the NCSE and various scientific bodies, the CFI has no thoughts or feelings of its own. It is there to adopt policies and programs that serve the interests of members and others whose cause it has taken up. Its leaders and staff need to be very careful to be inclusive, as far as possible, and that may mean involving the CFI in some compromises when it makes delicate corporate decisions. I'm not sure it made exactly the right decision in this case, and I do think it needs to listen carefully when respected people like Kurtz indicate their alienation.

On the other hand, Kurtz has not helped by talking about "fundamentalist atheists", when what he is really seeing is the brashness of a younger generation, combined with a tricky decision for the people who actually hold the power to make tricky decisions at the moment. Though Kurtz insists (in his latest piece) that there are fundamentalist atheists lurking around, this is a meme that should be contested vigorously whenever it appears. A fundamentalist atheist would be an atheist who believes in the inerrancy of an atheist text - perhaps Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian or Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion - even in the face of results from rational inquiry.

I have yet to encounter such a person. Even if any exist, I very much doubt that fundamentalist atheism had anything to do with the decision in this case.

That's not to say that there are no atheists who are knee-jerk in their hostility to all religious people, no matter how theologically and politically liberal. Knee-jerk atheists certainly do exist, and I will criticise them whenever necessary.

There are also atheists who have apocalyptic and/or totalitarian/authoritarian tendencies. I.e., they may wish to eradicate religion in a dramatic way within their own lifetimes, rather than merely contesting its truth claims (with the benefits that I believe this produces). Or they may wish to impose non-belief by authoritarian state action. All social movements are likely to attract people with these tendencies; and even very liberal people (like me) need to beware of the temptations of apocalyptic or totalitarian thinking. While the current religions are great breeding grounds for this kind of thinking, and Christianity helped spawn the apocalyptic and totalitarian quasi-religions of communism and Nazism, no movement is necessarily immune from these tendencies. (As an aside, apocalyptic thinking is rife in the transhumanist movement, which needs to be careful where it goes with this.)

However, I don't think that any tendency towards apocalypticism or totalitarianism - or fundamentalism if it comes to that - lies behind the CFI's handling of Blasphemy Day. It was simply a matter of how to engage productively with the brashness of a younger generation, while trying to protect the CFI brand.

I also disagree with Kurtz when he claims that there is something intolerant or illiberal about Blasphemy Day. Let's be clear on this. Regardless whether the CFI leadership made the most adroit decision, supporting, or engaging in, acts of blasphemy is not intolerant in the way that Kurtz must mean. I.e., it is not inconsistent with Millian liberalism. The latter requires that we not attempt to suppress religion by force. It does not require that we must like religion, be polite about it, or refrain from protesting against it or making fun of it. Indeed, ridicule is sometimes necessary to get across how absurd a position or practice is. It's not a method that I prefer, but it has its place in public discourse, and engaging in it to make a political point to the effect that it does have a place, and should not be prevented, is, however undignified, perfectly legitimate speech.

In conclusion, Kurtz does has a point about the CFI brand (which is not to say that his views should prevail). He certainly should speak up, and we should all listen to him. But I wish he had made his point in a somewhat different way. I hope he can be persuaded to stop talking about fundamentalist atheism, which was not the issue here, and to step back from an interpretation of liberal tolerance that would have dire implications for freedom of expression. Nonetheless, the CFI is not a human being with its own thoughts and feelings; it is merely a legal construct, designed to serve the purposes of its stakeholders. In their deliberations, the individuals who have leadership roles within the CFI will need to think carefully about brand, image, and broad inclusiveness.

But they also need to harness the brashness and enthusiasm of younger, up and coming, generations. This balancing act won't always be easy.


Greywizard said...

I agree largely with what you say on this topic, Russell, and the careful way in which you say it. As an older person, not quite of Kurtz's vintage, the idea of Blasphemy Day struck me as simply vulgar. To cause offence simply for the sake of causing offence seems a bit reckless. It may be attuned to the brashness of the young, but it is perhaps better to cause offence, if we must, in the course of doing something else: informing, criticising, stating our own firmly held views. It was the offence for offence's sake that Kurtz took exception to, I believe, and which drew from him the unfortunate expression 'fundamentalist atheist'.

As Ron Lindsay says in his response to Kurtz, blasphemy has not normally been taken to be simply acts of desecration of 'sacred' objects or names. Thomas Aikenhead, as he says, was hanged for criticising Christian doctrines. Given the offences of the churches and other religious institutions against law and morals, there is abundant occasion, practically all the time, to engage in this kind of serious critique. We don't need a special day in order to do it. Indeed, most articulate atheists are already involved in almost daily acts of blasphemy, denying the pope's authority, the grounding of morals in religion, criticising the madness of so much that goes on in the name of religion around the world and the way that religion impinges upon and violates human rights.

We do not need to take so called sacred things and treat them in ways that cause distress to those who believe that they are holy (unless, of course, as in PZ's case, there are contextual reasons for doing so). And, arguably, we should not do so without cause. We will cause offence enough just by criticising religious beliefs and their consquences, and by showing how morally unscrupulous and intellectually pathetic the religious so often are. This is probably where we should direct our attention.

Religions themselves often offend against morals and the virtues of tolerance. Non-believers need not join in doing the same. For all our dislike and distrust of religion, we do, I take it, assume that people should be permitted, in their private lives, to believe what they like, and to practice those beliefs in ways of their own choosing. Unless their reverence for things they regard as holy spills over unwarrantedly into public life, we should probably not offend against their sensibilities. This would be to interfere in their private lives, and secular space demands realms of privacy where people can believe and practice what they like, so long as they do not harm others, or try to impose their beliefs and practices on those who do not share them.

MosesZD said...

I'm still struggling with what I want to say... A very simplified version still bubbling in my head contains thoughts like:

1. Well, the "good old days" sucked for atheists. If you were an admitted atheist, you were a social pariah.

2. Atheists are the new "nigger." Get to the back of the bus.

3. Too many old people always think the good old days were better. They weren't for most people. They were awful for huge swaths of politically impotent groups - women, minorities, etc.

4. I understand protecting the "brand." But sometimes the "brand" becomes the social equivalent of Sears... A BAD brand caused by an inability of management to move with the times until the once dominant retailer becomes a joke.

Just thoughts flitting. Really not in a cohesive whole yet...

Eamon Knight said...

At the risk of just repeating what's already been said here: doing something outrageous (say, urinating on pictures of Jesus) solely to provoke a reaction in those who have not otherwise trespassed against you is at best juvenile. And we don't need to go that far to make our point, either. My experience at getting the Atheist Bus approved by our local PTB reminded me that merely disputing God's existence is, in the traditional view of all three Western faiths, plenty blasphemous enough.

David said...


"Atheists are the new "nigger." Get to the back of the bus."

Vomit. Spare the victimhood. Has PZ been fired? Has his blog been shut down? Jerry Coyne? Russell Blackford? Is Dawkins being held in the Tower of London? Is Sam Harris in Guantanamo?

Most of the people I work with at both the university and national lab, we are talking arguably the best jobs in the world--tenured faculty and/or permanent laboratory staff, are atheists. They are not on the back of the bus, and to compare their 'plight' to what African Americans went through is asinine.

I hate whiners. Atheists are not the new n****; if anything they are the new American Christians, many of whom also whine, just as unjustifiably, about being persecuted.

tomh said...

Greywizard wrote:
"We do not need to take so called sacred things and treat them in ways that cause distress to those who believe that they are holy..."

We may not "need" to, but I haven't seen any reasonable argument against it. If people are going to publicly declare ridiculous ideas, such as this or that object is "holy", then there is no reason not to publicly ridicule these ideas, if the spirit moves one to do so. Hurt feelings are not a sensible defense.

"... we do, I take it, assume that people should be permitted, in their private lives, to believe what they like,..."

Has any atheist, anywhere, ever disagreed with this sentiment? I doubt it. Not to mention, it would be impossible. For most religionists, however, private belief seems to be impossibile.

I also object to the ageist slant to this item. I am nearly as old as Old Man Kurtz, but my view is diametrically opposed to his. I am pro-blasphemy at any and all times. Religionists who snivel about hurt feelings deserve no sympathy.

Paul Crowley said...

On a slight tangent, could you say a little more about the dangers of apocalyptic thinking? Most transhumanists think that it's at least plausible that there will be dramatic changes within the next few decades, and I'm sure you don't argue that that in itself is a problem, so what specifically is the error that you wish people to guard against?


shonny said...

It seems like some, and in particular Greywizard (more grey than a wizard?) hasn't quite understood the broad spectrum of possibilities with the term 'blasphemy'.
What blasphemy rules laws have traditionally be used for is to arbitrarily squelch any criticism, critique, questioning or opposition to the powers of the religious leaders and their godgiven powers.
So when the grey one considers the idea of a Blasphemy Day vulgar, (I presume he means vulgar in the sense of 'coarse, and not 'common'), he shows an unwillingness to understand what it is really about.

tomh has quite correctly pointed out the shortcomings of the grey one's arguments, and it would be great if Blasphemy Day was to become a world-wide event.

The religious are quick to point out what they consider superstition in others, but fail to see that they are also very much in the superstition camp, living by myths that become lies because they are not treated as myths.
Also, the most despicable are accommodationists, those who know better, but are too afraid to offend.

Greywizard said...

tomh, you said: "If people are going to publicly declare ridiculous ideas, such as this or that object is "holy", then there is no reason not to publicly ridicule these ideas, if the spirit moves one to do so. Hurt feelings are not a sensible defense."

And I entirely agree. If religious people make these things a matter of public record, as much as to say that everyone should regard their holy things as holy, then, of course, we should not hesitate to say that their claims are ridiculous, and that, whatever they do with them, and say what they will, they cannot change crackers into something 'holy', and it is useless to try to get others to treat them as such. Muslims have tried to force others to show respect for that ridiculous piece of Arabic literature, the Qu'ran, and there is no reason why we should do so, and since they have made it a matter of public demand that it should be shown such respect, it is a matter of public duty to insult the Qu'ran every chance we get, by showing how primitive and cruel it really is.

But so long as they keep their practices to themselves, we should probably not act in such a way as to show our intolerance for such things. The whole point of freedom of belief, is that people be permitted to carry out, as private citizens, whatever rituals and other religiou acts they please, without being harrassed or disparaged, so long, at least, that those private acts do not include incitments to act publicly in ways that would jeopardise the peace and well-being of the community.

However, as soon as those people bring their beliefs into the public square, and demand not only that others accept these beliefs as required to govern society, thus forcing others to live in accordance with them, then they have asked for a much closer and critical look, not only at their public demands, but at the beliefs out of which those demands arise. And then we can mock their 'magic underpants' or ridiculous beliefs in 'immaculate conceptions', because these are now relevant - and the religious have made them so - to the rational foundations of their other claims. But we mock them, if we do, for making silly claims, precisely because they have taken their religious beliefs out of the private sphere, and tried to make parts of them obligatory in the public sphere. That means that all their beliefs will come under scrutiny and criticism. And I differ not one whit from you on this point.

My only point was that a Blasphemy Day, as a day set aside to speak and act in disparaging ways about beliefs or objects which are especially cherished by the religious is, just in itself, vulgar, and by that I did mean coarse, and not common. We blaspheme by bringing legitimate criticism to bear upon the religious for trying to impose upon others the public observance of the kinds of respect which they have for their holy things. As I said, there is a continuous stream of occasions for doing this. We don't need a special day. In fact, there is scarcely a day now when blasphemy, as the appropriate criticism and condemnation that the religious deserve for their overweening desire to extend their beliefs into the public sphere, is not called for, and this is something, surely, that, no matter what their age, all non-believers would want to engage in. And if you think I am an accomodationist and too afraid to offend, then you have simply misunderstood my point.

Unknown said...

I agree with you, Greywizard, apart from the fact that you say we do not require a blasphemy day. Do Americans now not require the day of Independence either? After all, should not independence be celebrated every day?

The point is to bring the issue to the forefront of people's minds and gain some publicity, to promote the cause. All good reasons, in my opinion.

Bill Garthright said...

Nice post - and thoughtful comments, too. I would just add that diversity is a GOOD thing. Is there anything sillier than requiring all atheists to be identical, especially in tactics?

So I have no problem with us atheists disagreeing among ourselves. Personally, I have no objection to blasphemy, not at all. But as others have noted here, "blasphemy" covers quite a wide range of actions, and even just ordinary speech. I would likely object to some things (since religious tolerance is so important to me), but strongly support others.

Other atheists might draw the line somewhat differently than I would. Fine. We're individuals. Diversity is a GOOD thing.

Unknown said...

Hi Greywizard. You said,

[To cause offence simply for the sake of causing offence seems a bit reckless. It may be attuned to the brashness of the young, but it is perhaps better to cause offence, if we must, in the course of doing something else: informing, criticising, stating our own firmly held views]

...As stated ad nauseum in the descriptions of and reasons given for Blasphemy Day, the purpose is NOT merely to offend. The purpose of blasphemy day is not to just run around spewing disgust with religion; I have always backed up my ridicule of it with the reasons why it is important to ridicule it and why ridicule should never be prohibited on the grounds that certain forms of discourse are special. There is absolutely nothing inconsistent with engaging in blasphemy and simultaneously "informing, criticizing, and stating our own firmly held views". Indeed, as the founder of Blasphemy Day, I have actively sought and encouraged the support of those *who explicitly hold different views*; the person who designed the logo I've adopted is a Muslim, for instance, and we've had a few religious people come by and give us support. Blasphemy Day is not, as I've conceived or described it, a day of atheists "bashing religion", it's a day where we mutually recognize the importance of opening the doors wide to the freedom to make fun of one another, and to ridicule and scorn one another, as we see fit, without this being actively suppressed either as a social taboo or by legal means.

What people fail to realize is that a liberty is harder to take away when it is explicitly exercised for no other reason simply than to demonstrate our right to engage in it. Suppose passed a law over something trivial and absurd: they made it illegal to wear red hats. The appropriate response to this would, I would argue, but a movement to go out and wear red hats, in mass numbers.

[We don't need a special day in order to do it.]

We need a special day for Blasphemy Day for many, many reasons. It draws light on the response - far more inappropriate, in my eyes - of the Muslim community to the Danish Muhammad cartoons: more people seemed to criticize offending Muslims than they did the Muslim response: butchering innocent people because their feelings were hurt. This absurd inconsistency needs light cast on it. Religion is treated as so-damn-special it actually blinds not merely the religious themselves but the entire damn world to the inconsistency in our perceived "offense" at various public actions people engage in. Blasphemy day is described as "vulgar"; I think not. Religions are vulgar, down to their core, and few of the naysayers whining about Blasphemy Day being "offensive" would come out and recognize that religions are, to put it mildly, offensive.

Very few people would take issue with publicly scorning racism, sexism, or other extensions of bigoted ignorance, especially were these ubiquitous and salient issues, yet religions are, I would argue, far worse than a focused brand of prejudice like racism; religions cast a much wider net of insidious predation on society through their hijacking of human minds.

Unknown said...

This is the second part of my response to Greywizard:

[We do not need to take so called sacred things and treat them in ways that cause distress to those who believe that they are holy]

I disagree. The distress many feel over having their religions insulted is so intense simply because nobody has broken the barrier society has put around religion making it immune to criticism. Religion has been uniquely cordoned off with a special wall of criticism-immunity, and yet it is the very sensitivity of those behind this wall that's given as a reason for not breaking it...but would it not make far more sense to acknowledge that, in the long term, the very act of breaking down this wall and smearing insults and ridicule in the faces of such people will be what ultimately desensitizes them to these insults? The world over is hypersensitive to insults and ridicule directed at religious beliefs in particular. Blasphemy Day is criticized for exacerbating these sensitivities, yet, how else are these sensitivities to be removed, how else is society to build a callus over their skin, so pulled taut in the name of liberalism and political correctness, if we don't become the friction rubbing against it?

Unknown said...

[doing something outrageous (say, urinating on pictures of Jesus) solely to provoke a reaction in those who have not otherwise trespassed against you is at best juvenile]

Over and over, people have described Blasphemy Day as promoting doing something "outrageous": Where in the description or name of Blasphemy Day is there some sort of intrinsic necessity to do something "outrageous", by virtually any standards other than those of the conservative religious?

I'll give you the answer: there are none. People have simply conjured up some idea of Blasphemy Day as something a bunch of teenagers dreamed up: to simply go out and insult religion, as if that were the ONLY way to engage in Blasphemy Day.

Personally, I believe this is not only a good idea because it will prove effective, I would argue that there is *absolutely nothing juvenile about publicly making fun of or insulting people*, especially if it is to serve an extremely important political/social purpose. Is anyone whining that George Carlin's making fun of religion is "juvenile"? I haven't met anyone who has, but, if I do, I'm going to laugh at them, for two reasons. 1) It's religion itself that's juvenile, and 2) The reflexive, defensive attitude people have about not offending religion in particular is itself juvenile; the people who bother me more than the religious themselves are the atheists, or "faitheists", not that everyone who opposes Blasphemy Day represents this brand of thinking, who seem to think making fun of someone's delusions is inherently inappropriate, mean, and juvenile. It is not. And if it is, I'd really like to know why. Is making fun of people always juvenile? Why is it juvenile? I haven't yet seen any good arguments why ridicule, scorn, and mockery are somehow magically "juvenile" and why this is a bad thing. It's almost like the sort of thoughtless labels you can tag on to anything to make it seem bad, without THINKING or ARGUING about why this is so. I note, ironically, that vast majority of comments about Blasphemy Day being JUST about vulgarity and insulting people, and which voice opposition to Blasphemy Day for its failure to remain consistent with the New Atheist agenda of reasoned and critical attempts at persuasion often lack any of the sort of ... critical and reasoned persuasion that they malign it for, and instead consist of thoughtless labeling, mischaracterization, and in general, the sort of knee-jerk idiocy I would expect from the religious crowd.

Eamon Knight said...

Since Blackwizard's last comment was in reply to me, I should make clear that my comment was not directed towards Blasphemy Day (in which I participated, in a small way (that's me on the right)) as such, but towards the general conversation about appropriate expressions of religious critique (on which I am at present inclined to agree with Russell, but could be persuaded to take a more in-your-face stance).

Black Wizard said...

Hi Eamon Knight; I'm not sure what Russell's position is to be honest. One of the strange things I've found is the assumption that Blasphemy Day needs to be presented in a particularly hostile and in-your-face light. While this is most certainly my personal preference, as I think this would genuinely be effective, when I presented the day as a concept I wanted to largely leave it in the hands of individuals to decide what they want to do with Blasphemy Day on an individual/local basis. For instance, one local freethought group might wish to have a seminar on blasphemy as a legal/political/ethical issue, while another group might want to go out with "Fuck Jesus!" banners and make fun of people's beliefs in as aggressive and hostile a manner as possible. There is nothing binding on Blasphemy Day that it need be presented as a monolithically "hostile" strategy and approach to the matter of blasphemy.

One thing I've noted is what I can at present best describe as the "cherry picker" fallacy: If thousands of people are involved in a movement, critics will find its most extreme/objectionable members and criticize the entire movement on the grounds of the actions of those few. The Black/racial liberation movement would be in a poor state if we'd taken critics seriously for criticizing the movement as a whole on account of, say, a few hostile black people murdering a cop. Likewise for the matter of religious criticism; there is no reason why we have to "throw out the baby with the bathwater", to borrow a cliche: we may distance ourselves, if we are so inclined, from the more hostile or juvenile elements of Blasphemy Day without opposing what it represents as a whole.

At any rate, my point in saying all this is that many people seem to want to characterize Blasphemy Day as NECESSARILY representing a particular type of strategy, rather than representing a potential range of strategies.

Regarding why I think intentionally insulting people is important: Many mischaractize this as being about insulting people *for the sake of insulting people*. IF that were the case, I would be the first to agree that such a goal would be, not only useless, but extremely counterproductive. But people who say this aren't considering WHY insulting people's views is importnat; the goal isn't to offend them, it's to remove the sensitivities that allow them to be so offended in the first place. This is similar to people going out and screaming "fuck" into megaphones every single day until the word loses its force, or similar to the way blacks embraced the term "nigger" in part as a means of mitigating its force.

Religious sensitivities to "blasphemy" are as strong as they are BECAUSE we aren't engaging in blasphemy. Actively engaging in blasphemy will, in the long term, make it less offensive, and serve to break down the walls that protect religion from criticism; the effects of that alone would be fantastic, and hopefully put another nail in religion's coffin, as it cannot stand sincere scrutiny (which is one of the main reasons memes encouraging us to not insult people's religious feelings are so ubiquitous and passionately-held). But, more to the point, insulting religious views has the potential to become a non-issue by the very act of engaging in doing so.

We have let religious ideology set the grounds for the acceptability of making fun of it. I would actively support, if there were laws against it, public ridicule even of something I think is good, but in the case of religion, it is a massively pernicious and malignant force in the world. The fact that religion is so nasty a thing should add some weight to a call for ridiculing it; the very act of doing so will serve to dispel its aura of respectability, the way shaming a bully can serve to diminish his dominance. And religious ideology is nothing if not bullying, and religious institutions themselves nothing if not bullying and coercive organizations for the most part.