Two Different Understandings of Blasphemy—Two Different Visions of CFI

September 29, 2009

Contrary to the mistaken views of some, blasphemy cannot be equated with ridicule of religion. Blasphemy laws have suppressed free speech by prohibiting any denial or questioning of the dominant religious beliefs of the time, however well-reasoned the blasphemer’s views. Among the earliest persons convicted of "impiety" or blasphemy were the philosophers Protagoras and Socrates.

Thomas Aikenhead was the last person executed for blasphemy in the United Kingdom (in 1697). His crime: denying the Incarnation and the Trinity and asserting the Bible was not credible. He also joked one cold evening that he would prefer to be in hell. On the gallows he had the temerity to state that morality was devised by humans and not the product of a divine command.

Fortunately, it is true that in most Western countries, people no longer fear execution for blasphemy, but in Islamic countries questioning religion remains dangerous. Iran has executed dozens for blasphemy and Pakistan has charged over four thousand people with blasphemy since the mid-1980s. Even in Western countries, restrictions remain, including the informal taboo that prohibits any criticism or comment about religion, whether by words or pictures. Other beliefs — political, philosophical, economic and so forth — are all subject to pointed criticism, but some still maintain that religion is off limits.

CFI has decided to sponsor International Blasphemy Day in part to draw attention to the threat to free expression posed by blasphemy laws. We also want to emphasize our long-standing position that religion should be treated just like any other belief, no better and no worse.

Surprisingly, Paul Kurtz, the founder of CFI, has taken issue with the organization’s decision to commemorate Blasphemy Day , including some of the events we are holding in conjunction with Blasphemy Day.

As part of our commemoration of Blasphemy Day, a couple of our centers are holding art displays. Because some of this art can be interpreted as unsparing in its criticism of religion, Kurtz objects vigorously. But this art is comparable to the cartoons that have been published for years in Free Inquiry, when this journal was under the editorial control of Paul Kurtz. In any event, I do not believe we should suppress art because it may offend the religious sensibilities of some. We would not suppress a cartoon of Obama with a Pinocchio nose, nor should we suppress a drawing of the Pope with a Pinocchio nose. In my view, both of these pictures are appropriate parts of our social and civil discourse, and it is staggering to me that an erstwhile defender or free expression such as Paul Kurtz would claim CFI’s art displays "betray the civic virtues of democracy."

There is no right not to be offended. It is fundamental to the humanist ethic that we respect the worth and dignity of persons, but that presupposes that we treat others as our equals and not condescend to them as though they were children who cannot accept criticism of their beliefs.

It is a tragedy that beggars description to witness Paul Kurtz repudiate his own words and positions. He argues in his post that although CFI defended the right of the Danish artists to publish their cartoons on Mohammed, CFI should never express itself in terms that might be considered blasphemous or encourage others to do so. To begin, the pages of Free Inquiry probably have had a 50% blasphemy content throughout the years, as the pages of this journal have contained countless denials of God in her/his various forms-many of these denials being authored by Kurtz. Moreover, a scant three years ago, Kurtz stated in an editorial exactly the opposite of what he sets forth in his current blog entry:

The right of expression is precious and needs to be defended. Political satire is a vital part of any exchange of ideas and values in a democratic society. The pen is mightier than the sword. It should not be censored.
There is currently a movement worldwide to prohibit any form of expression that blasphemes a religion; cartoons critical of religion would no doubt be considered blasphemous. We need to defend that right-to affirm the right to blaspheme by exercising it. Would that we lived in a polite world of scholarly debate. It is clear that one cartoon may be worth a thousand syllogisms.
If Free Inquiry had not printed these caricatures, that would betray the principles that we believe in. The previous issue of Free Inquiry has drawings of Jesus wearing a crusader’s helmet. Should we have not published that because it may offend some people? To cave in would be to concede the case of those who wish to silence us.

Kurtz appears to be in a heated argument with himself. I can only hope that it is the 2006 version of Kurtz that ultimately prevails.

Kurtz’s other arguments are specious, if not self-contradictory. In attacking those who have decided to commemorate Blasphemy Day, he borrows language from the Religious Right, referring to "fundamentalist atheists." I wish Kurtz would identify these individuals by name because I have yet to encounter a "fundamentalist atheist" at CFI. All the atheists I know maintain that beliefs, including their own, must be supported by evidence and are subject to refutation. Kurtz also makes desperate use of the last resort of all bad arguments: a Nazi analogy. Talk about bad taste. Comparing a campaign for free expression to a regime that ruthlessly suppressed free expression, and had blasphemy laws to boot, surpasses in its outlandishness any entry that we might receive in our blasphemy contest.

Paul Kurtz does offer to the readers of Free Thinking a choice between two starkly different views of CFI. There is the CFI that stands with those who believe we should be free to criticize religion just as we criticize other beliefs; then there is the neo-Kurtzian vision of a CFI that would tiptoe around criticism of religion for fear of giving offense. There is a CFI that believes that art, even when it might be considered crude or offensive to some, may have symbolic value, and, in any event, deserves protection; and then there is the neo-Kurtzian CFI that advocates censorship of art. There is the CFI that honors those who have risked everything to express their views about religion; and then there is the neo-Kurtzian CFI that equates critique of religion with hate speech.

CFI used to defend those heroes such as Socrates and Aikenhead; apparently Kurtz now believes Socrates deserved the hemlock and Aikenhead merited the gallows because of their crime of offending others.

Which CFI do you want?