Happy Blasphemy Day

There are no gods, unless you redefine the word to be so trivial as to be meaningless. Jesus, if he ever existed, was just a guy; he died two thousand years ago and isn’t coming back. His dad isn’t watching you, nor are his angels.
Mohammed was a merchant who managed to appropriate and adapt some extant texts to conquer a huge tract of land and get himself a pile of gold and booty.
The Dalai Lama doesn’t reincarnate. Nor does anyone else. Nor is there such a thing as karma: you’re just selectively interpreting random occurrences, using a brain that sucks at statistics.
The Redskins, the Cowboys, the Eagles, etc. are just guys paid a ton of money to play games.
Rachel Maddow is smart, but she’s not the last word on anything. Richard Dawkins is good at explaining science, but boy howdy has he said some stupid things.

Happy International Blasphemy Day, y’all.

Update: Fixed typo. Thanks, alert reader Fez!

Happy International Blasphemy Rights Day

Good morning.

Hey, I had an idea for a movie: Jesus comes back to life and starts wreaking zombie havoc in Jerusalem. In the climax, Peter takes him out with a shotgun blast to the head. Think Passion of the Christ meets Army of Darkness.

No? Okay, how about a porn biography of Mohammed, with Ron Jeremy as Mohammed and Jenna Jameson as Aisha?

Okay, how about a simple PSA featuring Buddha promoting Steak & Blow Job Day?

But we’ve got to find a way to tie in these American flag toilet brushes and constitution toilet paper somehow. I’ve got a warehouse full of that shit to sell.

So in case you hadn’t heard, September 30 is International Blasphemy Day, so go out there and find something to blaspheme. It’s fun, and it exercises your first amendment right. Think of it as tai chi for the soul (wait; did I, an atheist, just say “soul”? Isn’t that blasphemy? Oh my loving God, I think it might be. Lord have mercy on me).

Now, blasphemy is the desecration, profanation, marring, or what have you of a sacred item, person, or even idea. And to hold something sacred involves having an irrational attachment to that thing, well beyond its objective worth. For instance, if you would run into a burning church to save an icon, but wouldn’t do the same for an ordinary painting, then you probably hold that icon sacred.

So why would people do that? I think it has something to do with evolutionary psychology, clan protection, and game theory.

Imagine that you’re living ten or twenty thousand years ago, in a village with your clan. There’s no police, no army. Defense is entirely up to you. One day, a group of people from the next valley over come along to steal your food. You fight them, but at some point the tide starts turning against your side, and you think “screw this. I’ll just run off into the hills and live to fight another day.” Of course, you’re probably not the only one thinking this way. So the village defenders run away, the village falls, and you spend the next month surviving on roots, berries, and the occasional rabbit because you don’t have a hunting companion who could help you take down an aurochs or bison.

Okay, now imagine that in the middle of the village is the clan totem pole. This seemingly-ordinary carved tree trunk is the holiest thing you know, and the thought of the marauders using it for firewood, or even coming near it, fills you with disgust. Now you’ve got a greater incentive to defend the village, and won’t be as likely to run away when the fight goes against you. And the more people around you who feel the same way about the totem, the better your side’s odds. Furthermore, since the attackers don’t place the same value on the totem as your side does, they don’t have the same kind of incentive to take it.

So assuming that this just-so story is anywhere close to truth, then sacredness is a mental mechanism that unites clans against the outsiders. It’s a way of ensuring that you have more at stake than would normally appear. It can also serve as a loyalty test: if a new guy shows up in the village, and is willing to desecrate an item that’s sacred to the people in the next village, then you can be pretty sure he’s not secretly working for them.

(The above contains ideas I got from Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Dennett, and probably others.)

Of course, the world we live in today is a far cry from the environment in which we evolved. We have police and armies these days, and a lot of the tribalism that may once have been useful just gets in the way of progress and cooperation these days.

But fundamentally, the notion of blasphemy is: “I hold this object sacred. Therefore you must not say anything bad about it.” Um, thanks but no thanks. You can be as attached as you like to anything you like, be it a flag or a crucifix or your collection of Pokemon cards, but don’t make it my problem. Your club, your rules. Keep me out of it.

So why is it so much fun to blaspheme? Basically, it’s like poking the fundies with a metaphorical stick; they can’t help but jump in a most amusing manner. And that’s the other thing to remember about sacred objects: the things you hold sacred also control you. And personally, I’d rather not be controlled by a statue or a piece of cloth.

PS: L. Ron Hubbard was an unimaginative hack.

Some Meta-Arguments Against God, Part 3

(This was originally going to be part 4, but since today is Blasphemy Day, I figured I’d bump it up.)

Blasphemy and Heresy

If you think about it, the very notions of blasphemy and heresy are bizare.

Heresy means saying things that aren’t true, according to church authorities. Depending on which sect is in power, this might mean asserting that Jesus is divine, denying that Jesus is divine, asserting or denying that Jesus is his own father, claiming that the Bible/Koran/Vedas was/wasn’t divinely inspired, whether there’s an imam hiding at the bottom of a well, and thousands of others.

And blasphemy means saying bad things about, or denying the existence of the god(s), prophets, saints, etc. of the sect in question.

Wars have been waged over such issues. Many societies have had, or still have, prohibitions against heresy and blasphemy. Even in the US, a lot of them are still on the books, even though they’ve been struck down by the courts.

And yet, no society has a law against saying that air is heavier than lead, or that the sky is green. So what is it about blasphemous or heretical ideas that they must be kept down by force of law or arms?

The closest secular analog to blasphemy that I can think of is the law in various societies against criticizing the king. Or, these days, the dictator (of course, in more enlightened modern dictatorships, there’s no actual law against criticizing El Jefe, it’s just that everyone knows you shouldn’t do it if you don’t feel like being disappeared one night. But the effect is the same). In France, it was (and possibly still is) illegal to insult a policeman.

The obvious secular analog to heresy is holocaust denial, which is illegal in a number of countries.

It seems to me that in order to be banned by law, an idea has to be a) detrimental, and b) plausible. Note that an idea doesn’t have to be true to be banned; nor does it have to be false. It just has to be plausible. And these conditions are necessary but not sufficient: an idea like “vaccines kill more people than they save” is both detrimental and, apparently, plausible. But it isn’t banned anywhere that I know of.

Detrimental to whom? To the powers that be, of course. Whoever has influence over which laws get enacted. Laws against lèse-majesté are detrimental to kings, and kings pass them. If a king needs the church’s support for political reasons, he might pass laws against harming the church. Religious organizations create their own rules, to protect themselves and the religious leaders.

Part of the genius of the American experiment is the first amendment, which guarantees the right to express one’s opinion. The courts have interpreted this rather broadly, covering such things as pornography and non-verbal expression. Certainly no one would dream of forbidding criticism of the government. The punditocracy would be up in arms!

And this is a sign of strength: it sends the message that we’re not afraid of criticism. That you’re free to say that the US shouldn’t exist, or that Obama is the worst president ever, and we’re confident that the free marketplace of ideas will quickly dispose of such notions without there having to be any laws against them.

The existence of heresy and blasphemy, by contrast, imply weakness. If you have to forbid people from saying “there are no gods” or “you don’t need religion to live a full satisfying life”, you’re saying that you can’t rely on the marketplace of ideas to get rid of them, the way you can for “grass is red”.

I think you can see where I’m going with all this: the very notions of blasphemy and heresy exist not because the gods are harmed by being insulted, and not for the benefit of the population at large. They exist because if people were free to examine the evidence for and against gods and other supernatural propositions, they would realize that the emperor has no clothes, and that their tithe doesn’t help God, it helps the priest.

I’m not saying that this is the result of cynical manipulation by religious leaders, though in many cases it doubtless is. Rather, it’s more likely to be natural selection among memes: a group of ideas that is protected against criticism is more likely to survive and be passed on.

That’s what makes blasphemy a meta-argument against gods: if any gods existed, and were anywhere near as good and powerful as they’re supposed to be, it wouldn’t be necessary to forbid denying their existence.

(Update: fixed an obvious grammatical problem pointed out by alert reader Fez, who will burn in the fires of hell for having the insolence to criticize me.)

BillDo Doesn’t Like Blasphemy Day

PZ has already pointed out BillDo’s bit of anticipatory apoplexy over Blasphemy Day.

But I want to draw attention to a specific bit of BillDo’s hypocrisy:

The Center for Inquiry is factually incorrect to say that “Free speech is the foundation on which other liberties rest.” Freedom of conscience is the first liberty, and it is inextricably linked to freedom of religion.

BillDo may have a point, though because of his annoying habit of not providing links, it’s hard to check what CfI actually said. But what are the Catholic church’s thoughts on the matter of freedom of conscience or freedom of thought?

The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on heresy says:

Freedom of thought extending to the essential beliefs of a Church is in itself a contradiction; for, by accepting membership, the members accept the essential beliefs and renounce their freedom of thought so far as these are concerned.

So if you’re Catholic, you don’t have the freedom to question the Catholic church’s unquestionable dogma.

Okay, that’s not too bad. If you define a member of sect X as someone who believes A, B, and C, but someone doesn’t believe C, then that person doesn’t fit the definition of a member of X. Fair enough.

The entry for blasphemy, however, says:

blasphemy is set down as a word, for ordinarily it is expressed in speech, though it may be committed in thought or in act.

(emphasis added). In other words, there are things that you’re not even allowed to think. That’s the very definition of thoughtcrime.

The entry on sin has a whole entry on “Internal sins”, convering crimethink, starting with “thou shalt not covet”.

Three kinds of internal sin are usually distinguished:

  • delectatio morosa, i.e. the pleasure taken in a sinful thought or imagination even without desiring it;
  • gaudium, i.e. dwelling with complacency on sins already committed; and
  • desiderium, i.e. the desire for what is sinful.

(italics in the original).

In other words, Billy pays lip service to freedom of thought, but pimps for a religion that doesn’t hold it in very high esteem. He adds:

In other words, atheists have the right to mock religion because our Christian Founding Fathers afforded them human rights.

I may have to withdraw my charge of hypocrisy: I thought he was in favor of freedom of thought when it suited him, but I get the distinct impression from this sentence that he thinks the founding fathers made a mistake, granting freedoms to people who think the wrong way.

PS: For the benefit of anyone who, like Billy, thinks that Blasphemy Day unjustly favors Muslims, let me just say that there are no gods, not even Allah, and Muhammad was not a prophet. Buddha would have killed for a cheeseburger. Mary cheated on Joseph, and Christians have believed her spur-of-the-moment bullshit story ever since. Oh, and Chuck Darwin only stopped fucking his horse long enough to steal all of Wallace’s ideas. That should just about cover it.

Why Blaspheme?

September 30 is Blasphemy Day. This has a lot of people upset, including Bill Dembski, and I’m sure we can count on BillDo to splutter something incoherent about it when he hears about it.

Which raises the question, why blaspheme?

For one thing, it’s fun, even if it’s not very noble: it’s pushing people’s buttons for the sake of watching them react.

Of course, it’s religious people’s own damn fault for being so easily manipulated. In Elbow Room: the Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, Daniel Dennett asks what free will is, and why we would want to have it in the first place. Part of the answer is that we don’t like being coerced or manipulated. When we talk about pushing someone’s buttons, we mean that that person can be manipulated into reacting a certain way to a given impulse, as reliably as pressing the on/off switch on a machine. We have power over that person. But we don’t like others having power over us, so we generally strive not to have buttons that can be pushed.

Albert Mohler writes:

How should Christians respond?

First, take no offense. Refuse to play into the game plan of those sponsoring International Blasphemy Day.

which is good advice.

However, there’s a better reason to blaspheme:

Because we can.

Blasphemy day is a celebration of freedom. In far too many places and times, it has been — and in many places, still is (I’m looking at you Ireland!) — illegal to express certain thoughts. If freedom of speech is a good thing because it gives us the right to criticize the rulers of the country we live in, how much better the freedom to criticize or even deny the guy who supposedly runs the universe we live in?

If you think about it, the very notion of blasphemy is bizarre: if the existence of a god were really as obviously true as many people believe, why would they take offense at someone who denies it? If I said “there’s no such place as Indonesia”, people might look at me funny, they might want to call for the nice men in white coats, but they wouldn’t be offended. Why would “there are no gods” be any different?

But the third reason for blaspheming is perhaps the best: because it helped me out of religion.

At some point when I was a kid, I noticed that you can say “God damn it!” or “Jesus fucking Christ!” without being zotted by lightning, and wondered why that was. I don’t remember what conclusion I came to at the time, but it was obvious that God wasn’t an omnipresent Stasi policeman, ready to punish any transgression as soon as it was committed. Perhaps I decided that God trusted his created creatures to figure out for ourselves what we should and shoudn’t do, and didn’t need to enforce his rules with a heavy hand. In any case, it meant that I could think about God without worrying that my thoughts would get me punished. And the rest is history.

The more people blaspheme, the more they demonstrate that it’s safe to think. And the more people think, the more superstitious dogmas they’ll discard, leaving only those ideas that can stand on their own merits.

Awww! They Hurt Bill’s Feelings!

The Center for Inquiry is holding a blasphemy contest on the occasion of blasphemy day. So put your thinking caps on and come up with something that fits on a T-shirt, and also, in another time or place, would also get you arrested or killed for wearing said T-shirt.

What’s more amusing is that this contest has hurt Bill Dembski’s feelings and those of his sycophant, Denyse O’Leary.

He writes:

You’ve got to wonder what an organization that touts itself for critical thinking is thinking when it sponsors a BLASPHEMY CONTEST:

Um… how about an organization that believes that all ideas are worth examining critically, including the idea that there might not be any gods, or that even if there are, they might not be all they’re cracked up to be?

And then he gives up all right to complain about people misrepresenting IDC:

Since Darwin is their god, it would be interesting to submit to this contest true statements about Darwin’s less than divine attributes.

Besides the delicious schadenfreude, there’s also the irony that the commenters, by engaging in the usual fatwa envy, are most likely blaspheming Islam.

Okay, now get cracking on those contest entries! Remember: not blaspheming makes baby Jesus cry, and Buddha crave a cheeseburger.

Too bad the entries have to be text. Otherwise, I’d submit a photo of a statue of Mohammed made out of bacon.