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!

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.)

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.