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.