Blasphemy day

September 30 (the anniversary of the original publication of the (in)famous Danish Cartoons) was International Blasphemy Day, whose website unambiguously reminds us exists “because your god is a joke“. While I of course agree that your god doesn’t exist, her non-existence gives rise to a plethora of choice in terms of responses – some of which are critical, some offensive, and most of which are somewhere in between.

On Blasphemy Day this year, I happened to be giving lectures on morality, which included a discussion on how religion isn’t necessary for morality (in fact, I argued that religion can be positively harmful to moral reasoning). In the course of the lecture, some implications of deriving morality from religion were teased out, and I did so in a manner which involved some teasing, which seemed to cause offence to a few of the students.

One came to me afterwards to indicate that he thought my treatment of the subject was inappropriate – I had “disrespected” something that he (and many of his peers) take seriously. I suspect that he was somewhat surprised by my response, in that I basically said that yes, I had disrespected his beliefs in this instance, and that was because they are beliefs that don’t merit respect. I reminded him also that one can disrespect beliefs without necessarily disrespecting the people who hold those beliefs.

Jesus does his nails

But Blasphemy Day calls for us to go further than this, in that I raised questions which might offend believers, without setting out to offend them. I wasn’t merely mocking, even if my comments could be interpreted as disrespectful. Blasphemy Day, by contrast, has involved images and writing that seems to have little intent but to offend (not provoke thoughts, but merely provoke).

Given an existing climate involving a fair degree of hostility towards atheists for their perceived (and often genuine) militant nature, I remain sceptical as to whether this sort of thing is good strategy.

Opinions are certainly divided, with some of the “old guard” of the atheist movement speaking out against Blasphemy Day, saying that it “betrays the civic virtues of democracy“. Others, like PZ Myers, claim that “edgy is what young people like“, and that  “the old school of atheism is really, really boring”.

Silly rabbit

That may be so, and it may be that we should do “whatever it takes to reach people”, as Ronald Lindsay claims in the article linked above. But that leaves the question of how we reach people, and how they respond to what we do and say, completely open. If we care simply that they know we exist, then of course shock-tactics may be most effective, and free speech affords us the right to shock as much as we like.

But I don’t care about getting the attention of theists, so much as changing their minds. And I can’t recall many times that I’ve changed someone’s mind through teasing them – usually I’ve just made them more intractable.

We’ve certainly got the right to poke fun or tease whomever we like, and I think the offended parties are daft for getting upset over it. But I care less for getting my kicks than for the long-term evolution of society, and defending reason and rational strategy in general – and I don’t think that this aids the secular cause on balance. Believers will be further encouraged to ignore us, because we appear to be uninterested in debate, and those occupying some sort of middle-ground might ignore us too, simply because we appear to be intolerably rude.

On a rhetorical level, we should also remember that

the problem with ridicule is also that one cannot answer it. Cliched perhaps, but there’s no defence against laughter. The clown leaves everyone powerless because no appeal to any discourse normatively defined carries weight with the clown. I’m not saying the clown is always right, but the clown always causes anxiety exactly because the laughter cannot be subjugated. Anyone who has ever tried to have a ‘normal’ conversation, say, with [a clown], may know that anxiety or the loss of control over discourse.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.