It’s perhaps an index of the level of ‘debate’ on religion and its place in society that September 30 each year is commemorated (by some) as International Blasphemy Day. Even four years ago, when my own atheism was far more assertive than it is today, I argued that Blasphemy Day was for the most part a bad idea, mostly because even though it certainly gets the attention of theists,
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.
Of course, Blasphemy Day does commemorate something worth remembering, in that it’s the anniversary of the original publication of the infamous “Danish cartoons” – which, whether or not you think they should have been published, certainly shouldn’t have been met with the violent reaction they encountered, causing (to mention one example) more than a 100 deaths in Nigerian protests.
But when you mock someone’s god (which you have every right to do), there’s no way to target only those followers of that god that do bad things as a consequence of their faith. Your offense is delivered by shotgun, causing emotional harm to anyone who feels strongly about that faith, regardless of how that faith plays out in their day-to-day lives.
So it is justified to think about the costs versus the benefits of this sort of offence – you assert your freedoms, yes, and you might also remind people that there’s no obligation on the rest of us to take what you do, seriously. And, Muslims who are peace-loving, kind, trustworthy and so forth must be rather saddened, in that it would strike them as perhaps gratuitous, but certainly the (indirect) fault of Muslims who seem nothing like them, except for the fact that they both identify with the same (roughly) religious tradition.
Making the distinction between Muslims who regard their faith as a motivation to do evil, or for whom the faith is at least an inseparable passenger to the evil done for political reasons, is not made easy when moderate, sensible, peaceful etc. Muslims don’t join in with the condemnatory voices of something like last week’s Westgate Mall terrorism in Kenya. Likewise with less tragic sorts of religion-related harms, such as the homophobic rhetoric of the Christian Errol Naidoo. Christians should be first to condemn him, just as all who want to claim that “we’re not all like that” should always be first to condemn the exemplars of their faith who are a discredit to it.
It is with this in mind that I must commend to you Kalim Rajab’s piece in the Daily Maverick today, titled “A perversion of my faith“. Others can fight about the accuracy or not of his interpretation of various scriptures. I won’t, not only because I don’t know enough, but mostly because that misses the point entirely.
We know that religion is more and more something quite different from what it was in centuries (even decades) gone by. Yes, there are literalists out there, who insist on some reading of a religious text, and do harm to promote and defend that reading. But outside of certain (increasingly easy to identify) regions, for example Saudi Arabia, to say that both person X and person Y are Muslims, or Christians, is to say very little.
I’m of course aware of the arguments of Harris and others who speak of the moderates giving shelter, or credence, to the views of the extremists. Making a view “mainstream” does allow for a range of expressions of those views, and this mainstreaming is part of the motivation for a counter-movement like Blasphemy Day. But if the moderates speak out against the extremists – just like non-theists often do – Harris’s argument becomes more difficult to sustain.
It remains true that Rajab’s god doesn’t exist (at least, if by “exist” we mean really exist as a consciousness of some sort). One day, I’d hope that this would be self-evident to everyone. But in the meanwhile, even if it is true that Islam tends to cause more violence than other religions, and even if it’s true that this violence is in the service of a fiction, surely we can nevertheless be happy, and supportive, when someone from inside that tradition denounces the harms done in its name?
The point is not always whether god exists. Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – it’s also worth focusing on what you do with that belief, or lack of belief.