Why blasphemy (in numbers) is better

Blasphemy gets a bad name. In Northern Ireland I’ve heard children being admonished for blaspheming when they ‘take god’s name in vain’. But, of course, referencing Jesus (as an expletive) loses its impact when most people do it. The more something happens, the less shocking it is.

But blasphemy – when people make a conscious effort to show contempt or irreverence to religion – is not really that common.  That’s a pity.

Some Christians get on their high horse when comedians or playwrights choose to poke fun at their religion. They make the point that Christianity is much easier to mock than Islam. But, it would appear, that’s because it’s safer.

It’s not that Muslims are, as a people, more likely to be violent than anyone else – as a rule. However, it does appear that there are some people who feel it’s a sufficient excuse to kill someone else if they are judged to have insulted the prophet…if they have blasphemed. Yesterday’s massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo provided very graphic evidence of this.  But even before yesterday most newspaper proprietors had applied a self-imposed censorship. Blaspheming and Islam were not deemed to be appropriate bedfellows. Pardon the metaphor.

Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out that the relative danger represented by various religions waxes or wanes depending on circumstances. The Catholic church is a lot less dangerous than it used to be. Most Catholics are, these days, menu-Catholics. Most New York Jews are probably closet-Atheists.  Therefore it’s difficult to get oneself into dangerous bother with a religion when the members of that religion are, themselves, quite fond of making fun of their own faith/community classification.

Religion is intrinsically silly. Try reading the Book of Mormon or even the Old Testament. These texts were written, translated, re-written and revised. The ‘original’ texts are often plagiarized from old wives’ tales or visions. Religion is the stuff of layered nonsense. Its most vociferous literalists are weird. But its fundamentalists are often dangerous. Christian fundamentalists, of course, used to drown women they considered to be witches. Much of the evidence required to prove that women were witches seemed very like the type of evidence required to prove that women were women.

The reason that most religions have been tamed is the same reason that most wars are prevented or most homicides are avoided. The world is, despite appearances in the media, a much better place than it used to be. Violence is much less common than it used to be – and that’s largely because of the march of liberal, secular democracy and better communications that spread messages about secular, liberal decency.

If you feel the need to read a definitive text about how this has happened I recommend The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.  In short, the world is a much better and nicer place – but still has a few nutters.

Yesterday was, of course, an aberration…an outlier. But at another level it wasn’t.  Charlie Hebdo was one of the few magazines dedicated to exposing the silliness of religion – including the Islamic religion. Most other satirical magazines stopped short. Charlie was a sitting duck. Even today, while several newspapers in mainland Europe reprinted the front covers from Charlie on their pages, no major UK paper had the guts.

But there is security in numbers.  The more publishers that are willing to take the risk the less dangerous it will become. There simply aren’t that many gun-toting fundamentalists to go around seeking retribution. I only hope that, soon, the French authorities will reduce the number by a few more.

So I’d recommend to the following mantra to the UK newspaper proprietors: Nous Sommes Charlie.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s funny that the ancient crime of blasphemy was “to bear false witness against thy neighbor”, a religious crime but which actually is a humanist crime also.

    Libel, Scandal and other false accusations all are blasphemies.

    Strictly speaking, destroying the reputation of the church for what is a personal honest reason isn’t literally blasphemy, otherwise how can it be a false witness?

    What bothers me on the enthusiasm over blasphemy, is that we can maliciously accuse any group in society of things they haven’t done in order to defend “our right to blasphemy”, what is there to stop us?

    There is a wider picture as to what libel and scandal are and where the line between these and “satire” (which by it’s nature is merely suggestive not accusative) erm lie.

  • Kevin Breslin

    On the matter of the Paris shootings, it would be a leap of faith to believe that blaspheming against religion in higher numbers is going to stop or even convert militant religious fundamentalism into a more pacified state.

    If someone is willing to shoot people in broad daylight, they are not concerned about having a bad reputation or being seen as silly, and for some reason they’re not bothered too much about the benefits of being decent.

    I’m also not sure there is evidence that there are fewer nutters, for one there are more people, more wars and more malicious criminal activity. Proof by contradiction that religion is not the only thing to blame is that Ukraine a religiously secular democracy (62% Atheist) is falling apart.

  • Jeffrey Peel

    Regarding your third para you are simply wrong. There are in fact much fewer wars, much fewer genocidal ones, and much lower rates of homicide compared to just a few decades ago. Even in America, which has a very high homicide rate compared to most European countries, homicide rates have been declining. Also violence against men, women, children, ethnic minorities, homosexuals is in decline in most developed economies. That’s not to say that violence has been eradicated – it clearly hasn’t. But it’s becoming much rarer. Religious fanatics will always exist but the more educated and liberal societies become the less violent they tend to be.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Really Jeff! Of the many generalisations which you ask us to accept as self-evident, the statement ”religion is intrinsically silly” is perhaps the most blatant.

    It is convincingly argued by many anthropologists that religion, since the very early ages of consciousness of man, is an on-going attempt to explain the most difficult question of all: that of Douglas Adams’ life the universe and everything.” Attempts to explain the origin of life and death and to help rationalise everyday life: hardly modest aims and certainly not silly.

    It may be instructive to consider why the humanities appear to be resolutely buried in the 19th century. Our world is a world that is described by the Classical Physics of Isaac Newton (Principia Mathematica 1687), the equations of James Maxwell (A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism 1873) and Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection 1859).

    These ideas, their precursors, their extrapolations and their interpretations have been repeatedly turned over during the last 120 years by such luminaries as Wells, Huxley, Chesterton, Belloc and many others. Although both Newton and Maxwell are mathematically derived, they and Darwin may be easily understood by the non-mathematical given a bit of perseverance; Newton can be understood
    by using readily observed everyday phenomena. They are all empirically deduced and accepted.

    That is, until the apple cart was well and truly upset by Albert Einstein’s theories of Special Relativity (1905) and General Relativity (1915). To add insult to injury, a pair of corner boys called Erwin Schrödinger and Niels Bohr proceeded to smash up the cart and kick everything into the ditch.

    The implications of Relativity which deals with the extremely large, and Quantum Physics which deals with the sub-atomic, are unlike Classical Mechanics, and not easily understood. To us, who exist in a world proscribed by Classical Physics, they are counter-intuitive and are only really understood in mathematical terms. We enter sometimes multi-dimensional worlds where gravity, mass and time do odd things or may not exist at all; we have to question the very nature of time itself.

    Interestingly it is religion, whose stock in trade is the contemplation of the infinite, who have adapted most readily to this. The humanities have chosen either to misinterpret or in the case of Quantum Physics to ignore it. All they have produced is moral relativism, a misinterpretation of Relativity which distressed Einstein intensely; regretfully Darwin is similarly being misapplied. Justifying the existence or the non-existence of a pantocrator is not the business of science; physicists, if they think about it at all, simply regard it all as not proven. However they would be dishonest if they didn’t admit that the ultimate objective is to know all there is to know; in other words, to know the mind of God (literally or figuratively).

    The sum of human knowledge so far, is a grain of sand in a desert and given that Quantum Mechanics, Classical Mechanics and Relativity do not equate, everything is up for grabs. Darwin gives no explanation of Quantum Physics but Quantum Physics is starting to explain Darwin.

    The survival of the human race demands we keep our eyes firmly on the future, and atheism is I am afraid, noted for its low expectations of humanity and the poverty of its ambitions; insofar that they cannot imagine that they might be wrong.

  • StevieG

    Are you conflating religion with philosophy? Reading the texts of any religion today and trying to apply any logic does make them appear silly – mainly rehashed/reworked creation myths trying to make sense of unknowns at a moment in time that are now anachronistic – does not seem to stop an attempt by many ‘believers’ to restrict and impose a worldview on others.

    I would say that most physicists (and those who believe in the scientific process for validating ‘truths’) would rather argue there is a very low probability of a creator being existing due to lack of evidence as opposed to just not proven. Religion has no choice but to accommodate the likes of Quantum Electrodynamics and the wonderful and new discoveries and understanding of the basis of all life coming out fomr the likes of the Large Hadron Collider. Lets keep god either literally or figuratively out of it. I think religions would also still exist if it was proven that there was no god. So, they are open to ridicule and I see no reason why I should respect someone’s views just because that is what they believe in – especially when we have the likes of MLAs in positions of power who discriminate against others on the basis of their beliefs. These guys are also buffoons.

    I have no idea on what you base your last paragraph on – nothing but opinion and I need to discard it as it is a nonsense, as I would your belief in a ‘creator’ if that is indeed the case.

  • carl marks

    “atheism is I am afraid, noted for its low expectations of humanity and the poverty of its ambitions; insofar that they cannot imagine that they might be wrong.”

    I have heard this sort of claim before (and that is all it is,a claim) that atheists have a low expectation of humanity, well as a atheist i never noticed this, could you give us some proof!

    Research shown that most scientists are atheist, are you claiming that those driving the frontiers of science and knowledge have low expectations for the future of the race(strange this, as the usual accusation against atheists is they think a utopia is possible) and this bit,; “insofar that they cannot imagine that they might be wrong. ” sorry i laughed, most atheists did not arrive at their beliefs with a leap of faith.

    They looked at the evidence and made a judgement and most atheists would believe in a god if you(or anybody else) could prove it however have you ever tried to change the mind of something who thinks the variety of god he believes in is the only true one, now that is a inability to believe they are wrong.

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “It is convincingly argued by many anthropologists that religion, since the very early ages of consciousness of man, is an on-going attempt to explain the most difficult question of all…”

    Bit of a generalisation and misunderstanding about the nature religion here. You like, many modern religious literalists (creationist, Islamic fundamentalist) along with New Atheists seem to be thinking that religion and science aim at the same truths i.e. a true picture of reality. It is not obvious that this is the case. Buddhism for example is an existential religion aimed at teaching man how to live without suffering rather than providing a picture of reality. Even the new testament has very little metaphysical content concerned as it is mainly with ethical parables. Many anthropologists in fact argue that the essence of religion is ritual rather than dogma.

    On a side note I find it strange that you appeal to anthology in your second paragraph then start disparaging the humanities later in your argument. Bit inconsistent.

    “Attempts to explain the origin of life and death and to help rationalise everyday life”

    Once again not exactly true. A lot of Christian theology is concerned with the nature of faith and how we cannot come to rational conclusions about the existence of God. Hence the phrase “leap of faith”. The old testament is also concerned with the irrational obedience to God. Abraham had to suspend his rational morality when ordered to kill his son Isaac. A pure example of faith superseding rationality.

    You are of course correct to point out that relativity and quantum theory do not harmonise and that this shows that we do not have a fully consistent view of reality. But this is why science continues to push forward. Religion on the other hand is happy to rest with millennia old myths. Regardless of whether relativity and quantum theory sit well together both allow us to effectively manipulate the physical world in practical ways that allow us to create technologies. Religious dogma has no practical application at all. Whether or not science provides a complete world view (i agree that it doesn’t) it’s methods and applications give us the abilty to change the world. So its not really “all up for grabs”.
    “All they have produced is moral relativism, a misinterpretation of Relativity which distressed Einstein intensely”

    The claim that moral relativism is a misinterpretation of Einstein’s theory of relativity is laughable and just plain false. Moral relativism has been a main stay of moral philosophy since the ancient Greeks. Protagoras famously declared that “man is the measure of all things”.

  • npbinni

    Jeff, you sound like a nice enough person, but it’s clear you are not very broadminded and you have no idea of the current meaning of the term ‘Christian fundamentalist’.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Wars in developed economies have declined but wars in undeveloped economies have more than increased to fill that gap:

    The Developed world of Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, Russia represents under a third of the population of the planet. Two thirds of humanity doesn’t matter on that scale.

    Even if you argue violence in many developing nations India, China and Indonesia is in decline. I think it is reasonable to believe that in others such as: Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, Nigeria, Venezuela, DR Congo, South Africa probably have increase in the death by homicide rate in their lands in the post-World War 2 and post colonial era, even year on year in comparison to the developed world.

    That’s no defense of colonialism, that’s just accepting increasing nutcases being involved, increased weapons, increased weapon capability.

  • carl marks

    well give me your meaning of the term “Christian fundamentalist” please!

  • Kevin Breslin

    I assume he means Brevick (sic) the Norweigan guy who killed young socialists.

    The article is not really logical, I’ve never known any form of ridicule including blasphemy that inspires someone who would otherwise do evil to be a better person. Decency perhaps, but ridicule is not the thing that breaks people’s wills.

  • JoeHassit

    “Religion is intrinsically silly… These texts were written, translated, re-written and revised.” In a podcast (http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/timc) Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible & Ancient Religion at Exeter University, noted an inaccurate translation of Genesis 1:1 into English. I’m paraphrasing but “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is better translated as “Once upon a time…”

  • npbinni

    Carl, interestingly, wikipedia gives a pretty detailed and objective definition:

  • npbinni

    Yesterday [the bloody slaughter by Muslim extremists of those who do not agree with Islam] was, of course, an aberration…an outlier.

    Mick, can you maybe try to find someone not quite so naive?

    Partial list of other aberrations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Islamic_terrorist_attacks

  • Abucs

    It is quite obvious ideological attacks against the Church have caused the most violent deaths in the last few centuries in the west than any other source. Be it the secular state takeover of Christianity during the reformation to create their own churches, the awful blood soaked French revolution, the hundreds of millions of dead because of Marx’s socialist paradise or the socialist reversion to paganism in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s. If you want to know who the next bad guy in history is, a good bet is to see who it is who is currently attacking the Church.

  • carl marks

    do we count the Nazis, they murdered many many people and was their leader not a Catholic,?
    and let us not leave out all the murders that were committed in the name of god.
    How many holy wars fought in history (do they not count) sorry your post is without merit even to this day people happily and on a large scale kill in the name of god!

  • carl marks

    while i agree with your post in general, i would contend that ridicule is a useful tool when dealing with those who use silly and unfounded arguments to support half baked ideas.

  • kalista63

    There is now an extremist atheism that has gone from putting its points out there and asking people to examine their beliefs to an ugly, almost EDL style hatred. A prime example is their pope, Richard Dawkins, who just spews hatred on Twitter. I’ve given up on clicking his links, they could have been written by some blend of the Westboro Baptists, Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage.

    At the start, Dawinks et Al started out challenging the young earther, science denying thinly veiled hate filled types but now they have become as equally intolerant as those they set out to challenge.

  • Abucs

    As usual Carl you haven’t read my posts. The Nazis were included and their leader was not a Catholic. Back to ignoring you again.