This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 30, first 2009.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to tell you about something. Well, a fun opportunity I think you might enjoy in our home were big board game fanatics. And just so happens that a colleague of mine at the Center for Inquiry has developed a board game that might be right up your dark alley. It’s called Playing Gods. It’s a game of global religious conquest where you assume a character of Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed. And your goal is to convert as many people around the world as possible. A lot of game elements in the game play are really fun and funny. And Ben Radford, the creator, is offering listeners to point of inquiry a dramatic discount on the game, kind of in honor of Blasphemy Day, which is coming up. And for more information about how to get the game or to take advantage of the opportunity of this big discount, check out the information at point of inquiry dot org. My guest this week is Ronald Lindsay to talk about Blasphemy Day. He’s a bioethicist, a lawyer and chief executive officer of the Center for Inquiry. For many years, he practiced law in Washington, D.C., and he was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses. His most recent book is Future Bioethics Overcoming Taboos, Myths and Dogmas. Welcome to a point of inquiry, Ron Lindsay.
Thanks for having me. D.J., always a pleasure to be on your show.
I invited you to be on the show, Ron, not just because you’re my boss, right? But there was a small factory in, in fact.
No, I wanted you on the show so we could talk about something. I’m kind of excited about coming down the pike at the center, namely the campaign for free expression. And especially I wanted to talk with you about the International Blasphemy Day, something we’re behind and we’re promoting. It’s coming up on September 30th. So first run campaign for free expression. Is this just CFI taking a a big stand for people’s right to say what they want, even if it’s controversial? I mean, that seems itself kind of uncontroversial, you know, free speech.
It’s not controversial in this sense that many governments and many individuals give lip service to free speech. But the fact of the matter is that censorship is widespread throughout the world, both legal censorship, censorship that may not be legal, but nonetheless as exercise and then self-censorship based on just these kind of social rules that may be prevalent in society, in which people think that discussing certain subjects would be off limits. One component of our campaign for free expression is a Web site called Please Block US, in which we put up examples, post examples of various types of censorship, both formal and informal, that are occurring throughout the world. China, for example, is one country that even though again, it gives lip service to honoring free speech and free expression, both countries do because the right to free expression is in the International Declaration of Human Rights, which was endorsed by the United Nations.
Nonetheless, puts web filters on computers in China so people don’t have access to all the sites they should have. The recent turmoil in Iran, of course, the Iranian government made strenuous efforts to make sure no word got out about what was happening in the streets. Fortunately, we live in a day of telecommunication where it’s very difficult for governments to succeed in completely blocking all information. But nonetheless, they did lock information. So it’s very much a live issue. We don’t see this as an unimportant issue at all.
And that’s please block dot U.S., please block us. It’s a Web site, kind of a collection of news stories and videos from around the world, which aimed to highlight examples of anti free speech activity, not just in the U.S. everywhere.
Exactly. And one reason we’re doing this is not because we think, in fact, people have the mistake idea that this is an issue that we need not worry about anymore.
It’s in part to remind them of that. And then secondly, we believe in emphasizing the right to free speech because we think is probably the most fundamental right. If one cannot express oneself freely about one’s views on anything, then really one is lost on the dignity to some extent as an individual. It’s a key part, as we see, of living a full human life. People have used they should be free to express them without fear of punishment or of being ostracized.
Free expression. Yes. I’m behind that. I also like that sister idea of free inquiry that no questions should be off limits, that we should be able to look into things, not only express our views about things, but look into controversial topics. There are really twin ideas.
They are where they go together. I guess one reason I would emphasize free expression is that if you say, well, people can look into things, but then they can express themselves. Obviously, that can’t be limited to some extent. The utility of free inquiry.
Also, Ron is part of the campaign. There’s a cartoon contest, I guess that’s kind of in honor of those Muslim cartoons that the Danish newspaper published a few years ago.
Right. We have a couple of components. The campaign that in one way or another remind people about the attempt to suppress the Danish cartoons. Not that there was much attempt in Denmark, but overseas, of course, because, well, if you’re in Islamic countries and are boycotts of Danish goods and what have you. So, yes, we are running a cartoon contest. We haven’t developed the rules completely yet. When we do, of course, they’ll be published. But the idea is we’re going to hire people to make cartoons on any topic relating to religion, any religion. We’re ecumenical. So you can picture religion if you have a cartoon that some way relates to Buddhism. We’ll consider that as well. But there’s no way to formulate the rules on that yet. We are recruiting some professional cartoonists.
Write some big names.
Were hoping big names. I’m not free to divulge them yet because we don’t have explicit permission to use their names. But I feel confident saying that once the cartoon rules become public, good people recognize the names and we’re looking forward to a very vigorous contest.
Now, the Council for Secular Humanism is a magazine free inquiry. It’s the only periodical in the U.S. that republished those Danish cartoons that this cartoon contest is kind of in honor of. Those cartoons are actually still controversial today. A book published by Yale University Press recently actually on that controversy on the Muslim cartoon controversy. Exactly. The book refused to reprint the cartoons and the book was on that exact topic.
Yes. Talk about ironic.
I mean, you couldn’t come up with a better example, a book about, as you say, the controversy itself, that for whatever reason, I’ve heard different explanations. You know, the publisher refused for the cartoons and obviously a lot speculation that they were afraid of perhaps some violence of a boycott. The official explanation, I understand, is that they don’t think the cartoons were necessary.
Well, strains, if you’re talking about a subject that deals with the graphic images that you do, you see the images and of course, the old standby. They were afraid of offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims, their language necessary to reproduce cartoons.
Yeah, it’s it’s breathtaking in the in the disconnect there a book on the topic that doesn’t show the cartoons. Ron, let’s get to Blasphemy Day now. Obviously, as atheists and as skeptics, as secular humanists, you and I both would see blasphemy as literally a victimless crime. Is the intent of CFS Blasphemy Day just to rile up believers by making that point?
No, no, not at all. First of all, it’s it will be September 30th, which is the anniversary, again, of the publication of Danish cartoons. Blasphemy Day serves a few different purposes. I guess if I could condense it, the two principal ones, one, it’s to call attention to the continuing threat to free expression that is posed by blasphemy laws or proposed blasphemy laws or regulations. Not only do we have laws in Islamic countries that still very much are enforced and people literally have to fear for their lives if they say something that might be critical of Islam.
Yeah, many of these blasphemy laws actually carry mandatory sentences of death or life in prison in some days. Exactly.
And literally thousands of people have been sentenced under these laws in Iran than a one country has carried out executions. Pakistan has not healed. In theory, people could be sent to death. And Pakistan has convicted, I think, well over a thousand people blasphemy in the last decade or so. But usually they are given prison sentences and that carries over. I mean, there are a couple other things that result from that. One is just the self-censorship that people impose on themselves because of their concern about the future that may be caused in other countries, that they criticize religion. So that you talk about the recent book by Yale, that’s in effect a form of self censorship. The publisher is concerned about the outbreak, perhaps of boycott’s violence or whatever that may result if they publish. Cartoon that would be considered blasphemous. Then, as you may know, there is a move afoot at the United Nations, actually been going on for a few years now, but it may be coming to a head this fall. There are a group of Islamic countries have been pushing the United Nations to adopt resolutions prohibiting defamation of religion. And in fact, they have persuaded one United Nations body, ironically called the Human Rights Council, has actually adopted non-binding resolutions condemning defamation of religion, non-binding in the sense they’re advisory. They essentially urge member states to consider adopting legislation that would prohibit defamation of religion.
And Islamic countries are using that resolution. It’s nonbinding, but they’re using that resolution to justify their own blasphemy laws. We’ve said carry out these death sentences or life in prison.
Exactly. Exactly. So they can say that even though the International Declaration, Human Rights, they subscribe to that. Nonetheless, the Human Rights Council appears to have interpreted that to mean you can still have laws that prohibit blasphemy. Furthermore, there is a movement to actually try to make a resolution like that binding on member states. There will be a resolution introduced. We have word of this at the so-called third committee of the General Assembly this fall, probably sometime toward the end of October. We don’t have the wording yet because the draft hasn’t been released. So it could be just another resolution that would be advisory nature. But there could be an attempt to make it binding. We hope we expect the United States or other Western democracies to oppose that and we assume it would be successful. At the very least, we think the United States would refuse to apply such a law. It would be unconstitutional.
I want to continue talking about Blasphemy Day and all that. But just on this point, it’s not just in Islamic societies that, you know, there are these blasphemy laws. Even in Europe, there are movements to, you know, set up legal standards that actually outlaw offensive speech against urgence.
Sure. Of course, there are movements. And again, I would say there are two rationales. One sometimes unstated. One is simply the fear of that. If we don’t have laws like that, especially laws that would prevent statements or cartoons or what have you, that may be offensive to some Muslims, there’ll be problems. There’ll be social problems. And the other one is the kind of misplaced political correctness.
I mean, the idea that people have a right not to be offended and that is something we would strongly take issue with. We don’t believe there is any human right not to be offended. I mean, people are owed respect. And that’s a fundamental principle, I think, of secular humanism. We believe in the value and dignity of all human beings. But you don’t show respect for a person. In fact, you’re essentially condescending to the person by refusing to say what you truly believe. If you truly believe that their religious beliefs are unwarranted, then you should say so, as shown respect for the person as an individual. Failing to do that, treating the person as someone who’s had an eggshell personality and can’t stand the truth or whatever is really demeaning in the sense of that person. It’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful. Exactly. So the idea, as I said this, this is a totally wrong head, a notion from our perspective that somehow people have a right not to be offended.
Now, as I’ve heard Austin Dacey say it, ideas don’t deserve respect. People do. So ideas are you know, they’re fair game. And let’s throw at them, especially if we think they’re harmful or nonsensical.
Exactly. And that’s one of the. There are a couple, I think, mistaken notions about blasphemy.
And Ron, there are a lot of components to blasphemy there. I want to talk about the blasphemy contest that’s going on. But first, let’s just continue with this kind of philosophical justification a bit. You’ve said, oh, no, it’s not about offending people for the sake of offending them, outright criticism, religion, other basic beliefs that people have. If we think those beliefs are harmful or wrongheaded, it’s a basic right and we’re defending it. That’s what Blaster is all about. But even if it’s done kind of with that noble goal in mind, can’t you imagine it being a little unstrategic? It’s it’s offensive. It riles people up. It polarizes, you know, what could be allies, the liberal religious. You know, they defend church state separation and kind of reason and science based Paul. Public policy, that sort of stuff. And then we come off saying, oh, yeah. And by the way, let’s organize everybody everywhere to engage in blasphemy. Well, that’s just a little unseemly.
Now, I would disagree because ultimately what we want to do is to get to.
What we describe as a sector of society that’s part of our mission, and that doesn’t mean we’re antireligious, but we want a society in which religious beliefs don’t have a special privilege. They should be treated just like any other blee. And just like people can make pointed comments and criticism of political beliefs, economic beliefs, philosophical beliefs, they should be able make criticism and indeed pointed criticism over religious beliefs. So far from not being strategic, actually it is strategic because it is looking at our long term mission. What we want to accomplish. We eventually want to get to the place in our society where religion is treated like any other belief. And one way to get there is to get people to accept the idea that one can comment on religion and is acceptable to do so, that you don’t have a right to your religious beliefs.
Not criticized by other people.
Right. That say they would be immune from criticism because, again, one’s political beliefs aren’t immune from criticism. Your philosophy isn’t immune from criticism. You know your musical tastes. I mean, if you tell me you like country music, I’d certainly probably make some acerbity comments. Apologies to our country music fans out there. So people do that in every other sphere of human life.
All their belief is subject to criticism. Why do we wall off this one particular set of beliefs? I know you can’t you can’t comment on it. It’s a taboo.
So for you, Ron, for the Center for Inquiry, blasphemy is kind of a metaphor for full frontal criticism for for fair but loud criticism. Your blasphemy means criticism to you.
Unsparing criticism. I mean, the historical definition, plasma. And this is where some confusion comes. And because some people do equate blasphemy with just plain ridicule, and that’s simply not the case. If you look at all blasphemy laws, what they have punished historically is any sort of denial of the God or whatever God was in existence at the time. It was considered the Supreme Godwin’s, although or the Trinity or what have you. It also punished, of course, any kind of scoffing at God or the attributes of God or anything that is considered holy. But most of the people who throughout history have been convicted of blasphemy are individuals who made statements, you know, questioning religion and denying certain dogmas.
They weren’t out there drawing sexual cartoons of Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed in some three way. They were questioning the incarnation or other religious dogmas and they were punished for it, sometimes executed for the first law concrete law that we had specific evidence for that punished something that we would call Plaskett today.
It was called Impiety was an Athenian law in the 5th century BCE and among the individuals prosecuted under that law were Socrates and Protagoras, two philosophers. They’re not known for being juvenile or crude or ridiculous. They’re known as questioning individuals. And they ask the wrong questions in terms of what the authorities thought were proper. And that’s the typical victim of a blasphemy law.
Well, so you’re you’re speaking of these kind of high minded goals of blasphemy day. But surely, you know that some of us are going to kind of get off on poking fun at the religious beliefs of our neighbors. It’s not just about this unsparing criticism of nonsense beliefs. It’s it’s also parody and ridicule.
There will be that. There will be that in, you know, when we as we’ve indicate we’re gonna have a Blastland contest and we’re formulating the rules for that.
And when the rules are published, we’ll make it clear that we’re looking for entries that are not crude. We’re looking for creative, insightful entries. People can smell what they want.
Similarly with censorship. So you can submit some something crude if you want some sexual joke. But we’re looking for, as I said, insightful, creative phrases. And I think what we’re going to do is probably set a word limit and tell people to come up with something cogent and memorable that we can use. Perhaps we’ll probably have some kind of prize like have it printed up somewhere, maybe on a T-shirt. And that’s what we’re looking for.
Now, we know that people will submit things that are, you know, crude that some people would take offense at, but we don’t think that’s the reason. Again, not to. To have something like this. I mean, if you look at the Plutarco amount of he oversaw the show. Thank you. America is a Will Ferrell thing. I think he got a Tony for it. I was I didn’t get a ticket to Broadway, my son on HBO. No, I haven’t.
But it’s interesting. I bring that up because it’s a criticism of Bush, as you might imagine. And there’s various sexual references and. In fact, during the show, Will Ferrell playing Bush flashes a picture of a penis up on the screen, on the stage. You know, saying that his penis. You know, he’s no longer president. Do we like now? Not enough as Bush’s penis or Ferrell’s penis or someone else does really make a difference. But, you know, there weren’t protests or pickets in the street. People weren’t saying, oh, this is intolerable, you know. You know, something claiming to be George Bush’s penis was shown on the screen. But can you imagine the furor if we showed, you know, Jesus’s Johnson on a screen?
I mean, it would be incredible. And what what’s the difference?
Or the piss? Christ, that art were right. Got everybody right.
Chuckles It’s interesting. You know, he’s aware of this bombing blasting prosecution. Was that long ago, the 1970s. And why was the person prosecuted? Because the person on the name escapes you right now. He wrote a poem that suggested that Jesus was gay. Mm hmm. And that deeply offended a lot of people, but. You know, it’s some people would say, well, that’s poking fun at Jesus. Maybe gay people would disagree with that.
But there is kind of a a fringe movement in in gay studies that argue that what Jesus Christ acted up, that he, you know, Reiby, that Paul was gay, too, whatever its fringe. But yes.
Right. But in any event, for many believers that they would regard that as sexual ridicule. And that’s that was what essentially the prosecution argued and the pope was convicted.
I believe we have some sort of fine led to law. Protesters attempt to pass a statute confirming that blasphemy is not a crime in Great Britain. And to date, there has not been successful. In fact, there’s been a countermovement to enlarge the blasphemy law because under common law in the United Kingdom, only blasphemy against the Christian religion is illegal. So some people say that all the way to remedy this is to make sure the law applies to all religions. Well, needless to say, we think that’s the wrong way to go.
It should be gotten rid of completely.
I’d like to let our listeners know that more information can be found at point of inquiry dot org about Blasphemy Day and the larger campaign for free expression. One point on that, Ron. The campaign for free expression is a one time thing, but we’re anticipating that the Blasphemy Day as CFI is supporting it around the world, is going to happen year after year.
Right. When, in fact, we’re trying to get more more recognition for it because we think it is important. We think it is critical that people feel free to express their views about religion. And we think commemorating this day is one vehicle for getting their point across. So we do intended to be an annual event. We hope to get some press coverage. This year is really the first time there has been an organized push for it. And in later years, we hope to get more coverage and ultimately we hope to just get coverage. But to achieve the goals we set out for ourselves, and that is to get people to accept the fact that it’s acceptable to criticize religion just as it’s acceptable, by the way, to criticize atheists. We get it all the time and you don’t hear us complaining.
I want to touch on one more point and before we begin to finish up, and that is this again, this unstrategic question. You say it’s strategic because it’s actually advancing goals of getting people to be okay with criticism of religion. But I think of a few years ago when this Internet group of young people started something called the blasphemy challenge, it seemed to focus primarily on Christianity. That raises the point. Most of what you’ve mentioned today is about Islamic societies and blasphemy laws in the Muslim world. But we live in a predominantly Christian culture. So want blasphemy day in the United States really kind of be anti Christian or at least critical of Christianity?
Well, it’s not that we anti Christian, certainly, again, we can’t predict what people are going to say and will accept all entries if people are interested in participating in our contests.
But we’re not sponsoring any anti Christian statements or what have you. We want statements that have a critique of religion in an insightful and creative manner now, because, as you point out, we are predominantly still Christian in terms of our demographics. They could very well be that most of the entries we get will have something to say about Christianity. But I think there is enough awareness of other religions around the world that I expect either we’ll get a number of comments about God and kind of generic terms specific to any religion, or we’ll have some comments about Islam, probably fewer about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism. But there may be a few of those. But in no way can this be said to be an anti Christian effort or anything like that. And I think the way the other group did it is I understand it was simply it was not tactically correct.
You’re talking about the blasphemy challenge. This thing a few years ago, it was really just a bunch of YouTube videos of young people denying the Holy Spirit. And that’s the one thing in the Bible supposed to guarantee that you’ll burn in hell forever. I see the point in exposing those beliefs. I consider those beliefs silly. But, you know, personally, I thought the whole thing was rather lowbrow, kind of, you know, distracted people from fair minded criticism of religion. How is Blasphemy Day different from this blasphemy challenge? Couple years ago, because as as we admitted, it might still, in effect, be focused mostly on Christianity.
Well, to begin, we have definitely broader aims. We’re not. First of all, our contest is just a part of our efforts to commemorate blasphemy day and blasphemy days as a component of our campaign for free expression. So we’re not taking one aspect of one religion that is a criticism of the Holy Ghost or a Holy Spirit. And you’re running with it in terms of a contest or a challenge. I think that would be imputed. I think you’re saying.
One religion and, you know, again, we’re very ecumenical. We believe all religions are part of the same respect and that is critical observation and commentary on on their beliefs.
So I would distinguish what we’re doing from that. Again, we can’t predict what people are going to submit, but we’re not calling for that. We are calling in our contest for, as I said, insightful, memorable phrases. It’s really a challenge to the creativity and imagination of our supporters because difficult to come up with a penetrating critique in 20 words. But we’ll see what we get. And the overall goal or goals of Blasphemy Day would be.
To again, draw attention to the fact that there is this threat to free expression out there. It can’t be ignored. We ignore at our peril a lot of people feel comfortable, as you said, that, hey, there’s an accepted right to free speech and it covers everything. That’s simply not the case in many countries. Legally, there’s no right to that. And in this country, as I pointed out and as we discuss all these examples, there is social pressure not to criticize religion. And we want to get beyond that. We want to get people to accept the legitimacy of critique of religion, just as they accept the legitimacy of critique of politics or what have you.
So it’s legitimate to criticize other people’s beliefs. But in America, you have a right to believe what you want to believe. Might we just be fueling the fire? You know, earlier this summer, there was all that. You know, the tea bag stuff in the town hall meetings and people screaming at each other over politics, if now were lighting the fire under people to go out and criticize each other’s religious beliefs as well. Aren’t we adding to that?
Well, first of all, I don’t see any problem with the health care debate. I think it was healthy. I think a number of the charges and allegations that were made were not supported and were not warranted. The way with people conducted themselves was not appropriate because I don’t believe in screaming a town hall meeting. You can make your point otherwise. And we’re certainly not encouraging people to scream blasphemous slogans from the street corner and definitely don’t want people to interfere with. I mean, there’s I’ve heard that one concern is, well, gee, there’s really interference with worship services and like that. No, we firmly believe in free exercise of religion. And it would be wrong, wrong, morally and perhaps legally for people to try to interfere with the worship service of believers of whatever religion. We don’t want that right. We don’t want people picketing churches, picketing churches, disrupting the service or what have you. That’s not the way to go about this. We want to be able to express ourselves, but due to the appropriate form. And when we do it again, we’re not going to do it in, you know, with screaming. I assume we’re not gonna have screaming matches back and forth as happened as some of these town halls. But I thought actually the health care debate, to the extent there was a debate that citizens were able express their views, however mistaken they may have been on some points. There was a healthy thing was good.
It’s better for citizens to be engaged in a legislative debate than to be uninterested and disengaged.
And on that point, we certainly wouldn’t want a religious person who’s using religion to shore up public policy advocacy to say, wait, my religious views are off limits. You can’t criticize them. Of course we want that criticism to happen. I get your point.
Exactly. And I mean, that is one of the dangers, the hidden dangers of saying, well, gee, we have to keep religion taboo.
You can’t count on a religious belief. But then the religious some of the religious among the say all that. But some of the religious will utilize their beliefs as a justification for public policy.
And if one can question or comment or criticize their beliefs, how then can we engage in a discussion? I mean, their beliefs are immune from criticism, yet they’re utilizing those very same beliefs to advance certain policies that they favor. And that’s an intolerable situation.
So, Ron, someone’s listening to the show. They say I’m I’m down with blasphemy. I want to get involved. What do they do to get involved with Blasphemy Day?
Well, first of all, they should check our Web site and they’ll have information about the campaign for free expression and also about Blasphemy Day. We’ve talked about the blasphemy contest. I expect within a few days we’ll have the contest rules up there. There’ll be information about the police. Block us, please block US Web site. And there’ll be information about the other ways in which we’re commemorating Blasphemy Day. It’s not just the blasphemy contest at various centers and communities. CFI centers around the country. There are a number of different events being held. Some of the centers are showing films. There’ll be discussions and speeches of some of the centers. I’m speaking at the Amherst Center. Some of the centers are having games.
There are art displays at some of the centers as a whole variety of events are being used to get across the point that we should be free to express our views about religion.
So blasphemy for young and old alike.
Yes. And for religious and non-religious alike countries, you can be religious. And if you want to, you can make a blasphemous statement about some other religion. That’s fair game to Iran.
Thanks so much for joining me for the discussion about blasphemy.
Thanks, T.J.. I appreciate it. It’s an important issue and thanks for giving me the time.
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