Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Delightfully Blasphemous Idea Whose Time Has Come

International Blasphemy Day strikes blows for free speech

Various atheist groups came together this past week in what emerged as an interesting -- and somewhat valuable -- exercise of free speech.

On September 30, the fourth anniversary of the controversy over the Jyllands-Posten Mohammad cartoons, atheist, agnostic and skeptic groups across the world gathered to facilitate discussion about blasphemy and censorship by, well... blaspheming.

"We're not seeking to offend, but if in the course of dialogue and debate, people become offended, that's not an issue for us," explained Ontario Centre for Inquiry Director Justin Trottier. "There is no human right not to be offended."

"We live in a democratic society, which means you get offended and you better get used to that," he added.

In a cultural era in which religious believers can get upset about something so silly as a fictional novel that treats Jesus Christ as a mortal human and not divine -- or will riot over the drop of a hat upon the publishing of the wrong cartoon -- blasphemy has become a new staple of comedy. TV shows such as Family Guy and South Park have plied their trade on pushing people's religious buttons (among other things).

There can be great value in determining what offends people. Offense signifies the values that people -- or a society -- holds dearest, and of the patterns of belief that underly them.

Offending people can be a good way to encourage people to challenge these values and beliefs.

But the act of offending someone also subverts the value of dialogue: the greatest value of dialogue is to help achieve a mutual understanding. The act of offending someone -- particularly deliberately offending them, as some of the participants in International Blasphemy Day almost certainly set out to do -- is not an action that promotes mutual understanding. A contemplative person may understand someone better after they have offended them, but the person offended will hold little interest in understanding their offender.

When the very purpose of an expression seems custom-designed for the purpose of offending someone -- such as is clearly the case with "Jesus Does His Nails" (a painting pictured above) -- its value to the public good of dialogue (and, as Benjamin Barber would note, dialogue very much is a private guood) is severely limited.

Even so, limited public dialogue is better than no public dialogue at all. For this reason alone, blasphemous expression unequivocally should not be censored, and International Blasphemy Day should become an annual event.

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