The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Blasphemy Day, Bill Maher, and Free Inquiry

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 30, 2009

Happy Blasphemy Day, everyone!  For the last 5 years, to commemorate the anniversary of the publication of the now infamous Danish cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, on Sept. 30th the Center For Inquiry has celebrated International Blasphemy Day.

**Aside: Even if you’re religious, read this article all the way to the end.  There’s an interesting twist at the bottom – and a very important message for my fellow skeptics/atheists.

International Blasphemy Day isn’t about the non-religious thumbing their noses at the religious so much as it is about defending free inquiry and demanding that the free & unfettered exchange of ideas be respected.  More specifically, in CFI’s own words…

Free speech is the foundation on which all other liberties rest. Without having the right to express our opinions, however unpopular, those willing to use political clout, violence, and threats will stifle dissent, and we must all suffer the consequences of this. As George Bernard Shaw quipped, “Every great truth begins as a blasphemy.”

Blasphemy Day International is a campaign seeking to establish September 30th as a day to promote free speech and to stand up in a show of solidarity for the freedom to challenge, criticize, and satirize religion without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal. The event was created as a reaction against those who would seek to take away the right to satirize and criticize a particular set of beliefs that have been given a privileged status over other beliefs.

And that freedom to analyze & criticize covers all beliefs, or non-belief.  Freedom of speech is a two-way street: I have the right to criticize religious organizations and the idea of a god, and the religious have just as much right to criticize my atheism. Let the free exchange of ideas flow uninhibited – I am not afraid of what someone has to say about me concerning my skepticism of woo and/or a lack of god belief.  And even if I were afraid of such criticism, too bad – I don’t have the power, nor should I, to determine anyone else’s right to free speech!

But, sadly, there are those who would use their religious beliefs as a cover to avoid criticism and/or exposure of fraud.  Worse yet, there are those who would use this religious charade as a way of shutting people up and denying them their right to free speech.  This is because, in the United States at least, there has been a relatively widespread & long-standing social contract to not discuss religion in mixed company.  For the most part, I can understand the wisdom of not acting like a fire-breathing atheist when you’re out with your religious pals (I have many religious friends, and I’d like to keep them).  The problem is that when some people couch their dangerous nonsense under the umbrella of “religion”, there are far too many people who are simply unwilling to provide criticism for fear of “offending someone’s religious beliefs”.

For example, there are fundamentalist Christian creationists who attempt to shut down the teaching of evolutionary science in our public schools who scream about how they’re undergoing “religious persecution” when called out on their pseudoscience.  And there’s New Age woo masquerading as “religion” – for the tax breaks (in the U.S.) as well as the social protection of religion – as in the case of psychic Sylvia Browne’s Novus Spiritus. Then there are those who claim a “religious-exemption” to otherwise mandatory child-vaccination programs, thus endangering their kids as well as the children of others when small-scale epidemics of easily preventable diseases crop up.  Also, on the issue of protecting children, there is the utterly reprehensible behavior of the Roman Catholic Church in covering up and prolonging the despicable sexual abuse of thousands upon thousands of innocent boys & girls over half a century.  Not to mention, the overly & outrageously litigious nature of the Church of $cientology as they attempt to use their considerable funding and bullying legal (and sometimes illegal) tactics to shut up critics of the cult.  And let’s not forget what got Blasphemy Day started in the first place: the threats of violence & murder against journalists in Western Europe and the Islamic World for daring to publish cartoons – cartoons! – of the Muslim prophet Muhammed.  Speaking of those cartoons, here’s a link to them 🙂

Do you see a pattern here?  The message is: “You can’t criticize me, you can’t analyze my beliefs, you can’t ask hard questions about my religion, because that would offend my religious sensibilities – Wah!”

What a stupid, childish, and dangerous cop out.  Dangerous, that is, if those of us – religious & non-religious alike – who consider ourselves lovers of liberty allow such arguments to go unchallenged.

And now, the twist: Let me not get too high & mighty from my atheist perch, folks.  Because every single criticism I’ve leveled at the religious community in the paragraphs above also goes for the non-theistic community.  As a perfect example of what I’m talking about, let us consider the recent debacle of the Atheist Alliance International bestowing their 2009 Richard Dawkins Award on comedian & talk-show host Bill Maher. As The Amateur Scientist blog states…

The Value in Skepticism

This has upset a lot of skeptics, since Bill Maher, in addition to being a loud and open atheist, is also a promoter of pseudoscientific “alternative medicine” treatments, a promulgator of paranoid conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies and western medicine, and an antivaccinationist. The Dawkins Award, in the words of AAI, is supposed to be given to those people “whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy…” Bill Maher may meet the secularist qualifications, but he fails miserably on the increasing scientific knowledge front. And the nonsense he spews could keep people from seeking life-saving medical treatment.

More upsetting, even though he isn’t a member of the board which gave the award to Maher, it seems that Richard Dawkins himself has decided to turn a blind eye to Bill Maher’s blatant promotion of anti-science-based medicine.

Folks, this is wrong, and the AAI & Richard Dawkins are not acting by the standards of rationality the skeptical movement should expect of them.  They are giving an award, of which a chief criterion is the promotion of science, to a man who – despite all the good he’s done in promoting the non-theistic viewpoint regarding religion – advocates some extremely dangerous & irresponsible views on medicine, views which will get people killed. The fact that Bill Maher is a famous, high-profile atheist does not give him a free pass from science & reason-based scrutiny; and the fact that AAI and Richard Dawkins are very powerful & influential in the atheist & skeptical movements does not give them a free pass from our criticism of them speaking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue!

If I were a member of the AAI, I’d rip up my membership card in disgust.  That is my suggestion to all you AAI folks out there.

To close, the lesson of Blasphemy Day is about so much more than just “bashing religion”, as too many of my atheist brethren think.  It is also about something much deeper & more fundamental than being able to criticize religion openly & freely; it’s about having the moral courage to extend the reach of free inquiry, the asking of tough & critical questions, and the demanding of satisfactory answers into our own beliefs.  If we, as atheists & skeptics, cannot apply our own values and standards of free inquiry upon an analysis of our own house, then we are no better than the deceitful & self-serving religious and wooish charlatans whom we criticize so often.

2 Responses to “Blasphemy Day, Bill Maher, and Free Inquiry”

  1. Hey now, gang, and a happy and prosperous Blasphemy Day to everybody!

    It’s interesting to see this happening, and that it revolves around the Danish cartoon brouhaha because, as most of you will recall, this fracas spawned the now-legendary Holocaust Cartoon Contest sponsored by Hamshahiri (sp?), the major Iranian daily paper out of Teheran. As you recall, the contest called on cartoonists around the world to submit Holocaust-themed cartoons as a challenge to people who claim to support free speech to put their money where their mouths are. Iranian president Ahmadinejad, himself a Holocaust denier, was expecting to see cartoons denying the Holocaust; what he got instead was an outpouring of cartoons critical of US/Israeli policy on Palestine, cartoons which compared the Israeli aggression in Palestine to the Holocaust — cartoons which, by their very nature, assumed not denial but acknowledgement of the historical fact and reality of the Holocaust. As I recall, there was a grand total of one — count ’em, one — cartoon actually denying the Holocaust in the entire competition.

    I, along with five other Americans, were participants in this contest and exhibition, to which I submitted the following cartoon:

    …which basically asked what Ariel Sharon (Israeli PM at the time), and others of a generation of Israeli leadership old enough to have lived through the Holocaust, exactly what they’d leared from it; my own answer was that they’d learned precisely the wrong things, as both history and recent events had shown they’d become that which they themselves hated generations ago.

    Needless to say, I caught a shitstorm of howling criticism from not only the reactionary right-wing Zionist factions, but the reactionary US right wing, in the form of interviews I gave on a couple of right-wing talk-radio programs whose hosts bitched and fumed at me for being “anti-Semetic”, when anyone with two brain cells to rub together could see that the cartoon was not a slag on Judaism or Jews but a direct, pointed criticism of Israeli state behavior in Palestine. Talk about your great truth beginning as blasphemy; here we are three years later, and everybody from the UN to former US President Jimmy Carter is comparing Israel’s behavior in Palestine to the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, and to South Africa’s apartheid era.

    It was tough going for a while, there, but…man, it sure is nice to be right.

  2. anaglyph said

    You know, there’s a deeper current here too. As you say, it is wrong of Dawkins to cut Bill Maher slack when he dips his toe in the quack medicine pool, but in my opinion (and I am often pelted with stones for saying this – even from inside the skeptical community) I think those skeptics who make exemptions for religious beliefs are guilty of the same double standard.

    For a worringly large number of skeptics, religion seems to operate completely outside their logical faculties, such that they can rigorously adhere to rational methodology when it comes to the Loch Ness Monster, or homeopathy, or Creationism but cut a rain check when it comes to the belief in an illogical supernatural deity.

    Many prominent Skeptics are guilty of this. I’ve even heard some of them admit it is not logical, as if that’s an excuse. It’s a particularly prevalent phenomenon in the US, where religious belief is so fused to identity that is is, it seems, almost impossible to let it go.

    If you arrive at the point in your life where you consider yourself a Skeptic, then you must, given any reasonable assessment, consider yourself an atheist. You can’t simultaneously mock blasphemy and be affronted by it.

    I salute you for having the courage of your convictions.

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