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May 10 2010

In praise of blasphemy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I have been highlighting the absurd overreactions of religious people to what they perceive as lack of proper deference to their sensibilities. To them I say that they should learn to deal with it the way all the rest of us have to deal with others who exercise their rights of free speech to say things that we strongly disagree with. If religious people are offended by any TV show or song or book or film, they should simply not watch or listen or read. They, and other religious groups, have absolutely no right to try and prevent others from saying what they want to about religion. There should be no restrictions on speech in the public sphere, other than statements that create a clear and present danger.

Author Philip Pullman had the perfect response to people who get offended. He has just published a novel that gives an alternative account of how the Jesus legend arose. In his version of the story, Mary actually gave birth to twins: Jesus, who was a good man who initially thought he was the son of god but towards the end of his life realized that he was not and that there was probably no god either; and Christ, a weak and shallow person who, along with a mysterious stranger, orchestrated the events that led to the legend of Jesus that Christians now believe. The title of the book is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. (You can read a review of the book here.)

At a reading and book signing, someone complained about how the title was offensive to Christians, saying “Now Mr. Pullman, the title of the novel seems to an ordinary Christian to be offensive. To call the son of god a scoundrel is an awful thing to say.”

Pullman’s reply is excellent. Watch:

For those who cannot watch or would like to know the exact words used by Pullman, I have transcribed it:

“Yes, it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.”

The private sphere can have expectations of certain norms of speech and behavior because in such situations it is often difficult for people to leave or avoid hearing or seeing things without creating awkwardness and drawing attention to oneself. It would be rude, for example, to invite someone into our homes and make fun of their beliefs. And most of the time people conform to such unspoken norms and things move along smoothly. But at the same time, those same norms should not be used to shut down discussions of legitimate questions just because people dislike them. The problem arises when people either want to restrict speech in the public sphere or do not make the distinction between the public and private sphere and apply the norms of behavior in one sphere to the other.

The absurd sensitivities of religious people need to be combated because undue respect for their beliefs leads to them doing the most appalling things in the name of protecting the honor of their religion and god. The problem is that once you concede that religious beliefs have any kind of preferred status, you immediately open the door to people thinking that they can decide what other people can say or do concerning their beliefs. For example, in Poland simply offending someone’s religious sensibilities can get you fined and even imprisoned. A pop star who merely said that she found it far easier to believe in dinosaurs than the Bible, adding “it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes” has so offended the Catholic Church that she is now facing two years in prison.

This is why widespread blasphemy is good and even necessary. It serves to remind religious people that religion has take its lumps just like any other beliefs. The more we tiptoe around religious beliefs, the more we encourage a sense of entitlement among religious people.

POST SCRIPT: Pope Song

Tim Minchin, whose terrific beat poem Storm (scroll down) making fun of new-age anti-science blather went viral, has a new song aimed at the pope and the Catholic Church.

Be warned that he uses strong language to make a point about the absurdity of people who seem to get more offended by mere words than by the terrible acts committed by priests and the cover-up of those acts by the church hierarchy. The tune is so catchy that you may find yourself singing it.

If people are offended by the song and video and want to do something about it, I suggest that they go back and read Phillip Pullman’s words above as to their options.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Norm Nason

    One is also reminded of the huge controversy that occurred when John Lennon of the Beatles innocently said something to the effect that the boys were “more popular than Jesus.”

  2. 2
    Scott

    Norm: I’m also reminded of something similar that Jerry Garcia said. He said music has taken the place of religion in young people’s lives. Instead of immediately being offended by Lennon’s statement, people should have thought about it a little more and realized that it was more an indictment about religion and its relevancy to young people than a statement about the Beatles being more important that god. Unless he actually meant “Rod,” meaning Rod Stewart…

  3. 3
    Retta

    Oh my gosh, I thought I was the only one that felt this way, so glad to see that I am not! I totally agree, if you are offended, don’t watch or don’t listen, no one is forcing you to. Loved the pope video too.

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