The internet and religious taboos

One of the great strengths of the internet is that it allows broad-based actions and thus can undermine hierarchical control of messages. It has become very easy for like-minded people all over the world to quickly connect up and act in concert in support of any particular cause. Furthermore the considerable anonymity afforded by the internet means that people can defy taboos with impunity.

Take for example, the absurdly hysterical response of Muslims whenever someone draws an image of their prophet Mohammed. They go on riots and rampages and even threaten to kill the perpetrators. Just recently Lars Vilks, a Dutch cartoonist who drew an image of Mohammed as a dog, was attacked while lecturing on free speech. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt because police rushed to his rescue but during the assault other students chanted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). If they thought they were bringing honor to their god and religion by this disgusting display, they were greatly mistaken. It is a truly pathetic god who needs thugs to beat up people who are merely exercising their right to speak.

In the past, there was little that anyone could do about this kind of thuggery in the service of religion because access to the media was limited and because the major media do not want to alienate their advertisers, they were likely to self-censor, the way Comedy Central did with its show South Park and the Mohammed controversy.

But things are different with the internet and it looks like Muslims have gone too far with their demand that everyone (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) adhere to the ban on drawing images of Mohammed. There has been a backlash and this taboo has been violated on a grand scale. For example, May 20 was declared to be “Everyone draw Mohammed day”, where people around the world were encouraged to submit their entries. There were many Facebook pages such as this one.

As one can expect when amateurs enter the scene on a mass scale, some of the resulting images are far more insulting to Muslim sensibilities than the ones that triggered the initial protests.

As a result of this response, Pakistan, which is rapidly going down a theocratic road, has banned YouTube and FaceBook because of its ‘growing sacrilegious content’. But this will also fail because the internet is hard to corral and people will find ways to get around any fences that governments try to set up.

The AAF (Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers) student group at the University of Illinois decided to counter this by chalking stick pictures of Mohammed. They have been joined by other student groups at other college campuses. (This act had its own amusing unintended effect with some students, unaware of the controversy or even of who Mohammed was, saw the stick figure chalking campaign as some kind of show of support for a seemingly very popular student with that name.)

Were all these actions gratuitously provocative? Yes of course. Were they rude? Certainly. Were they even juvenile? No doubt. But this is the kind of response that people should expect in the internet age when they try to enforce their peculiar taboos on everyone. The internet allows widespread yet concerted and anonymous action and religious people should realize that they can no longer control the message and decide what everyone should consider sacred. Trying to do so only makes things worse for them, a la the Streisand Effect. They should just learn to act like adults.

No one has the right to force devout Muslims to look at such drawings. If Muslims stumble across one, they should do what we all do when we encounter a visual image we do not like, and look away. But none of us have the right to prevent other people from drawing things and viewing them and the sooner religious people realize and accept this and leave it to their god to defend his honor, the better.

POST SCRIPT: How religions began (language advisory)


  1. Matt says


    This isn’t really pertaining to this post, but I just came across this article and wanted to know your thoughts on it. I take it you weren’t interviewed for the book? The findings (at least those summarized in the article) go against a lot of the things you have either posted or linked. I think it was Richard Dawkins’ talked at TED where he basically quoted exact opposite findings as truth. Anyway, just wanted to know your thoughts. I find this disheartening.

  2. says


    No I was not interviewed for the book and have not read it but Jason Rosenhouse has and in his detailed review says that the claims made about the book (on the jacket and in reviews like the one you linked to) do not match Ecklund’s own data, saying “The picture I had prior to reading this book was that scientists were vastly more likely than the public generally to be nonreligious, and that where you did find religion it would be mostly of the theologically liberal sort. That picture is overwhelmingly confirmed by Ecklund’s data.

    This claim, that fifty percent of scientists are traditionally religious, is repeated in the jacket copy. The expression, “religious in a traditional sense” is never precisely defined, but I would have thought that a belief in God is a minimal requirement. With 72% of scientists explicitly nontheistic, and an additional five percent professing to believe in God only sometimes, it looks to me like 23% would be the most generous figure for the fraction of scientists who are traditionally religious.”

    He also notes that Ecklund includes social scientists but excludes mathematicians in her definition of scientist.

    Jerry Coyne says that the study was funded by Templeton which has its own agenda of claiming that science and religion are compatible. This does not mean that the data are wrong but would explain Rosenhouse’s finding that the book is full of quotes by scientists willing to say nice things about religion.

  3. Scott says

    I can understand why they get upset when caricatures are done of Mohammed (yet not why they get as upset as they do), but do they get upset when someone does a flattering, deferential portrait of him? I imagine they’d be put into quite a quandry if someone were to portray him looking like Omar Sharif or someone similarly handsome. Their behavior only reinforces Western stereotypes of them.

    I’m sad I missed Draw Mohammed day. Maybe next year!

  4. says


    As I understand it, it’s a blanket ban with no Omar Sharif cut-off, though I imagine that insulting drawings would rouse more genuine anger, while flattering drawings may soothe some of the less-crazy types.

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