The hypocrisy of International Blasphemy Day

  • October 8, 2009
{mosimage}Some strange news releases, media alerts and queries reach me on a regular basis, but the invitation to “International Blasphemy Day” stood out for a number of reasons. Who knew that blasphemers were being given the short end of the stick by society? From my perspective, it would be hard to know there was anything exceptional going on.

The first article promised “Jesus as you’ve never seen Him before,” dripping “red nail polish around the nails in His feet and hands.” As it happens, some of the things we see at the office make a few dabs of nail polish look like amateur hour. I’ve seen crucifixes propped up by human waste, chocolate Jesuses with obscene touches and at least one Jesus look-alike contest (the latter two were Easter promotions, by the way). I’ve also helped get a Communion Host removed from the auction block on e-Bay, and encouraged YouTube to remove purported desecrations of a Host from its site.

Less seriously, but just as annoying for many people, in the past year alone there have been many examples of rosaries used as necklaces in fashion advertising, and rosaries and other sacramentals sold as air fresheners. Some of these things have been removed or changed in response to our protests and that of consumers.

These things are not everyday occurrences, but when they do happen they can usually find “free speech” and “artistic freedom” defenders without much trouble. Why, therefore, would anyone believe a special day needs to be set aside to give blasphemers a chance to enjoy their share of the limelight? The network of North American freethinkers’ societies who organized the event recommended a “blasphemy challenge” on YouTube where participants tried to outdo one another in their denunciations of the Holy Spirit and of traditional Christian faith in general. Unless you have an appetite for the juvenile (as in “look, folks, the sky didn’t fall in,” or “where’s the thunderclap?”), as well as the anti-religious, it’s definitely worth missing.

Free speech is one of the most important values in a democracy, and fairness is one of the principles that help prevent extreme insults to people’s religious beliefs — be they theistic or atheistic — from being thrust into your face, especially in public areas and especially on taxpayers’ money. That is why the Catholic Civil Rights League was involved in protesting most of the cases noted above.

In my observation, any preferential treatment given to religious viewpoints in the public arena could hardly be said to favour believers. Appointments of public officials are openly questioned when it is learned that the candidate has strong, traditional religious beliefs. Human rights tribunals hear complaints against people whose only offense is distressing people through the expression of strong opinions based on their religious beliefs, and in some cases apologies have been demanded and fines imposed. If the same tribunals have ever issued such sanctions against the promotion of atheism, the case is not well-known.

On university campuses, similar preferential treatment occurs. I can think of at least half a dozen student pro-life organizations that have had their club status challenged or denied. Almost all of these cases can be traced to a policy of the Canadian Federation of Students stating that only groups supportive of the “pro-choice” viewpoint should be granted any share of mandatory student fees or the use of school facilities. This is a clear-cut case of bias against a faith-based viewpoint.

Like many events that too easily deteriorate into buffoonery, Blasphemy Day has its serious side. It was meant to observe the anniversary of the 2005 publication of the controversial Mohammed cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which resulted in worldwide riots by outraged Muslims and widespread self-censorship by the media. There remain many opinions as to which, if any, of those cartoons ought to have been published; the fact that such cartoons are permissible in a free press does not mean they are always desirable. Each editor must make his or her decision about what is acceptable to the readers, who will then react with their feedback and their subscription fees and their advertising.

It was not long after the Mohammed cartoon controversy that atheist slogans began to appear on buses in England and Europe. They began to appear in Canada over the past year, sometimes on the same transit systems that have either refused or heard challenges to pro-life advertising. In a world where people may find themselves in unexpected agreement with others, I’d have to agree with Justin Trottier, executive director of the Ontario Centre for Inquiry, quoted as saying “there is no human right not to be offended.” However, from where I sit it really isn’t the non-religious who are getting a rough ride.

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