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Sep 30 2009

Blasphemy Day Rebuttal to Paul Kurtz

Blasphemy Day International is already past the halfway point for me here. Don’t forget that it’s still okay to blaspheme every day, unless you happen to live in one of those places where repressive legislation has given religious ideas special privileges which trump your rights to discuss them.

There was a post the day before Blasphemy Day that bothered me somewhat. That post is A Dissenting View About Blasphemy Day, authored by Paul Kurtz, the founder of the Center for Inquiry.

Let me preface my rebuttal regarding his dissent by stating that I have an immense amount of respect for Professor Kurtz. His accolades and achievements highlight a life of great advances for those of us who embrace the terms ‘secular’ and ‘skeptic’. As I often point out, and as Christians nearly always fail (or refuse) to understand, my respect for an individual has very little to do with any criticism I have regarding ideas or beliefs held by that person. I respect Paul Kurtz. Must I automatically respect his ideas regarding Blasphemy Day? No.

In his post, Professor Kurtz states the following:

The celebrating of “Blasphemy Day” by the Center for Inquiry by sponsoring a contest encouraging new forms of blasphemy, I believe is most unwise. It betrays the civic virtues of democracy. I support the premise that religion should be open to the critical examination of its claims, like all other institutions in society. I do have serious reservations about the forms that these criticisms take.

If I could, I would ask Prof. Kurtz to explain exactly what he means when he says, “It betrays the civic virtues of democracy.” I, personally, do not have any reservations about the forms of criticism of religion, as long as they are protected by the First Amendment. [I’m a US citizen. My posts will have a definite US bias in matters such as this.]

Prof. Kurtz continues:

When we defended the right of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons deploring the violence of Muslim suicide bombers, we were supporting freedom of the press. The right to publish dissenting critiques of religion should be accepted as basic to freedom of expression. But for CFI itself to sponsor the lampooning of Christianity by encouraging anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, or any other anti-religious cartoons goes beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in pluralistic society. It is not dissimilar to the anti-semitic cartoons of the Nazi era. Yet there are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention. In doing so they have dishonored the basic ethical principles of what the Center for Inquiry has resolutely stood for until now: the toleration of opposing viewpoints.

My understanding is that Prof. Kurtz takes issue with the difference between support and encouragement, and where the CFI should stand in such regard. What I primarily disagree with is his reason why the CFI should not encourage such blasphemy. He thinks it “goes beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in pluralistic society.” I am frequently accused (and rightly so) of being uncivil in many of my discourses. So what? Prof. Kurtz, being forty years my senior, is from a very different era. Our ideas of civility are certainly very different, as is the importance we attach to such civility.

Godwin’s Law didn’t have to wait for the comments; it was there in the post itself. I really find it both laughable and pathetic that Prof. Kurtz compares the current lampooning of religion to anti-semitic cartoons of the Nazi era. It seems that anti-theism is now equal to racism. Does the professor believe that the attempted extermination of the Jews by the Nazis was based solely on their religion?!!? Do you know what else? I would fight to defend the rights of people to publish those anti-semitic cartoons, as long as they would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment.

Prof. Kurtz actually used the term ‘fundamentalist atheists’. What is that even supposed to mean? Then he mentions that they use ‘vulgar antics’ which somehow dishonor the CFI’s basic ethical principle of the toleration of opposing viewpoints. I really don’t understand this reasoning. Who is to judge what is vulgar? What’s wrong with being vulgar? Is vulgarity not worthy of protection? Prof. Kurtz seems to me to be implying that the opposing viewpoints which are religious should be tolerated, while something that he deems to be vulgar should not.

Prof. Kurtz ends his post with this:

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way by calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms, it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance. One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures borders on hate speech. What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society. I apologize to my fellow citizens who have suffered these barbs of indignity.

There were points where I had to stop and check to be certain that this post was indeed supposed to have been written by Paul Kurtz. Calling attention to criticism I have of religious (or other) ideas is okay, but calling them out as being silly or ridiculous is being intolerant? Disagreeing is okay, but ‘rude caricatures’ border on hate speech? What exactly is hate speech, Professor? Is personally criticizing a homosexual because you believe (because of your religious beliefs) that homosexuality is immoral a valid expression of your values, or is it homophobic hate speech? I find so-called hate speech useful in that it lets me see where people’s prejudices lie.

Do you know what I think hate speech is? I think it’s a way for some people to silence others by claiming that their sensitive feelings have been hurt by a hateful meanie. If someone cries “Hate speech!” when confronted by something they find offensive, and that speech isn’t already exempt from First Amendment protection by virtue of meeting other criteria, I’m going to tell that person to either get some thicker skin, shut their god damned ears, or get the fuck out of the conversation.

One that really threw me: “What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way?You have got to be fucking kidding me. What country have you been living in, Professor Kurtz? Have you been sheltered from the realities of the way most of us live? Heck, I’ve already been insulted by your post because you use the utterly absurd term ‘fundamentalist atheists’ to describe people such as myself. We atheists are insulted and denigrated by the religious zealots in this country every single day. We are even prevented from holding public office by several states’ constitutions. I hate to be so blunt, Professor, but wake the fuck up!

Prof. Kurtz then gives his assumption as to how ‘we’ would respond to similar insults directed at us: “We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society.

Professor: We who are atheists respond to ridicule, insults, lies, disinformation, and misinformation nearly every day of our lives. Sometimes we respond with logical arguments. Sometimes we respond with facts. Sometimes we respond with ridicule. Sometimes we respond with loud, obnoxious, offensive language. What matters is that we respond. For too many centuries it has been far too dangerous for most of us to make any response at all.

I don’t intend to hold my tongue simply because my words might offend someone’s religious sensibilities. I’m not taking those backward steps.

6 comments

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  1. Alexis

    I just want to say…

    HELL YEAH!!!!!

  2. CyberLizard

    I think Kurtz left something out of his letter: you damn kids get off my lawn!

    You nailed it. We’re using everything at our disposal; logic, debate, mockery, ridicule. They’re all valid, and I would say, necessary techniques in our fight for equal treatment.

  3. Dan J

    Thanks for the “HELL YEAH!!”, Alex. 🙂

    Yeah, I had a hard time equating what I was reading with what I knew of Kurtz. To even go to the length of apologizing to anyone who was offended… I just find it hypocritical of someone who is on the side of free speech in such a prominent way.

  4. Bob

    While I agree that Kurtz is off-base on a couple points, I do agree that blasphemy for blasphemy’s sake is counterproductive, especially if promoted by the CFI. At the risk of sounding like I’m using the Shut Up, That’s Why argument, I will say that while we have a number rhetorical tools in our toolbox, we have to choose carefully if we expect to make any social progress. Being a dick because you can is only going to give most people the impression you’re a dick. That’s fine for an individual but maybe not so useful for the CFI and its purported mission.

    I think this issue is a bit more complex than it appears on the surface. There’s bad blood between Lindsay and Kurtz since Kurtz got sidelined from the six hundred or so organizations that Kurtz worked to put together in the past quarter century. My impression is that Kurtz is angry over what he sees as being ousted in a coup by CFI’s board; conversely the board & Lindsay tried to make the organization(s) more sustainable, efficient, and effective by diffusing responsibility and were frustrated by Kurtz’s unwillingness to change. Again, that’s only my interpretation of this past year’s turmoil within CFI’s leadership. I’m not privy to any info than what the Interwebs provide; the important takeaway is that there’s an unstated history between Lindsay & Kurtz that influences Kurtz’s outlook.

    Also, consider that there are several strongly-coupled social movements that do not always share an agenda: atheism, secularism, skepticism, and humanism. Kurtz has spent a long time creating various organizations to advocate for one or more of movements and was very careful to keep each organization within its stated bounds. On the surface, there’s not a huge distinction between the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP; now just the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. To most atheists, this is splitting hairs since the vast majority are also secularists and skeptics and are humanists to a slightly lesser extent. When Kurtz, et. al. started CSICOP in 1976, they were careful to omit religion as a target of skepticism; most intelligent people could get behind investigating claims of psychics, Bigfoot, UFOs abductions, and the Loch Ness monster but from a 1976 PR perspective, using the same skeptical, evidence-based approach on claims of Yahweh and Allah was a non-starter. Times changed and Kurtz did what he knew how to do – create yet another organization under the CFI umbrella – hence the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.

    Remember that Paul Kurtz is a philosopher and as such his job is to define boxes and and put things in them. This is clear from his strict segregation of organizations, leading to the sheer number of mostly identical organizations under the CFI umbrella. Ronald Lindsay is a philosopher as well, but also a lawyer which I think gives him more of a pragmatic sense of what’s effective compared to Kurtz. Right or wrong, I don’t believe Lindsay is as emotionally attached to the historical roots of the CFI as he is focused on keeping CFI relevant, viable, and solvent.

    To Kurtz then, CFI’s promotion of Blasphemy Day worked against its primary mission of promoting a secular, humanist (and to a lesser degree, skeptical) agenda. Personally, I believe the CFI under Lindsay made a mistake by not clearly targeting Blasphemy Day against the repressive laws on the books – CFI’s goal should be making people aware of these draconian backwards laws and getting them repealed. I’m not sure which bothers Kurtz more, that CFI was essentially encouraging atheists to act like dicks (because…?) or that CFI was coloring outside the lines that Kurtz laid down at the outset.

    So I can see where Kurtz would take Blasphemy Day as CFI’s (and Lindsay’s) sop to atheists and respond with a diss against ‘fundamentalist’ atheists, etc. Ultimately however, Blasphemy Day (and by extension CFI) got a fair bit of social media play and at least among ‘the base’, CFI will probably come out ahead at least in the short term. That may be necessary to pay the bills for all those Centers for Inquiry Kurtz opened in the past few years. In the current economic climate and knowing that the atheskeptisecularhumanists don’t tithe nearly as often as their theocratic counterparts, Lindsay may be trying to pay ongoing bills leftover from Kurtz’s tenure; solvency may trump purity. And for Kurtz, anger may trump everything else.

  5. Stephanie Z

    Bob, the history is interesting, but Kurtz’s position on outspoken atheism is much more than a year old. He’s long been one of the people who doesn’t see speaking against religion and speaking against atheism has having the same footing, and he reserves (from what I’ve seen) his vitriol for the people who are right but upset the majority instead of the people who are wrong and oppress the minority.

    As for being dicks, there is no reason that Blasphemy Day encourages this by any reasonable interpretation. I celebrated by noting that I was very happy without religion and preferred work to mere prayer for improving the world. If that makes me a dick, what does it make the religious people who tell me I need their prayers? No, part of the point of Blasphemy Day is how little it takes to blaspheme–and how little anyone is hurt by us doing so.

    1. Bob

      Oh, don’t get me wrong – I’ve got nothing against blasphemy; I’m just trying to be charitable to Kurtz (I almost can’t bear to write “devil’s advocate.” Almost…) I’m not sure that’s reasonable in retrospect. What’s clear is that CFI had to change; the political landscape for atheism in America has changed so much in the past 5 years and it wasn’t clear that spawning yet another organization was going to make CFI any more relevant. Having worked on the board of a non-profit, at some point you need to stop organizing and you actually have to do something.

      It sounds like Kurtz isn’t enjoying his life on the road after giving his “my way or the highway” ultimatum which sucks because he’s accomplished a lot. It’s kinda reminiscent of Chris Mooney’s periodic “No! You’re doing it wrong! whinging.

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