Monday, 9 September 2013

Blasphemy Special - The right to free speech

Lets get the week off to a good start. One of the liveliest debates of recent times on this blog was when I covered and inadvertently misrepresented the Archbishop of Athieism Richard Dawkins. Mr Dawkins has the rather annoying habit on twitter of not posting replies to his subjects, just leaving comments, so when I saw a comment he'd posted, I took it out of context. This provoked what I found to be a rather interesting debate with a few people on the subject of belief and the belief in the lack of belief.

Anyway, this morning I noticed another rather odd tweet from Mr Dawkins

Not being familiar with Mr Dawkins use of the term "flying spaghetti monster" for God, I was intrigued. Anyway, I followed the link and found that the story which concerned Mr Dawkins was the indictment and possible imprisonment of four bloggers who made derogatory comments about Islam.

It made me pause for thought about my views on blasphemy. Technically the four are not on blasphemy charges. Blasphemy is insulting God. The four bloggers are held on charges of insulting Islam, which as best I understand it is a wholly differenjt thing. Islam is a man made institution, which aims to preserve and propogate the teachings of the prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him). Anyone who doubts this, should consider how many different branches of Islam there are and see how these different factions view each other (factionalism is not unique to Islam, I hasten to add). Now my own personal view is that any institution should be able to take criticism, especially one which claims to have authority from God. As a member of the Roman Catholic church, I have witnessed only too well how the inability to engage with critics has nearly destroyed the moral authority of the church to all but ardent believers. Any institution which uses its power to silence critics and hide scandals is pretty much doomed. The Catholic church has paid a heavy price for hushing up and hiding the scandal of paedophile priests. In this case, the church initially used every lever to suppress and discredit victims, the very people the church should stand up for. It entered a state of denial and behaved in the most appalling way imaginable. People who had suffered terrible abuse were treated as the guilty party and all manner of lies an innuendo were spread. The trouble is that you cannot suppress the truth.

In the case of the four bloggers in Dhaka, the state and the religious authorities are looking to impose draconian sentences to suppress expressions of free speech. If you belong to a religious congregation, theoretically every other religious or athieist viewpoint is blasphemous, sacreligious and insulting. If we followed this through to its logical conclusion, we'd all be locked up. The only way any of us can get by is to agree to differ and respect each others right to express ourselves. There are people who I know who post highly offensive comments on twitter and facebook. If it upsets me, I don't follow them. If someone else retweets them, so I see it, I ignore it. If you find this blog offensive, the stop reading it. Simple as that. Any institution that cannot take criticism, in my opinion is deeply flawed and is probably hiding something.

Let us now consider blasphemy. Blasphemy is the insulting of God, not his institutions on earth. How do I feel about this. Well I tend to think God is a big boy (excuse the genderisation). When Richard Dawkins calls God "The Flying Spaghetti Monster" it is surely blasphemy of the most henious kind. I do however believe this is and issue for Mr Dawkins to resolve with God. It is no one elses business. Mr Dawkins clearly feels that God doesn't exist, so he can say what he likes. I tend to think he has every right to do so. If any belief I had was so flimsy that I'd be insulted or hurt by Mr Dawkins, then perhaps it is me who has the problem.

In the Catholic tradition, we were brought up to believe in Judgement day, when all of the lost souls would be cast into Hell. My teachers told me that murderers, thieves, adulterers and blasphemers would be tossed into a burning furnace, tormented forever by fiery Jack. This was my incentive to be a good boy and eat my greens. Is Mr Dawkins as cupable as Adolf Hitler, because he assembled all of the information before him and decided that if there was a God, he was a winged Sphagetti Monster? I really don't know, but I suppose I'd be a tad disappointed if this was the case. I had this conversation with an acquaintance who is a fundamentalist. She informed me that Dawkins was worse than Hitler, because he was actively seeking to turn people against God by use of logic and reason. I was shocked by this proposition. I believe that anyone with faith should have good reasons to have faith and should have logically arrived at their conclusion. I have found that with ideological athieists, it is virtually impossible to explain the benefits of faith and organised religion. The benefits of community and quiet reflection, the urging to do acts of charity and the sense of mission to make the world a better place are concepts that they cannot understand in a religious context. I respect all viewpoints. I don't dislike people who have views I consider odd or strange, I wouldn't insult someone for this.

Where I do draw the line is when other people expect me to conform to their religious viewpoint. This could be  the religious right fundamentalist or the Athieist or the Judge in Dhaka who feels my blog should follow his ideology.

I stand with anyone who believes in the right to religious freedom, freedom of expression, the freedom to blaspheme and the freedom to insult if we think this is necessary and called for. If you are a religious person, then use the example of the way you live your life as the riposte to people who insult you. There are two possible outcomes for blasphemers, either Richard Dawkins is right and absolutely nothing will happen, because when they die, that is it. If that is the case, they are not blasphemers and so there is no price to pay. The other alternative is that there is a God and that God will act as they see fit towards the blasphemers, in which case it really is none of our business anyway. I am personally a highly superstitious person. I must confess that blasphemy does make me feel uneasy (a result of my upbringing), as I think that it is never wise to take risks with the unknown. I have a friend who calls such superstitions "Fire Insurance". I personally can't understand why anyone would want to insult other peoples beliefs or take a chance (however small) with such matters, but I guess that most of you will just put this down to superstition and ignorance. 

The bottom line is that I am pleased we live in a society where people have the freedom to blaspheme and insult, but I wish people would not use that right unless they think it is absolutely necessary.


AndrewEvansMusic said...

I think there's a slight misunderstanding in the sense that 'The Flying Spaghetti Monster' is not Dawkins' name for God, not what he calls God. It's a satirical comment on a non-falsifiable hypothesis, originally mentioned (not by him, I don't think) in opposition to schools insisting intelligent design be taught alongside evolution i.e anyone can propose an alternative to evolution but it doesn't mean it automatically gets equal billing.

The charge of blasphemy can be extended to include holy persons or things or ANYthing considered to be sacred. And that's almost the point. Who gets to decide what is sacred? If I make up my own God tomorrow, do I automatically qualify for protection?

He's saying that to be jailed for making derogatory remarks against god is the same as being jailed for insulting a pasta-based deity (there is equal evidence for both). In other words, remove the cultural weight attached to a belief and one can see the absurdity.

I support your wider argument in favour of the freedom to blaspheme (via the freedom of speech). To be offended does not automatically bestow one with rights. To be offended is not the same as having a point. People must be free to practice their religion if that is what they want but they must not be granted any special privileges. If I find their opinion morally unacceptable, the fact that it stems from a religious belief must not immunize it from my criticism.

There's something telling in the case of your fundamentalist acquaintance. It's as though she is admitting that giving people logic and reason is a surefire pathway to non-belief ("sure, let them know FACTS and the games up"). Any reference to Hitler almost certainly means one is clutching at straws but in one sense I have a sneaking sympathy for this belief. For instance, I know why a creationist believes what they believe. It's because they have been taught their book/faith/god is infallible - any contradiction is wrong by definition. They have, deliberately or otherwise, abandoned logic and reason in favour of scripture. They are wrong of course but there is nothing about their belief I don't understand. They aren't interested in reason, they prefer their faith. I have never though, encountered a single logical or reasoned argument for the existence of God. Someone who claims reason has led them to faith is someone I find much harder to understand.

Canny Linguist said...

The article that you link to contains the following sentence:

Asif was arrested on April 3 at an Uttara hospital where he had been undergoing treatment for fatal stab injuries he had sustained in an attack on January 14.

The fact that this man appears to have recovered from fatal injuries surely proves that the believers are right and Dawkins is wrong.

Rog T said...


Firstly, I'd disagree with your statement about the Flying spaghetti monster. Dawkins doesn't believe in a "flying spaghetti monster" but he does use the phrase as his byword for God. What you refer to are his reasons for doing so. I called the Devil "fiery Jack". It is a convenient figure of speech to get my point over and I am of the opinion Dawkins uses the same here. For the record, I suppose I should state that it really doesn't bother me.

As to there never being a reasoned logical argument for God. I suspect that what you mean is that you haven't agreed with any, rather than there are none. It is worth starting with the teachings of Socrates, a figure I'd hope no one considers stupid. We may not agree with Socrates, but you cannot claim that such arguments are not reasoned.

There are many reasoned arguments I disagree with (including most right wing political theory). In many cases, from the perspective it is viewed from, it is correct. That does not mean it is correct from my perspective.

However this blog is not about the existence of a deity, it is about free speech, therefore I'd prefer to stick to the topic for the comments.

I'd hope you'd agree that the persecution of people expressing any view, even ones you disagree with is wrong. If we try and silence those we disagree with, we can hardly complain when they silence us.

Ian Gibson said...

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is the deity of Pastafarianism

AndrewEvansMusic said...

(Hey everyone - Skip the first two paragraphs to stay on topic!)
It's not a by-word for God. It is an example of a different God. When you call the devil Jack, you are using a different name to refer to the same thing. Flying Spaghetti Monster is proposing an alternative deity. It is more akin to Russell's Teapot analogy. Or saying 'imaginary friend'.

OK, my use of reason in this sense was I haven't heard an argument for the existence of god that reached a reasonable threshold of evidence. And I haven't heard an any argument for the existence that doesn't employ at least one logical fallacy. What I have read of Socrates (assuming he existed and that it is he that wrote it) deals more with moral philosophies without making definitive claims. There is a right and a wrong answer to the existence of god.

To try and wrestle things back to the topic though, blasphemy is an example of the special privileges that can be given to people's religious beliefs - its claims often seem to be exempt from the same rigor we'd apply to any other extraordinary claims.

I agree, persecution of anyone expressing a belief of any kind is wrong. Freedom of speech, like any human right, becomes absolutely meaningless unless we extend it to the people we like least. And I want to hear from people I disagree with as much as possible. A different point of view can be very valuable. And every morning I wake up knowing that my mind can be changed. Specific claims I thought were true could be proved false if compelling new evidence came to light. And as the facts change, my opinion might change to fit the new facts. And if people are saying things I find deeply morally offensive, I want to know why. And if the reason is a claim that cannot be supported by evidence I want to be able to challenge them with that lack of evidence without fear of reprisal.

Asif must certainly be congratulated for surviving his own death, that truly is miraculous!

AndrewEvansMusic said...

Dawkins arguably was still blaspheming in the sense that FPM is a device to satirise (read: mock, insult) people's belief in god in general. And I think mocking something (or rather, the right to do so) is an incredibly important part of free speech, it is very easy to draw a line from humorlessness to totalitarianism.

Freedom of speech is obviously very different from saying every view is as valid as the other and should be entitled to the same platform. Someone is obviously free to say that deny man-made climate change. But when a TV show sets up a debate with just two people, one on either side of the argument, that can be misleading. One has evidence and the consensus of the scientific community with them and one does not. 50/50 airtime does not = 50/50 validity.

Jim said...

The argument about not blaspheming just to be safe is an example of Pascal's wager. There is lots of writing about it, Wikipedia has a good article.

I assume we shouldn't insult Satan either. What if you have to answer to him one day? What if he's writers of the bible just picked the wrong side?

I know this sounds like a flippant point but I'm serious. Looked at objectively, Satan's in the bible is more moral than Yahweh.

Evidence: this:

Vs this:

Evidence today: God (or at least the pope) thinks it is less bad if people die from aids than if they use condoms. This is not an exaggeration or any kind of misrepresentation, as hard as it is to believe it is literally true. There are no views expressed by any theistic satanists which come close to this level of destructiveness.

Maybe the god from the bible is real. Maybe he's not the good guy. Repent the bible's blasphemy against all-loving Satan. Even if you don't really believe it, do it just for "fire insurance".

Rog T said...

It may be a flip-pant point, but the Pope does not actually believe that. The Catholic Church modified its stance under Benedict conceding that Condoms are the lesser of two evils.

Being more flippant,As to Satan being the good guy "He would say that wouldn't he" - I mean he is meant to be "The Prince of Liars".

I sometimes wish God would personally bump off certain individuals, so I don't necessarily think such behaviour is totally reprehensible if people are doing terrible things.

Rog T said...


I suppose your comment will "prove" to many fundamentalists that all Athieists are Satanists at heart.I am sure you wouldn't deliberately be winding them up, would you? They do take such things very seriously.

Jim said...

Regarding Pascal's wager type claims:

I don't believe in any gods. But, if I die and I discover that the Christian god exists as described in the bible, I'd be happy that I didn't follow him.

I'd rather be punished for disobeying a tyrannical dictator than rewarded for capitulating to one. The unreasonably harsh degree of the punishment only makes the tyrant all the more evil and my resolve to disobey the stronger. Luckily there is no evidence such a place exists so I couldn't care less about these hell stories.

To your fundamentalist friend: Her god is clearly more evil than either Hitler or Dawkins. Hitler killed tens of millions of people. Yahweh is today punishing 90 billion people whom he will never stop burning, many of whom are entirely innocent. Ask yourself with an open mind: which of these acts is the more evil?

Jim said...


"I suppose your comment will "prove" to many fundamentalists that all Athieists are Satanists at heart.I am sure you wouldn't deliberately be winding them up, would you? They do take such things very seriously."

Nope. Given the bible, if I examine it from a neutral point of view and with an open mind I see that the behaviour of Satan is better than the behaviour of Yahweh. I think any person who comes to the text without a preconceived position of who to follow would find the same.

Let's look at Yahweh "bumping off" people who deserve it:

Numbers 16:35 - God kills 250 people for following a different religion. Straight to hell with you guys!

Numbers 11:31-35 - God kills people for eating Quails. What a jerk!

Numbers 16:49 - God kills 14,700 people for complaining about him killing people so much! Not at all like a dictator!

2 Samuel 6:6-7 - God kills Uzzah for touching the arc of the covenant to catch it when it falls over. Ooops! Punished for trying to help!

2 Kings 2:23-24 - God kills 42 youths for laughing at a bald man. Jeez! Projecting much?

Can you honestly, with an open mind, find any comparable acts committed by the other side? Persuading a woman to eat an apple? compared to cold blooded murder?

Of course I'm not a satanist. I examine the bible in the same way as I examine the quran or any other religious work. I find one fictional character who is supposed to be the good guy acting in an evil way and the fictional character who is supposed to be the bad guy being pretty much ok. Luckily there is no good evidence for either actually existing. I'd hate to live in that world.

Rog T said...


For someone who believes God to be the product of a delusional fantasy, you seem extremely cross with him? Is there something you want to tell us....

Jim said...

I'd like to see a source for condoms being the lesser of two evils. Presumably you're talking about the book "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times" (but please correct me if not) - while better than previous stances this doesn't go nearly so far.

I can only imagine the pope cares as much about brown people as he does about child rape victims.

Jim said...

I get the feeling you're just trying to wind me up now rather than answer any of my points.

I'm exasperated if anything. It does make me mad when somebody puts forwards the argument "you better follow this guy or he might hurt you". That's the argument of a Mafia boss. Threats of hell are a clear threat of violence aimed at people who don't follow your way. I admit it - I don't react well to threats.

It is a bit like of somebody gave me Harry Potter and told me Voldemort was the good guy. I'd work out they got it the wrong way after a while but it wouldn't mean I think Harry Potter is real.

Are any of the examples that I posted from the bible examples of Yahweh acting immorally?

Rog T said...


If I was a fundamentalist and I believed every single word in the bible was a 100% true and accurate description of real events, with no errors at all, I may take an argument about the biblical morality of God 100% seriously. As it is I see the Bible as a tool to help me live my life in a better way. If I read that God zapped 43 people for being mean to baldies, I tend to think that the writer was probably over egging the pudding in trying to persuade people to be nicer to each other.

I do a fair amount of charity work with the homeless and with the disabled. Sometimes I see appalling behaviour. Recently a homeless woman told me that three drunken city types urinated on her as she slept. If I thought that writing a bible story may scare the sh*t out of them and stop them doing such things, I would be tempted. If in 2,000 years someone used my story to prove God is evil, I would assume that I had done a bad job with my story telling. Would that invalidate what the motivation for what I was trying to do?

If putting the fear of God into bad people stops them raping people or killing people, can I argue that it is a bad thing? If the authors of the stories felt that whatever they were ranting against is a bad thing, then that is their perogative.

We are intelligent beings, so we should take the good and the bad and understand the core message, which I believe is to treat other people with respect and don't act like a c*nt.

I believe plenty of people with axes to grind wrote passages of the bible, which have sent people down all sorts of blind alleys. I also believe that this is a small part of the picture and the bigger picture is overwhelmingly positive. Actions like the abolition of slavery were driven by men like Wilberforce ( a resident of Mill Hill).

It is a mistake to believe all knowledge and morality was frozen at some random point 1,900 years ago when the books of the bible were collated. The people who wrote the stories down got stuff wrong. It is for us as intelligent people to reject the bits which are obviously wrong and to use the bits that are obviously right to build better communities.

That is why I really can't be bothered arguing the minutae of the bible. It drives me nuts when fundamentalists quote obscure passages of the bible to justify stupidity. It is equally annoying when athieists do the same thing.

So in short, I have my own version of Chrisitianity which is loosely based on what I consider the more sensible parts of Roman Catholic thinking. I feel as free as you do to think that some bits could do with a good deal of development. I do not seek to impose my views on anyone and I will have a debate of what I consider moral or immoral, but I generally try not to quote the bible or say things like "as a Christian I believe" because I think such statements are the refuge of scoundrels. I have belief and I have morality.

BTW there is an interesting article in todays Guardian about Pope Benedict writing about Athieism in an Italian Paper. His comments are far more sensible than I would have expected. I am sure you will not find them to your taste, but it is always good to see sensible movement on such issues.

Jim said...

Do you have a link for that article? I'd at least be interested in reading it.

Just two parts to pick out:

"If putting the fear of God into bad people stops them raping people or killing people, can I argue that it is a bad thing?"

One might say it is better to create empathy so that people choose not to rape. But I can definitely see where you're coming from. If threat of punishment were effective in preventing rape then sure, I'd be with you on that.

But let's take rape. The bible comes very close to condoning rape. Specifically, that a rape victim in some cases is guilty and should be put to death. Alternatively, she should be forced to marry and live with the rapist, almost certainly causing further rape. This isn't just a morally questionable blip in an otherwise good book. This is the morality that is practiced pretty much cover to cover.

"Actions like the abolition of slavery were driven by men like Wilberforce"

Do you realise that the bible in no uncertain terms instructs you to take slaves, so long as you don't take them from your own nation? These verses were read from the pulpit as anti-abolitionist arguments. I have a hard time following the argument that a book which instructs you to take slaves truly inspired a man to help abolish slavery. To me this makes no more sense than a person who claims Mein Kampf inspired him to reject racist discrimination. If you mine for it, I'm sure you can find the odd good bit in Mein Kampf too, does that make it a good book?

Could we agree that if the "new" or "militant" atheists put their case forcefully, sometimes in a tone that people find objectionable, none has ever said anything even approaching the unpleasantness of the threat of torturing a person eternally? If any has, do you have an example?

Or, no matter how strongly a new atheist puts their point, none has ever said anything as unpleasant as forcing a rape vicim to marry her attacker? If any has, do you have an example?

Or, no matter how much they upset believers, none has ever said anything as unpleasant or as deeply racist as it is ok to break the bones of slaves so long as they are foreign and survive for a few more days? If any has, do you have an example?

Rog T said...


I think you've missed/ignored my point as to how a non fundamentalist treats the bible.

As to your statement regards athieism and rapists, are you aware of the behaviour of the Causcescou regime in Romania? Now I wouldn't take the stance you take and tar other athieists with the same brush, but do point out that in athieist states such things happen, just as they do elsewhere. Indeed you should be aware of what happened when the Red Army took Berlin.

I spent a lot of time in the USSR and travelled extensively. This changed forever my views of the perfection of a Godless society. I had similar experiences in China which I visited shortly after Tainamen Square. Talking to people made me realise that Athieism in no way equated to happiness or justice. My experience was that it removed one of the moral brakes on people that prevented bad behaviour.

I subscribe to the view that violence is abhorrent. The Bible was written at a time when slavery was part of society. I believe society has moved on and I believe that Christianity and Chrisitains took the lead in moving it on. I would stand side by side with Rev Martin Luther King on this issue. Personally I'd like to see his freedom speech added to the Bible, but hey ho, not much chance of me becoming pope.