Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.
Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.
Another, Jesus Paints His Nails, shows an effeminate Jesus after the crucifixion, applying polish to the nails that attach his hands to the cross.
“I wouldn’t want this on my wall,” says Stuart Jordan, an atheist who advises the evidence-based group Center for Inquiry on policy issues. The Center for Inquiry hosted the art show.
Jordan says the exhibit created a firestorm from offended believers, and he can understand why. But, he says, the controversy over this exhibit goes way beyond Blasphemy Day. It’s about the future of the atheist movement — and whether to adopt the “new atheist” approach — a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers.
Some call it a schism.
Evidence-based group? What an odd description, though I like the implication that religious groups are non-evidence-based.
It is pretty silly, though perhaps irresistable to a journalist looking for a story, to speak of a schism among atheists. In a religious context a schism usually refers to some dissatisfaction with an established authority, leading to a split into rival factions. Since these disputes often involve points of doctrine, and therefore the perceived will of God, the break-up tends to be a bit acrimonious.
There is really nothing like that among atheists. For one thing, there is no central atheist authority from which to split. For another, the dispute, such as it is, really is not all that acrimonious. For a third, atheists are only united by the belief that there is no God. Why should we expect general agreement on questions of political tactics?
For myself, I am a pluralist on this question. I think angry polemics have a role, as do efforts at calm outreach. Some of my atheist colleagues think the polemics do more harm than good by “scaring away the moderates.” I do not accept this at all. Anyone who is scared away by Dawkins or Hitchens was never really a moderate to begin with. That we are constantly so worried about the effect of vocal atheism is precisely the reason we need the polemics. If you want to mainstream atheism, which I think we all do, you have to make it visible. You go after the younger generation, by making it something so familiar that they do not think there is anything scary about it. Staid academic tomes simply do not cut it.
Skipping ahead a bit
Jordan is a volunteer at the center and therefore could speak his mind. But interviews for this story with others associated with the Washington, D.C., office were canceled — a curious development for a group that promotes free speech.
Ronald Lindsay, who heads the Center for Inquiry, based in Amherst, N.Y., says he didn’t know why the interviews were cancelled. As for the art exhibit and other Blasphemy Day events the group promoted:
“What we wanted were thoughtful, incisive and concise critiques of religion,” he says. “We were not trying to insult believers.”
Incisive and concise critiques of religion are, all by themselves, insulting to many believers. Forgive me, but you do not host something called “Blasphemy Day” and then act surprised that some of what occurs appeals more to the gut than it does to the head. Personally, I liked the painting of Jesus doing his nails (shown in the NPR article.)
But others are perfectly happy to. New atheists like Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins and journalist Christopher Hitchens are selling millions of books and drawing people by the thousands to their call for an uncompromising atheism.
For example, Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book God Is Not Great, told a capacity crowd at the University of Toronto, “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.” His words were greeted with hoots of approval.
Religion is “sinister, dangerous and ridiculous,” Hitchens tells NPR, because it can prompt people to fly airplanes into buildings, and it promotes ignorance. Hitchens sees no reason to sugarcoat his position.
“If I said to a Protestant or Quaker or Muslim, ‘Hey, at least I respect your belief,’ I would be telling a lie,” Hitchens says.
Sinister, dangerous and ridiculous sounds about right to me. Not too sure about hatred though. Hatred of a belief rapidly becomes indistinguishable from hatred for the people who hold that belief. For some reason I am reminded of evangelical Christians disingenously talking about loving the sinner but hating the sin when it comes to homosexuals.
This caught my eye:
Paul Kurtz founded the Center for Inquiry three decades ago to offer a positive alternative to religion. He has built alliances with religious groups over issues such as climate change and opposing creationism in the public schools. Kurtz says he was ousted in a “palace coup” last year — and he worries the new atheists will set the movement back.
This is all news to me. Anyone know the facts? I had no idea that Kurtz had been “ousted.”
Anyway, P. Z. Myers has also weighed in on this article, raising a number of other issues. The article has its faults, but I do not hink it ias bad as P. Z. seems to think. Go read it and decided for yourself.