Thursday, July 16, 2009


The following entry comes from American Atheist News:

Blasphemy is once again in the news.

No, we're not talking about Durban II, the international conference held earlier this year that saw a coalition of Islamic groups and governments hoping to codify "blasphemy" as a crime that "insults" Muslims. One does not have to travel half-way around our planet to find powerful interest groups that, in the name of their religion, seek to ban any criticism, questioning, "hateful" remarks or other comments hostile (in any way) to their particular faith, or faith in general. Just when we have "tamed" Christian denominations in the western world that once supported and imposed such restrictions, international relations are now burdened with similar impulses from Islamists.

In Ireland, the parliament has passed a law that will impose a 25,000 Euro fine for the crime of blasphemy. There are conflicting accounts of the final vote centering on the absence of two lawmakers; but the government had been backing the measure, while the Atheists, Freethinkers and secularists there waged a vigorous campaign to defeat the intrusive measure. Ironically, there are blasphemy statues already on the books and ensconced in the Irish Constitution; the new legislation actually reduces the punishment for this "crime."

Justice Minister Dermot Ahearn defended the statute and insisted that it would be enforced only in cases where actual damage to a substantial segment of the population had occurred. He added that the measure exempted works that a "reasonable person" would consider to exemplify "legitimate" works of artistic, political or academic value. Michael Nugent, a spokesperson for the Ireland Atheists groups, however, pointed out that the law seems to protect only the sensibilities of religious people. "Why should religious beliefs be protected by law in a way that scientific or political or other secular beliefs are not?" he quipped.

That same question may be raised about a situation in South Florida where the Florida Atheist and Secular Humanist Society (FLASH) has erected a billboard bearing what some find to be a controversial and even blasphemous message -- "Being a good person doesn't require God. Don't believe in God? You're not alone --"

According to FLASH President Ken Loukinen, the purpose is to let Atheists, Freethinkers and other non-believers know that "there is a group for them, and to raise public awareness" about the myths and lies often told about Atheists.

The notorious "A-Word," Atheist, does not appear on the advertisement, nor is there an appeal to the religious that they change their views. Indeed, the message is more about changing attitudes than weighty, abstract ideas, and makes a plea for tolerance and acceptance rather than conversion. This is apparently too much, however, for some local churches and religious believers who are described as "up in arms over Atheist billboard" according to one news report.

The billboard is located at Sunset Boulevard and NW 27th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, just east of Interstate 95. It also happens to be next to a private business owned by an African-American preacher,

Residents are becoming vocal in their protests over the billboard. The Christian Examiner web site reported: "Neighboring businesses are trying to get the billboard removed. Some businesses in the area are complaining that it is affecting their business. 'When you have something like this here, people don't want to come and patronize us anymore,' Theodore Hamilton, an employee at a local business, told WSVN news ' We don't agree with this. We don't like this here in our community, and this is a spiritual-based community.' "

Another news account identified Hamilton as a "nearby business owner," who stated: "Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Christian, whoever you are, we all believe in a spiritual higher power. When you have something like (this billboard) here, people don't want to come and patronize us."

Other reports reflect that the objections to the billboard are eerily similar to other pleas on behalf of censorship and, more specifically, blasphemy. The message is purportedly "offensive" or "insults" the sensibilities and faith of believers.

Presumably, these same believers appear so anemic and insecure in their faith-based prejudices that they are easily offended, or perhaps nudged ever so gently in the direction of outright theological skepticism. Or, the harmony and tranquility of an entire neighborhood is being disrupted. People should, it is suggested, be made "free from insult" or possible "hurtful" remarks, or -- on a more significant level -- from evidence that might undermine religious beliefs.

Ironically, history demonstrates that it is rarely the Atheist or Freethinker that is the only target of blasphemy. Religious sects and individual believers have squabbled throughout history, and usually resorted to government-enforced blasphemy laws to silence their theological critics. British statutes prohibited remarks that insulted the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Church of England.

When Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" was condemned in a fatwa by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Muslims in the UK not only rioted in the streets but demanded that Islam, too, be included in the protections of the blasphemy statutes. Christian sects spoke out against the publication of the book as well, suggesting that, yes, their co-religionists should not be "insulted" by the mere existence of such a tome.

The Florida case invites a "Gedankenexperiment" or "thought experiment" to make an important point concerning civil liberties, pluralism, and intellectual tolerance. Imagine that a religious billboard -- soliciting people to a church, mosque or temple service, or extolling the virtuosity of a particular deity -- was erected near the residence of an Atheist. Maybe this billboard was strategically placed near a location where nonbelievers gather for meetings or social interaction. Now, imagine these same Atheists taking offense at the religious billboard, and insisting that it should be removed.

"People of faith" and religious advocacy groups would be, well, up in arms. How dare these nonbelievers speak out against "god" and the right of the faithful to speak in the public square! Media, pulpits and political podiums would all erupt in waves of condemnation.
The Atheists would be portrayed as intolerant bullies, intellectual misfits, Nazis, Communists, dupes for Satan and threats to liberty.

Indeed, IF Atheists were to do such a foolish things, they would be threats to human freedom, and guilty of much more. Yet in remarkably similar circumstances, like the outcry over the Florida billboard, the religious seems to receive a less harsh judgment, or perhaps even a free pass.

Atheists are subject to "hurtful" remarks, insults and socio-political marginalization on a daily basis. Polls suggest that the majority of Americans would not vote for an Atheist candidate seeking an office of public trust. Public figures like Star Jones can opine that she may not trust her children in the care of a person who did not believe in a god. Atheists are still banned from some fraternal groups, or considered dishonest (presumably since we lack the specter of hell to prevent wrong-doing), unwholesome, and a menace to the community. Yet, no major (or even minor) organization representing Atheists, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists that this writer is aware of has advocated censorship of religious expression.

We HAVE supported efforts to end government endorsement and promotion of religion; but we are firmly in the civil libertarian camp on this issue of freedom of expression.

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