Friday, September 28, 2012

A word about blasphemy

Apparently I have to write about blasphemy.

This actually irritates me to no end. Indeed, in God Doesn't; We Do, I only give the topic a cursory mention, mostly focusing on the utterly ridiculous claim in Mark 3:29 that the only unforgivable sin (if those words reported to Jesus are valid) is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. From the eighth chapter, for instance, I write
As a pointed aside, it seems odd that this, of all possible sins, is the least forgivable in the universe, particularly when blasphemy is an entirely made-up crime that has no discernible victim. Crimes like genocide and the rape, enslavement, torture, exploitation, and murder of innocents, particularly children, would seem, in all respects, less easy to forgive, but perhaps it is because examples of those crimes occur frequently in the Old Testament that they are surpassed here. To weigh by the punishment and seriousness of it, according to Jesus the worst possible crime is to speak ill of the Holy Spirit, which, if it even meaningfully exists, surely can sustain no injury. Belief in the perfectly just God of the One True Faiths alongside an acceptance of Mark 3:29, however, absolutely requires its adherents to accept the ridiculous notion that speaking impiously against the Holy Spirit, the least corporeal aspect of an invincible Godhead—that is sometimes defined expressly as a lack of want—deals it an amount of suffering that can never be forgiven for any reason or accounted for by any measure, including eternal torture. We have to wonder, then, what kind of calibration exists behind the moral framework that we find in scriptural and doctrinal Christianity. Alternatively, we can agree to reject Mark 3:29, but then why blindly accept so many other of Jesus' purported teachings?
Later in the same chapter when I spend a little time talking specifically about immoral made-up crimes without discernible victims, I mention blasphemy again, this time in a subsection dedicated directly to talking about the immorality of these religious trappings. I say
There is, additionally, a wealth of imaginary crimes that every believer must wage war with himself to avoid committing. I will only mention four of them here, ignoring ridiculous ideas like witchcraft, the “crime” of being a woman or in league with a woman that the clergy or one of their lackeys has a problem with. First, there is heresy, the “crime” of disagreeing with the views of the faith, which earns the guilty a ticket to hell. Second, there is blasphemy, the “crime” of speaking out against the idea of God, which also earns a ticket to hell, which might be non-refundable and one-way to believe Mark 3:29. Third, there is being an infidel, the “crime” of rejecting the belief system of the faith. Fourth, there is sin, the “crime” of defying the laws of the faith. Together, these four “crimes” can be seen for what they obviously are: a structure designed to keep people in the system, or in other words, a prison.
Apparently erroneously, in the next paragraph I note that for thinking, rational people, only the "crime" of sin deserves more attention--the others being clearly ridiculous to the point of not needing much comment. The world is showing me otherwise, though.

Ever since the recent explosion in the Middle East, probably partially due to planned terrorism and partly due to the release of an offensive-to-Muhammad film, anti-blasphemy has been all the rage. Of course, this isn't new. Anti-blasphemy laws exist in many countries and are a general poison creeping upon the West due to hyperliberal multiculturalist ideas that are afraid to insult anyone or anything. This, of course, is a heavy encroachment upon what has to be one of the most cherished freedoms of the post-Enlightenment world: the freedom of speech. In that sense, while blasphemy really, truly, and literally is a victimless crime, anti-blasphemy is a crime against humanity.

To date, I still think that Sam Harris has written the best piece on the matter, a blog post that he titled "On The Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God." That post, you may remember, caused me to write a rather sheepish, if honest, post about my own book here on my blog a couple of weeks ago, perhaps my most popular post yet. Harris poignantly writes
The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril. Take a moment to reflect upon the existence of the musical The Book of Mormon. Now imagine the security precautions that would be required to stage a similar production about Islam. The project is unimaginable—not only in Beirut, Baghdad, or Jerusalem, but in New York City.
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance. 
Frida Ghitis, writing an opinion piece for CNN today, nailed the issue with the title to her piece: "A war is raging against free speech." Yes. It is. And it is unacceptable. She writes
In the view of some Arab and Muslim leaders, the time has come to draft new international rules limiting free expression for the sake of preventing insults to religions. The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, called for "criminaliz(ing) acts that insult or cause offense to religions."
This move to impose anti-blasphemy laws should come as a call to action for democracy advocates everywhere: Freedom of speech, a most fundamental of human rights, a cornerstone of democracy, has come under international attack.
Ghitis also points out clearly that President Obama, representing the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, took a tough stand against these anti-blasphemy campaigns, which she rightly calls "heartening." She goes on to absolutely nail how the Islamic world should be handling this problem, instead of crying to governing bodies to extend their repressive anti-free-speech agendas. Her, again
The right response to stupidity, prejudice and hatred is shining a light on the truth. That has a way of highlighting the stupidity of the bigots. It may not end all dumb and offensive films, but it will ensure that the people who espouse offensive ideas remain a despised, marginalized and powerless minority.
Blasphemy, as a concept, is designed specifically to silence opposition to ideas, particularly those at the cores of ideologies. Again, as I sit here, now wanting to decry it more heavily than I did in my book, I literally can't find words to do so. It's just so obviously in opposition to essentially everything that has moved the world forward out of the Dark Ages. No idea should be free from scrutiny, and if it deserves it criticism--or even ridicule. Sam Harris nails it absolutely in his piece when he notes that the content of the offensive film doesn't even matter. People should be absolutely free to produce whatever kind of content they would like to, and though we might hope they have better sense than to be overtly and intentionally offensive at times, they should never, never face death threats, bounties on them, fatwas, or the guilt associated with being at the foundation of murderous riots--some that erupt from intentionally offensive films and others that erupt merely from depictions of the Prophet of Islam, which are seen as being at the height of offensiveness to a significant proportion of roughly a sixth of the world's population because of, and only because of, religious views that they feel should be exempted from scrutiny, commentary, or insult.

Heartening, in addition to President Obama's words at the United Nations, are movements like the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" (which was on May 20, 2010), a theme that more and more artists seem to be rallying around. The claim here is that the angry faction of Muslims responsible for the violence and outrage over perceived blasphemy simply cannot threaten everyone. They can, however, hold violent riots and maybe even start wars, which is perhaps the most ridiculous serious thing I've ever written.

Should we be afraid, though? We cannot. We absolutely cannot. Even if there are no anti-blasphemy laws that formally restrict the right to free speech, if we are all too afraid of the bad reactions of bullies who have been insulted, we may as well have them. There should be laws related to blasphemy, then, and there are in would-be free societies like ours in the United States--those laws should prohibit senseless violence regardless of cause. Unfortunately, if we're all too afraid to do something, to say something, against the bullies who want to push their ideologies forward, then Sam Harris is right--"[the freedom of speech] has already been lost." He is right, as of now, too. His point about the impossibility of publishing a musical, maybe Prophet Muhammad, Superstar, is a sad, sobering fact for us right now. We've got to work to change this, and Muslims hold much of that responsibility.

Perhaps the very best commentary to make about blasphemy, except that it is a made-up victimless crime that insults an imaginary God, is captured by the tagline of brilliant YouTuber TheraminTrees: "People who don't want you to think are never your friends."

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5 comments:

  1. I've been looking over your posts here. You have misunderstood what was meant here in Mark 3:29. If you would like an explanation, let me know.

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    1. I'm sure I have, according to your interpretation that papers over how ridiculous it is. Share if you want. I don't really care one way or the other. The dictionary provides very clear instruction on what those words all mean, and it is the wont of apologists to bend the meanings in dictionaries to their requirements. I'm sure what you'll tell me is not only a wonderful example but also not new to me in any way.

      When I did my research for this section of the book, I researched the controversy about that verse, and what I found is that there is no consensus whatsoever about it except among people who don't want it to mean what the words themselves actually mean. So, knock yourself out. It won't change the fact that generations of influential Christians have labeled blasphemy, a victimless crime, as bad as or worse than murder (I'd include rape, but technically the bible doesn't label that much of a crime at all...), something the modern world has rejected wholesale as one of the most failed concepts in human history.

      So, have fun, do what you will, and don't troll or otherwise attempt to waste my time.

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    2. I want to add that I don't believe there exists any such thing as a "Holy Spirit," by the way, so if you do bother to explain this verse to me more clearly, please also tell me what a Holy Spirit is and why I should believe anything about it is a sin.

      You can presume whatever you want on your blog, but here you cannot. If you can't tell me clearly what a Holy Spirit is and establish for me that it is real, then anything else you say carries literally no weight. In that case, you might as well tell me about why it's not an eternal sin to call the pink invisible unicorn yellow.

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  2. Sure, I’ll have a crack at it even though you are a bit rude. You have to understand that I don’t really care if you believe in God or the Bible or whatever, what I care about is when people misrepresent the story the Bible is trying to convey. Whether the Bible is true or not is not the point, but it does contain a systematic story. And I would just like to clarify this small piece of it.

    I’m glad you asked me to define (un-capitalized) holy spirit, as it plays a major role in the explanation. Let’s first break it down, holy means something separated and usually with reference to God. The word spirit means wind or breath, in other words and invisible force. So together, holy spirit means an invisible force that pertains to God.

    And in keeping with the storyline in the Bible, people can be influenced by the holy spirit in what to think or what to say. For example, the parallel passage in Luke actually explains what it means.

    (Luke 12:10-12) . . .And everyone that says a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him; but he that blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven it. But when they bring YOU in before public assemblies and government officials and authorities, do not become anxious about how or what YOU will speak in defense or what YOU will say; for the holy spirit will teach YOU in that very hour the things YOU ought to say.”

    So this is not about a random person who speaks against some Holy Spirit person. It is about a believer that has received the influence of the holy spirit that teaches him and tells him what to say. And if he rejects this influence by speaking against what the holy spirit is telling him to say he is rejecting God in the same manner that Adam rejected him. And for that there is no sacrifice for sin.

    (Hebrews 6:4-6) For it is impossible as regards those who have once for all been enlightened, and who have tasted the heavenly free gift, and who have become partakers of holy spirit, and who have tasted the fine word of God and powers of the coming system of things, but who have fallen away, to revive them again to repentance, because they impale the Son of God afresh for themselves and expose him to public shame.

    And

    (Hebrews 10:26-29) . . .For if we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, but [there is] a certain fearful expectation of judgment and [there is] a fiery jealousy that is going to consume those in opposition. Any man that has disregarded the law of Moses dies without compassion, upon the testimony of two or three. Of how much more severe a punishment, do YOU think, will the man be counted worthy who has trampled upon the Son of God and who has esteemed as of ordinary value the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has outraged the spirit of undeserved kindness with contempt?

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    1. Thanks for your detailed explanation. Please, if you will, do not mistake my coldness for rudeness. I've spent too much of my life conceding too much to too many people who simply waste my time.

      So, first, let me indicate for you that you have not convinced me that there is a Holy Spirit, or a holy spirit, or a spirit, or anything holy in the first place. (Furthermore, you haven't even established that God exists, nor God's law, and thus that sin is a word with any significant meaning.) I know you seem not to care, but this is my space, not yours, and so as I've requested, don't waste my time here. Establish that there exists the thing you want to talk about or do not waste my time talking about it. I'd actually advise you not to waste anyone's time talking about it, but I won't tell you not to do that in your own or other spaces (e.g. John's admirable blog, where he permits people to talk about premises they have not established as if those premises are worth his time).

      Since you haven't managed to do that, I'm not particularly impressed with what you've got to say, since it is still entirely devoid of meaning that the Holy Spirit does anything. (You have also failed to establish, for what it's worth, that the Gospel of Luke or book of Hebrews are reliable sources for these kinds of things, so I'm not really moved by your inclusion of quotes from those here since they don't carry any meaningful weight until you can do that.)

      What you have done, which I do appreciate, is attempt to clarify your position on this, which is common among Christians. Indeed, I was rather hoping you'd say this particular exegesis of this passage as it is one of my favorites. You're essentially claiming, then, that the meaning of passages like Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10 (likely parallels of one another) is that apostasy is an unforgivable sin that deserves eternal torment, to say nothing of the price to be paid for that on earth (death, no doubt).

      Again, many thanks. Feel welcome to try again when you can actually back up your central thesis and give it substantive meaning.

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