This is a transcript of a talk I gave on the 17 March 2009, at the University of Cape Town.
This is a two part discussion – as a welcome to members and an outline of the society; followed by the focus of the major topic: The defense of blasphemy amidst the smoke of recent religious obfuscation, pertaining to the latest issue of Sax Appeal, UCT’s RAG magazine.
1. The Flight from Reason
Firstly, there is currently no other society – within UCT and its surrounding sphere – that represents a naturalistic world-view, defends reason as opposed to the proliferation of “faith”, and stands up for secularism, freedom of speech and thought amidst the clamouring of clerical bullies. Indeed, last year when religious lobbies at UCT demanded the exam time-table be changed to cater for their holidays, mostly religious students were given a voice, since they had one in the solidarity of a society. For the first time, the unification of those who stand for reason must coagulate their disproportionate views into a coherent stream of civilised, open criticism of a surrounding environment, filled with a plethora of faith-based initiatives. Francis Goya’s eminent painting, in 1799, encapsulates our drive, entitled “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”
Secondly, the society will dispel myths surrounding nonbelief: such as atheists are drunkards who have sexually immoral lives. That is not true. That is only me. Not everyone is like me, however. Other myths that we will dispel are: atheists are unhappy, atheists can not be good, atheists are arrogant, atheism is another religion, atheism requires more faith. All these – and more – is as a result of ignorance on the part of the faithful, who would certainly find us to be happy, fulfilled and loving life. We find beauty in this wonderful life – and it really is full of wonder – because it is all we have. The society will debunk the myths by raising consciousness and visibility of nonbelievers, in UCT, South Africa and internationally. Our extensive links to top societies, such as CFI, Skeptic and the International Ethical and Humanist Union, as well as to top intellectuals, such as Daniel Dennett (who spoke at UCT), Johann Hari, Richard Dawkins, Simon Blackburn and Julian Baggini, allows us to be in a position to do just that.
We have done our homework, people.
We will also achieve this by having various events: from talks and lectures, to screenings and debates, and even social drunken orgies where we praise Satan and slaughter a few babies. We only ask that you provide your own towels. But in all seriousness, these social gatherings allow non-believers to connect via reason as opposed to faith. This solidarity, from a rejection of superstition, supernaturalism and a heightened awareness of recent backlashes of religious fundamentalists, is a recent solidarity but one that is ultimately fulfilling. Many people find this to be the best aspect of societies like ours, since it allows them to be more free than before. They no longer are in an environment where they have to believe in celestial dictatorships, a god that cares about your diet, and an illiterate businessman in Arabia who rode on flying horses.
We also want to foster inter-group dialogues, between religious groups. Some of you last year may have attended a small debate between myself and the theologian Jordan Pickering. We hope to hold more events of a similar nature, such as panel-discussions with religious leaders. Clerics are given a high-standing on our society, to comment on critical developments in the political, public and private spheres. We think that secularists and those who defend reason should also have a say, when it comes to such matters. Instead of denigrating these cultural leaders, we simply wish that those who do not belief be allowed to have the same platform.
We believe that this life is filled with – as I said – wonder, beauty and endless places for personal growth. I believe we are suspended between two poles, existing on a trajectory from a high pole of “birth”, which glides down to join the lower one of “death”. We are a tiny droplet of water snaking down from the first pole to the last, reflecting the images surrounding us from the environment, yet distorting it with the refraction of subjectivity.
What a waste it would be to slide down that suspension, from one pole to the other, as a blinkered drop. How distasteful to clamour for despair because there is no celestial hand holding the string to cater for your every snaking move. It would be better to never have been if you take no comfort in being a reflecting drop, in celebrating your movement and your awareness and the “kingdom of infinite space” – as Raymond Tallis calls it – in between your ears. We do not know everything, nor will we. Our knowledge is various lit lanterns placed on the precipice of the external world, which show the extent where the border into ignorance rests. Crossing into that land is exhilarating, since it requires that only place we know which is endless: Our imaginations.
Imagine can be traced to the Greek phainesthai, which means “to appear”, which itself is related to phaos and phos meaning “light.” Thus, our imaginations light the way for knowledge, which is made tentatively and by incremental snaking – though from a pole of ignorance to one of further ignorance. I have always thought it is better to proclaim the extent of ones ignorance over the extent of ones knowledge, since we can change our ignorance but there is nothing much we can do to our knowledge. This might be translated into Confucius’s better phrasing: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of ones ignorance.”
And reason as I said, is the light which shows our ignorance. The AAS believes we must defend reason, as it is fragile and often silenced in the name of religious sentimentality. Reason is under constant threat from extremes: the absolutist dogmatic religious zealots on the right; and the torrid relativists who eschew universal human rights to cater for subjective feelings on the left. And flitting like a mosquito on these open wounds of reason, are those who forgo science in the name of private, personal experience to exonerate psychics, mediums and other monsters from Goya’s painting. The society defends science and public verifiable claims, as always, when these are ignored, suffering is caused. Suffering that could be alleviated if people take in evidence as opposed to basing their lives on that vice called faith.
We also are a base for those who are struggling with very real problems dealing with faith: that is, being expelled from a family or community, or facing threats of a similar nature. We hope to arm them intellectually, to be able to hold discussions with family and friends in a non-argumentative way. Also, many will find support from others who they will meet through our social events and functions. The incredible healing power of human solidarity can not be lost – even by people like me who see nothing spiritual or “sacred” in the world.
Finally, the society defends human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – not absolutely, but as an excellent outline of a collaboration of many minds, after much thought and open debate.
I urge you all to at least have a copy of the UDHR printed, somewhere in your homes. It is these goals every thinking person should aim for in his and her society. A society of equality, justice, compassion, respect for persons over ideas, and one that is blind to social distinctions based on anything other than a person’s intellectual and moral character. These are the liberties we have, in a liberal democracy – but one that is becoming less liberal and less democratic. We will solve all social ills not through feelings and an appeal to gods or bronze-aged myths, but through critical thought, analysis, scepticism and its sister reason. As Bertrand Russell said, and I will quote extensively from him:
Our dealings with those whom we love may be safely left to instinct; it is our dealings with those whom we hate that ought to be brought under the dominion of reason. … [W]e could begin to build a new morality, not based on envy and restriction, but on the wish for a full life and the realization that other human beings are a help and not a hindrance when once the madness of envy has been cured. This is not a Utopian hope; it was partially realized in Elizabethan England. It could be realized tomorrow if men would learn to pursue their own happiness rather than the misery of others. This is no impossibly austere morality, yet its adoption would turn our earth into a paradise.
Thus, I hope you have noticed there is nothing to do with attacking religious people- but much to do with religious ideas, mocking religious fundies like someone called Taryn Hodgson – Ill get to her in the second part -, we are not arrogantly forcing our views into and above those who disagree with us. We have our own formulated view of the world, based on reason and compassion without any divine ordinances or permission. We require no permission to be good, no celestial dictatorship to govern our morals, no propitiation to imaginary beings, no regurgitated myths to find beauty – anyone who thinks that a talking burning bush is more beautiful than the horse-head Nebula needs a lesson in aesthetics – and we, finally, require no magic book to seek meaning, beauty, love, life, and fulfilment within this life as it stands.
We say keep your views if you believe in a god, but we only ask that you do not force it and its tributaries of thought to seep into the society we live in. Since that is not possible given the very definition of religion, we who stand for reason feel it high time to usurp the gnarled hands of religious bullies, steering the reins of our societal future. We have begun to realise too late that reason is fragile, but now we must protect it. Myths, legends, feelings are not going to help. If I offend anyone by saying any of these things, so be it. But if the society manages to better one life, recalibrate one mind, and offer help to even one person – your feelings will be lost as someone is able to take greater steps into a life fully realised, without the blinkers of religion and myths and the death-wish longing for the better world that “awaits” them after.
Though you may get angel wings in heaven, there is no reason why you can’t use this life to soar.
That is our society, that is what we stand for.
Members vary in the supposed “degree of militancy”. I am erroneously known as the “militant wing” of the society. I do not know why. Yet, though I do not call myself an atheist – I find that term unhelpful – nor a humanist – I find that term superfluous – I am not averse to proclaiming myself an antitheist. Other members on the committee call themselves “agnostics” or simply “atheists”. Whatever you want to call yourself, this is a society where all views pertaining to the good life, reason and solidarity of our world comes before wishful-thinking, emotions and belief without evidence. We will not oust you if you believe in a deity, but we certainly will – in the spirit of reason – demand evidence, proof or logic. The only people we currently do not accept are those who think Elvis Presley is still alive: not just because there is no evidence to back you up, but because most of us hate Elvis.
The nature of open dialogue and discourse is enscribed in the nature of freedom of speech. The AAS, as I said, will not silence those who mock atheists or defame science and draw cartoons of philosophers (if anyone has seen what most philosophers look like, there is a lot to make fun of). Freedom of speech means that I can say what I want about your ideas and you can say what you want about mine. That is why we would defend deniers of all kinds to write and speak of their views: from those who deny evolution, the Holocaust and the, latest, germ-theory. Because the ideas of science are so firm and strong, they can stand up to criticism. Afterall, this is the basis for Karl Popper’s notion of falsification: We do not believe in things that are True, but things which have faced an onslaught of counter-ideas and theories. We accept an idea only after it has been “boldly put forward on trial”. We may say that we accept ideas only after they have gone through a Gauntlet of Criticism. The ideas we hold are all bloody and injured from an onslaught of attacks, but they have survived nonetheless due to their inner-strength and logical appeal. But it does not make them true – it simply means they have survived where others have failed.
Thus, we could be wrong and we accept that. But the self-correcting method of reason, the overarching principle of science, will show our faults. Thus astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry. Now religion will become, I suppose, common sense and decency. Whilst I do not believe in absolute truth, I certainly believe that which has not yet been disproven, for example: cosmology, evolution, and a universe without a celestial dietician worried over whether women are wearing a piece of cloth (isn’t he omnipotent anyway?). The same can not be said for the deniers of evolution and cosmology. Though we see no evidence to support their views, that does not mean we want to shut them up.
But to the faithful it does not work both ways. For the faithful, freedom of speech is a two way-street where they have closed off the oncoming lane, with deliberate obfuscation and vitriol. They have shattered the street-lights, cordoned off the pavement and dragged tolerance to one side, biting and screaming.
This leads us into the second part of my talk, namely The Defense of Blasphemy
2. In Defense of Blasphemy
Blasphemy, it has been said, is a victimless crime. Blasphemy however is neutrally defined as:
1. impious utterance or action concerning the God of the theists or sacred things.
a. an act of cursing or reviling God.
b. pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) in the original, now forbidden manner instead of using a substitute pronunciation such as Adonai.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia, however, defines blasphemy as an “etymologically gross irreverence towards any person or thing worthy of exalted esteem”. Now, how are we to contemplate these various definitions, all churning within a pot of miasmatic confusion. Since, the very absurdity of a talking ape offending an omniscient, omnipotent being should immediately calm the joke that offense has become.
Does anyone feel hurt when I say: “Zeus is a bastard?”. Well, if there are any classics lecturers I imagine I have – but aside from them, most of us do not believe in Zeus. “Odin is a bully, a mysogynist, a bounder and poltroon that deserves nothing but scorn for his treatment of people.” Or how about: “Fidi Mikullu is an abhorrent, horrble and unpleasant character.” Or “I know what Thor can do with his hammer.” Shocking, I know (excuse the pun). “Tezcatlipoca is a pestilential, arrogant and malevolant idiot.”
In all these cases, I – a talking ape – have taking a deity’s name in vane. But… what happens if we had to replace all those insults, and denigrations with the the name Yahweh, capital G god, or Jesus. These separate or the same being – the microdiscipline of theology has yet to figure this out – is somehow, by today’s standard, not allowed to receive such treatment.
But why? Why can’t I say the following, “I think the god of the theists is an unpleasant, mysogynistic, pestilential bully filled with hubris enough to ignite the fires of a dictators mind”.
I am not taking the theistic god out for special scorn. It is not like we have lined up all the gods and said this god is more likely to exist than that, or that this god is worse than that (though, I do think that Venus is much better than Yahweh). To those of us who do not believe, the theists must address this question: Why is it when we blaspheme against Tezcatlipoca – who is a deity – there is no reprise to be silent; but when it comes to their deity, cages are opened and freedom forced inside. What is so special about the theist’s deity above others that have existed? In and of himself, he is not special – it is only that large proportions of the world’s population (claim to) believe in him.
Even before they get on to his existence – for which there is not a single good philosophical reason – they must ask themselves why we can all scorn Fidi Mikullu but not Yahweh. Offense is taken in and of itself as an argument. You have hurt my feelings, it states, therefore you must be silenced or censored. But, as I highlighted above, we who are offended by the idiocy if creationist and Holocaust deniers’ claims, do not ask them for silence – even if it “offends” us. Open dialogue, the nature of a stable society, means that we have an agora – or market place of ideas – to which all are allowed to contribute. Naturally, being an open environment there are things we will not like. But whether we like something or not does not tell us whether it is true or helpful. It must be subjected to criticism from both sides, for and against. It if it hurts your feelings, well, that is really just too bad.
We can not simply dismiss an idea because one side is “hurt”. Defenders of reason do not use offense in and of itself as an argument. That is simply bad reasoning and terrible logic. To quote JM Coetzee:
Convictions that are not backed by reason … are not strong but weak; it is the mark of a weak position, not a strong position, that its holder, when challenged, takes offense. All viewpoints deserve a hearing; debate, according to the rules of reason, will decide which deserves to triumph.
Note again: All ideas, even those of the religious, are given voice. We must hear all viewpoints since they all are worthy of being heard or audi alteram partem. Otherwise, one side is given preferential treatment whilst bullying the other into silence. That is neither mature, grown-up nor the sign of civilized discourse. Such treatment of opposing ideas should be left in the infancy of the school-yard and those who take offense can go bully some child for their lunch-money. It is simply unhelpful in the grown-up, adult sphere in which we all must live.
But why do so many people take offense so easily? It is enshrined in John Stuart Mill’s notion of the “tyranny of majority opinion”. Most people in the world do perhaps believe in a god. The reasons are not intellectual or philosophical, but purely based on the heritage of ideas, passed down by blood like eye-colour or myopia. And like myopia, the ancestoral conveyance of belief prevents the descendant from seeing the world clearly. I was 7 years old when I realised that I could not see properly with my left eye. I thought everyone was short-sighted in their left eye: It was obvious to me, since I was the only template or litmus-paper to test by. But when my idea of “everyone is short sighted in their left eye” was tested with the same procedures as given everyone else – a kind of Gauntlet of Criticism as I mentioned before – my idea was shown to be wrong. Thus, when I finally acquired spectacles, to cure me of my bad idea, the world opened up its glory and its wings unfurled, allowing my previously cloistered imagination, of this blurry world, to be enraptured purely based on the beauty of clear vision.
And the myopic ideas of religion are much the same. Many people believe it to be true since most people are unfortunately not very self-reflective people. When their ideas, which have been passed down via heritage, are subjected to the same criticism as any other ideas, they immediately retreat under the guise of offense. This is a personal thing, you are not allowed to talk about it. If it was not the fact that so many people believe in a god and so many people responded to open criticism of religious ideas in this way, we would all agree it is absurd. It really is absurd to say that one’s feelings are hurt because of someone else’s mockery of one’s metaphysical beliefs. But society, fuelled by the emotions and responses of the majority, has deemed it acceptable to respond as such. Most people do it, so it must be OK. Thus, when we atheists criticise we are told we are being offensive, arrogant and disrespectful. The faithful could afford this response in the past, given the powerful position of the Church and clergy in all spheres in society. With the ideas of science and humanism hailing from the Enlightenment challenging religious ideas, all the faithful had was strong emotion. They could afford to use it then; they can afford to wield it now. That is one part of why offense is used.
Yet, as one of modern Catholicism’s tough-minded zealots, Arnold Lunn, has said: “The theory that you should always treat the religious convictions of other people with respect finds no support in the Gospels.” I will highlight later what the Old Testament says, though.
In many cases, the fence of “offense” is why religious dialogue has simply ceased continuing. The dialogue is closed off by the brackets of emotions. Thomas Paine highlighted this in 1776 – an important year when the incredible US Declaration of Independence was written – when he wrote in the appropriately titled “Common Sense”:
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.
No doubt many here who are religious have been offended by my portayal of your god. I do not apologise since I am not mocking you, I am mocking your ideas. I am mocking your deity that you believe in. If this was a more public sphere, in most societies, I would not be allowed to be so fruitful with my scorn. This was brought home recently in relation to Sax Appeal.
Sax appeal has been around for 76 years. It was banned and burnt by Christians, during the apartheid era. It is also the largest student magazine in the world, in terms of distribution.
The article in question is entitled “Top Ten Atheist Retorts to Fundamentalist Christians”. This is no high-brow stuff, simply student toilet humour. Black and white pictures, with blurbs above them saying things like “Jesus died for our sins” and a response “I bet he feels like a tool now.” But it was discovered by Christian watchdog, Errol Naidoo, from the Family Policy Institute. Naidoo had the gall to say: “If UCT attempted this dispicable act against any other faith group there would have been a major outcry by now and perhaps even violence.”
Who could he possibly mean?
Perhaps he means the followers of the Greek gods: one can almost picture those vitriolic followers of the god Ares, donning their armour and marching down our streets. Maybe Naidoo meant the Druids, who would no doubt fetch their robes and run to the forest to send an army of rabid, red-eyed squirrels against UCT. The absurdity was not lost on the brilliant Hayibo.com, whose satire of the Sax Appeal debacle had an Amnish protest, using horse-drawn carrages and 12 barrels of women, to protest against the magazine Popular Mechanics. For those of you who do not know, the Amnist are small highly orthodox sect of Christianity in America, that forgo any modern technology and still dress in 17th century clothes.
Yet, I find it hard, as should you, to worry about the Amnish at night. I do not lose sleep over offending Ares. Is he refering to orthodox Jews? Maybe. But I think we all know he is talking about many Muslim responses. Many of you will remember in 2005, the publication of some cartoons by the conservative Danish newspaper, Jyllends-Posten. 139 people will killed as a result of this “offense”. But because Naidoo was speaking for Christian groups, he attempted to compound his own response by saying: “look we are not marching or killing anyone. We are so much better than those crazy Islamists.” To a certain degree this is true, but just because one group reacts to offense less violently than another, does not make the former group’s ideas any better. Naidoo still has no good reasons for being so angry and making his demands of curbing freedom of expression.
Naidoo however was not prescient, as soon, members from UCT’s staff were receiving death-threats. Not very Christian, you might think. I, however, think why not: Why do we not consult what their god says about blasphemy (see Leviticus 24:16). It seems pretty in line with their Bible to issue death-threats, does it not? Their Bible does advise them to kill a woman on her wedding night if she is not a virgin; their Bible, in a verse just below the previous in Deuteronomy, does says we should stone a child to death (Deut. 21:18-19), if he is disobedient to his children.
The Bible has told Christians how to deal with offense – whilst it also says something completely different later. This shows how unhelpful it is to derive ones morality from one of these magic books.
As Isaac Asimov once said: “Read correctly, the Bible is most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” The morality that we read from the Bible should be offensive to all thinking people: But are we asking for the Bible to be burned, not read? On the contrary, more people should read the Bible to understand that it is not as amazing as Christians believe it to be (the same goes for the Quran and the Book of Mormon).
How did other Christian’s respond? Well, here is one reply from a Christian, called Taryn Hodgson. After going through rehashed theistic arguments, Taryn Hodgon, in the last VARSITY, says: “[atheists] continue in their blasphemy, SEXUAL IMMORALITY AND DRUNKENNESS.” She then, helpfully, informs us that we must abandon sin. That is very offensive to atheists. I know many atheists who don’t care about religion, aren’t “getting any”, and hate alcohol. This generalisation is unhelpful since by “immoral” she means “goes against her particular brand of Christianity”. Presumably she eats pork or drinks wine – which, by Islam’s model, is immoral. But would this make her change her stance to make another group feel happy? HL Mencken correctly defined puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Such is the case here.
Someone called Lugisani Nefale from the Student Christian Fellowship says: the following (read entire letter). Excuse me? “Those loose Atheist believers” (which translates as “those loose non-believing believers” – an oxymoron) “are running wild on campus”? What on earth does this mean? Nefale also says “atheism is a form of faith”. Presumably this is meant to be an insult, but that means he is insulting himself twice:
1. “Faith” used as an insult shows he views it just as we do. Namely as something silly.
2. He means that those of us who do not believe in his god have a faith. Fine, but that means that his nonbelief in Tezcatlipoca, Quetzquoatl, and Thor are 3 faiths. But this is madness. If the very disbelief in faith is a faith, the dialogue stops.
Responses like these two, out of a collection of even more dispicable affronts to human sensibility, highlight the pernicious right that the faithful have to claim such knowledge of a great being. They claim to know that he feels offended by this and that, to know that nonbelief leads to corruption of the person, to generalise that those who do not agree with my particular brand of faith are deluded. They give no evidence and are simply asserting their right that such affronts to their ideas must not be published.
This was taken even further down the rabbit-role of madness. The Christian Democratic Alliance took the matter to none other than the SA Human Rights’ Commission. This is a commission premised on the foundations I highlighted before: regarding people blindly, without recourse to creeds, races and so on. And the name says it all: human rights. Human beings have rights not their ideas. Have a look at the article and try to consider the admirable men and women at the Human Rights’ Commission staring at it and wondering where the violence or exclusion is coming from. A student magazine?
Ideas are there, in the market place of an open democracy to be viewed and scorned as we deem fit. They are not immune to criticism and it certainly exhibits no property dispicable enough to warrant attention from the human rights’ commission. If you bring religious ideas into a secular society, you must expected to be scorned.
Jesus himself says, in Matthew, that his followers must expect to be mocked for their faith. Saint Augustine said: “We must be on our guard against giving interpretations that are hazardous or opposed to science, and so exposing the Word of God to ridicule of unbelievers.” Yet because of reactions by Naidoo and his cronies, we have people like RAG’s Cameron Arendse forced to grovel at the feet of the faithful. Our vice-chancellor, Max Price, had to issue an apology – something I do not agree with. (Though perhaps, if I was in his position, I might’ve done the same.)
Christian Democratic Alliance spokesman, Colin Fibiger, said:
We consider the content of the UCT magazine to be a deliberate and planned, discriminatory attack on Christianity and will seek full restitutional measures.
This includes the immediate removal of the Executive Director of Student Affairs, as well as the Project manager and all editorial staff.
Now here is the bottom line. There was no instigation for violence or discrimination against Christian people; therefore it does not warrant a violation of human rights. It was mocking religious belief in general and as Professor Benatar highlighted, only two of the pictures target Christians. The other 8 pictures are aimed at religious belief in general.
Why should Christians not be treated this way, as other religious beliefs are? We so-called sceptics should not have to adjust our lives, which includes looking at ideas critically and unemotionally, just because one group says their ideas are beyond criticism. As I highlighted before about Taryn Hodgson, if Muslims came out saying they are offended by all the non-halal places, people drinking alcohol, and women wearing short skirts, would the Christians adjust to suit them? It seems unlikely – though perhaps some guys would like some of the female drivers off the road, but for different reasons.
Why then should we nonbelievers adjust for Christians?
Naidoo, seeing his views further mocked because we hurt his feelings by highlighting his errors, wrote a strongly-worded letter to Cape Times. Naidoo once again tried to place two target groups together, to highlight why his was better: This time he highlighted that the so-called liberal media elite (whatever that is) has no time for views against homosexuality but plenty that mocks his faith.
To quote him:
I can almost guarantee that if the object of Sax Appeal’s mockery and ‘satire’ were directed at homosexuals and homosexuality, the liberal media would be singing a very different tune. Predictably, the liberal media elite have taken it upon themselves to determine the limitations of free speech – if any – for the rest of us. In other words, they decide who can be mocked, derided, ridiculed and humiliated. And according to their warped definition, Jesus Christ and Christianity are fair game. However, homosexuals and any expression of homosexuality are strictly off-limits …
This is a sneaky but fallacious move. Does not freedom of speech mean we can say what we want about ideas, yet we refrane from mocking homosexuals. Surely this is a double-standard as Naidoo highlights?
No. It is not. Firstly, if Naidoo is so oppressed and downtrodden by the liberal media, why does he write letters to them, and get published? Why is he getting his 15 minutes on Carte Blanche and Special Assignment? That does not seem very “limiting” from the media’s point of view. In fact, it seems rather in keeping in line with the principle: audi alteram parte. That is, remember: all views deserve a hearing.
And, secondly, freedom of speech does not mean we can say and express whatever we want. This is common mistake from those who bash secularism, liberalism and freedom of speech and thought.
My co-contributor to Butterflies and Wheels, Nigel Warburton, highlights:
Defenders of free speech almost without exception recognize the need for some limits to the freedom they advocate. In other words, liberty should not be confused with licence. Complete freedom of speech would permit freedom to slander, freedom to engage in false and highly misleading advertising, freedom to publish sexual material about children, freedom to reveal state secrets, and so on … The kind of freedom of speech worth wanting is freedom to express your views at appropriate times in appropriate places, not freedom to speak at any time that suits you. Nor should it be freedom to express any view whatsoever: there are limits.
Those limits are then premised on what constitutes encitment to violence and intolerance, hence, homosexuality and so on.
Homosexuality, unlike religion, is not a set of ideas, which are designed to cater for explaining, exculpating, and excluding based on the word of a deity – himself designed as arbiter of the weather, the creation of the world and the dealer of death.
Religion then, which admits no doubt and treats scepticism, derision and apostasy with the loving care of a sociopath with a poisoned knife, can not be equated with homosexuality. Homosexuality, firstly, is not a set of ideas. It is either “erotic activity with another of the same sex” or engaging in being a homosexual.
It is simply focused on relations with the same sex: there are no ideas here, it simply is a group of people – it is who they are. Religion, however, deals with what you believe.
Homosexuality makes no pretensions toward supernatural and untested claims. It is simply a position – ignore the pun – one takes in and of sex. What is there to say about it? It is a personal choice that, for the most part, harms no one – unlike religious beliefs. However, religion to those of us who studied literature, is a fertile ground for humour. It is so ludicirous in so many areas, it is begging for mockery. Homosexuality on the other hand, is not that funny by any standards. What is their to mock and deride, in any case? Perhaps it is not as deep – ignore the pun – as Naidoo thinks: Maybe, those seeking to make humour are just leaping on the most popular source of silly ideas. “The religion of one age,” RW Emerson said, “is the literary entertainment of the next.”
Naidoo spoke out against homosexuality based on nothing but assertion: It offended him as a Christian that SA tourism’s Cheryl Ozinsky attempted to make Cape Town Pink. To most of you, that would not matter, since there were no homosexuals knocking at your door wondering if you had accepted Elton John as your lord and saviour. Why should Ozinsky not try to make Cape Town Pink? Naidoo could give no good reasons for his views and that was why he was ousted and chided by the liberal media – not because we do not want to offend homosexuals. We want good, strong reasons for saying something – not simply assertion or because your “magic” book says so. Naidoo is propping up his faith as some sort of justification for his assertions, because society does not fiti into his narrow view of Christianity. This reminds me of a famous quotation of the great Heinrich Heine: “Christ rode on an ass, but now asses ride on Christ.”
Finally, we can focus on one last point – a question that we as a society were asked by VARSITY Newspaper: Should the editors have published the article? Yes. Though most of us found it distasteful, we support the editors’ right to publish whatever they like (within the bounds of non-violence and decency). They could’ve mocked atheists and nonbelievers. They could’ve mocked physicists and so on – I mean, if you think philosophers dress badly, just look at physcists. You all saw what Gareth looks like. I’m joking, love – you’re gorgeous.
From many angry Christian groups writing strongly-worded letters, to appealing to the human right’s commission, to death-threats and irrational reactions, the Sax Appeal Debacle highlights an important aspect of the current standing of freedom. As Noam Chomsky said: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” So Naidoo can not claim derision toward mockery on the one hand, whilst invoking freedom of speech on the other hand. These two hands can not come together in a handshake of tolerance, they are split apart by opposing notions.
The Sax Appeal Debacle highlights an important movement, tenured toward respecting religious sentiments in the broader sphere. Some of you may know that the UN is slowly transmuting the defense of freedom of speech, into limiting it against religion. The incitement to religious hatred is slowly becoming recognised as a crime worthy of prosecution in the upper echelons of our only universal peace-keeping body.
But, blasphemy, as I have defended it here, is a right for everyone because everyone will be offended by some view, in this open market place of ideas. This is the deal we sign up for when entering a secular society, premised on freedom of speech and equal human rights. If a view upsets you, you must be able to give good reasons aside from simply assertion. If it crosses over into simply poor taste, at the least, or incitement to violence against persons, at worst, then we would also be defending freedom of speech – since freedom, remember, does not mean free-reign. Freedom, like reason, has limits. But that does not mean they are restricted. Even the limits are made with the same tools of reason and freedom. It is when the limits are constructed out of dogmatic assertion and emotion that we have a problem.
So, yes, I believe in limiting freedom of speech and focusing on the limits of reason – but using reason to discover those borders. I do not believe in setting up arbitrary boundaries based on emotion and magic books. We must eliminate the arbitrary boundaries which made life so difficult in our history. As Denis Diderot once said: “With the bowels of the last priest, let us strangle the last king.”
Reason will decide the victor, as ideas emerge bloody and bleeding from the Gauntlet of Criticism. Raising their fingers, they mark the next point in our trajectory of thought, as we glide slowly down the path of ignorance. Faith is unhelpful and deserves the same treatment as astrology, alchemy and phlogiston theory. As this Sax Appeal debacle has highlighed, we need to be clearer in our defense of reason. We must highlight the idiocy of any idea – all ideas are open to criticism. We can maintain respect for each other as human beings, yet have absolutely no respect for our beliefs and ideas. I do not want anyone, no matter how heretical you are, to think my ideas are sacred or beyond criticism.
Even my ideas on equality of the genders, human rights, compassion are not beyond criticism. I do not hold them absolutely, nor would I die for them. Because, as reason states, I could be wrong.
The tiny light of reason in this path of darkness, marked with the blanket of superstition, is our guiding light in this world. We progress through joined hands, not through raised fists. I believe we can all unite in our efforts to better the world, because our ideas about god, Jesus and Thor are not important to protecting our freedom. I, personally, think, along with AC Grayling, that “if the world is to have a future, it rests in the hands of women.” Yet, what major religion has not been oppressive to the rights of women, and, therefore, against the progress of our modern world?
So let us shake of these shackles of offense and being hurt by someones mockery and derision. There is work to be done: It wil start with being united in our thoughts of the good life sans gods. It will continue by emancipating reason from the shrouds of religion. And, finally, it will lie within the hands of the better sex, the freedom of women.
Let’s ignore petty student magazines that offend us and focus on the real world. The question of god’s existence is one of the stupidest, yet people trouble themselves with this more than helping promote reason and freedom to all peoples. Let us not fight over the shadows in the corner when an actual darkness looms ahead.
The darkness will be banished with the light of truth ignited by the fires of reason, raising the torch of knowledge to this cave of ignorance, with our backs to supersition. Which way are you facing?