Blasphemy Is not Bigotry

by A. Jay Adler on September 25, 2012
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The President has spoken (at the United Nations). People are praising what they think he got right and what he got not so right. (We ignore here today the people who think he gets most everything wrong. They get too much attention anyway.) On the issue of free speech stemming from the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the paroxysms of (I use the word mindfully ) mindless violence that have followed from it, some people – when they think that President Obama got it right – are, along with the President, wrong. Oh, the basic message about freedom of expression is rightfully stated in the usual way, but a crucial point is mangled and will remain the source of misunderstanding.

It all begins with a categorical misunderstanding. Most problems begin with categorical misunderstandings. (You heard it here.) It is the point I make in my most recent commentary at the Algemeiner, “‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the Faith Fallacy.” Faith doctrines are owed no special respect, and the continuing obeisance to the notion that they are deserving of special regard is, in reality, a source of ongoing conflict over them. This is not a claim derived from atheistic thought. It is an intellectual argument, which is the whole point: faith doctrines are intellectual claims, no matter the desire of adherents to sanctify them. They are due no greater respect than any other intellectual claim, and they are due respect only on their merits.

David Frum, no Obama partisan, cited in complement this passage from the President’s speech to the U.N.

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support.

Here is the President’s categorical error:

Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.

Criticizing – even ridiculing – a religion, in argument or symbolically (desecrating an image of Jesus Christ) is not the same as denying the Holocaust. I am not privileging anything Jewish here. The Holocaust was an historical occurrence: it is a historical fact. Religious doctrines (and the symbols and figures that represent those doctrines) are not facts. They are sets of ideas. Disagreeing with, and even disdaining, an idea is not the same as denying a historical fact. This is simply a fundamental intellectual error, a categorical confusion, that President Obama has perpetuated in the desire to represent himself and the U.S. in a balanced, ecumenical manner. It would actually have been very easy to achieve coherently the balance the President sought, merely by choosing a symbolic representation (a Jewish Star?) of the Jewish faith rather than a historic calamity that befell the Jewish people.

Of course, the contextual incoherence of that intellectual coherence would have been the reality that unpleasant attacks against Jews are not made on the basis of their faith, but their being, as Jews. Holocaust denial is not a manifestation of intellectual dispute – it is a product of racial prejudice. Christianity and Islam and all the rest of the religions are doctrines and traditions, but not ethnic identities. Disagreement with or even dislike of Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, however intellectually sound or unsound, is an adverse judgment against someone’s beliefs, not a bigotry against someone’s person.

Jeffrey Goldberg also responded to the President’s speech with some praise and some reservation. I know he fully agrees with me on the absoluteness of the principle. He even cites Hussien Ibish, who is very much to the point:

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

You see the point? Blasphemy is not the blemish on free speech with which we must live. (You want that face? The pimples come with it.) It is the very essence of free speech. Goldberg demurred in a merely personal way:

Blasphemy, as Hussein Ibish argues, is an indispensable human right. I’m not much into blasphemy myself — I generally find it offensive. But as Americans, we are compelled to defend the right of any blasphemer to be an asshole.

This only half gets the point. The blasphemer may be an asshole. Manifestly, many non-blasphemers are assholes. But the blasphemer is not an asshole because a blasphemer. Blaspheming is the very root of disagreement. It is the original “no”: “no” spoken, no shouted, no painted on one’s forehead, no as even the way one lives one’s life. Every great mind is a blaspheming mind.   In the notion of blasphemy, the authoritarian dressed in priestly garb attempts to sanctify the secular (the idea become a faith), close the mind and crush the personality. Every dissenting mind, presuming to disagree, first, before the argument is even articulated, says, “No.” And freedom flourishes.

Blasphemy is not the bastard, the black sheep, the bad seed of freedom. Blasphemy is freedom.



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