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Today is International Blasphemy Day

Today is Blasphemy Day, one of my favorite days of the year. Blasphemy Day matters because it seeks to educate people about the importance of freedom of expression, even when these expressions are contrary to others’ religious beliefs or offensive to religious people. In the words of Justin Trottier:

“We’re not seeking to offend, but if in the course of dialogue and debate, people become offended, that’s not an issue for us. There is no human right not to be offended.”

Now, if I can say what I was going to say in such a way that it does not offend someone, I might attempt to do that. If you have what I consider a legitimate reason for being offended at a certain wording – structural violence, for example – I will say what I was going to using words that don’t offend you instead. But I will still say what I was going to say if I still have a good reason to do it. It’s illogical to set an idea aside as beyond criticism; that’s called the fallacy of special pleading. And that’s what Blasphemy Day is about.

We do need to address the subject of mockery in all of this. Mockery is NOT what Blasphemy Day is about. Although I do think there is a place for calculated mockery – as a device in rhetoric – within atheist activism (or any type of activism, for that matter), I want to make it clear that the purpose of Blasphemy Day is not simply to mock religious people. Speaking your mind – including mockery of an idea – even if others are “offended” is one thing; mocking a person (rather than their beliefs) is quite different, and not what we seek to do. Mocking a person is verbal harassment and one step shy of bullying.

Mockery evolved as a conformity enforcer; there is some really interesting research on mockery within the fields of neuroscience, cultural anthropology, and sociology/social psychology. Embarrassment and shame are fascinating emotions. Embarrassment originates in the amygdalae and the insular cortex, very old parts of the brain responsible for some of our baser functions like fear conditioning & memory, social interaction, & awareness of personal space (in the case of the former) and the processing of disgust & norm violations (in the case of the latter). According to Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU and author of the excellent book Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, “Anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex [the higher-order, “thinking” part of the brain responsible for conscious thought, language, etc]. Some emotional reactions and emotional responses can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation…because the shortcut from thalamus [which regulates, among other things, wakefulness & emotional arousal] to amygdyla completely bypasses the neocortex,” a process called amygdala hijacking.

A classic gesture of mockery. A variation appears in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1: “Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it,” followed by the famous exchange, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” “I do bite my thumb, sir.” “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” “No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.”

In the earliest groups of humans on through today, mockery (or its friendlier cousin, teasing) triggers embarrassment. This triggering sets off a pattern of emotional responses, independent from rational thought or even conscious control. People do not like being mocked, and we can show this empirically with scans of people’s brains – it causes amygdala hijacking. People respond to mocking by shutting down logically: Literally, as in their responses stem from their amygdala, without asking the neocortex first. People may become very quiet or stammer – remember, fear conditioning & social interaction exist in the amygdala; language and conscious thought in the neocortex – or they may become defensive or angry if the logic is against them and cognitive dissonance takes over, as can happen in heated debates, e.g. religious ones. Mockery causes vasodilation of the face (blushing), causing our cheeks to appear red and feel warm because of the elevated volume of blood, which Darwin called “the most peculiar and most human of all expressions.” There is some really interesting research into why humans evolved this response (we are the only animals to do so), but that’s a topic for another article.

Humans evolved to form tribes, in the same way that dogs form packs, fish form schools, and birds form flocks. There are excellent scientific reasons for this, especially when you start getting into game theory. The point is that we thrive when we work together, and die when we don’t, literally. One person cannot fight off a sabertooth cat by him or herself, let alone accomplish something like international trade. For that, you need high-functioning groups. And studying how people interact with each other in groups is the field of group dynamics. Among human groups throughout history, status has been a vital part of our existence. Status is relative, and so irrelevant for solitary creatures (except when mating). I mentioned earlier that mocking enforces conformity. The neurological mechanism for this is by triggering a fear response via the amygdala and a norm-violations response via the insular cortex. We evolved this response to mocking because mocking helps people in a group work together better. When everyone is on the same page – when everyone follows the same norms – we get a lot more accomplished, and gene proliferation is maximized. Now, this is only true for workers.

For innovators, conformity is bad news. In fact, all innovation – ever – is borne in nonconformity. This goes for mutation at the level of individual genes all the way through scientific progress at the societal level. Mocking an idea, a belief, a behavior, or a person lowers its/their status. Because lower status equates to fewer mating opportunities (among other things), we have a hard-wired, evolved desire not to be associated with ideas, beliefs, behaviors, or people of low status. This goes back millions of years to the first animals to develop norms. And even today, millions of years later, a quick dose of mockery can instantly put us back in line.

Status is very important between groups, too. And this is where blasphemy comes in. When you have a group of believers and a group of non-believers – whether we’re talking about Christians versus atheists, Christians versus Muslims, ancient Jews versus Babylonians, etc – you are going to encounter fights over status. The reason for this is easy to explain from an evolutionary point of view: We can demonstrate empirically that groups are more successful (in the genetically relevant sense of maximizing their populations) when they not only have group loyalty, but when they have high status. Being around people who are not like us – who do not share our beliefs, worldviews, language, culture, etc – makes us produce more cortisol, that is, we feel more stressed. We have a strong biochemical incentive to be around people we like and who like us (Note: PDF link to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher’s research in evolutionary cognitive neuroscience).

We feel attachment more easily to people we feel some connection with, especially when we are starved for connections. If you have ever been to another country where no one spoke your language, and you meet another English-speaker, you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter that you are strangers, it doesn’t matter that if you passed this same person on the sidewalk in your hometown, you wouldn’t even notice him/her – when we’re in a strange place among strange people, we are naturally drawn to familiarity. The more stress we feel, the more we are drawn to familiarity, and the more fear we feel for the unfamiliar. It’s a survival mechanism, an adaptation: Proto-humans without a strong sense of loyalty to their groups were quickly dispatched with (converted or killed) by other groups comprising members with a stronger sense of loyalty. And just having a strong sense of loyalty to your group isn’t enough to out-compete other groups, for the first group to develop the idea that it is a shining beacon of light versus all other groups will quickly out-compete all others: To really be at the top, your group also has to have a sense that it is elite, that it is high-status, and that all other systems are low-status.

You can see this played out in history. Consider the ancient Greeks: The Greek word βάρβαρος (cognate to English “barbarian” and used the same way) literally just means “non-Greek.” Greek historians regularly used other pejorative language to describe other cultures and it’s clear from reading Herodotus et al what they thought of people who weren’t awesome enough to be Greek. This in a time when the Greeks were at the height of their accomplishments scientifically, politically, economically, architecturally, and aesthetically in literature, poetry, sculpture, etc. Ancient China, as well, is famous for its view of outsiders – witness the Great Wall – but this is not unique to ancient societies: Despite ranking quite far from #1 in pretty much every measure (education, health, happiness, income equality, longevity, literacy, GDP per capita, infant mortality, etc), I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a conservative voter who wouldn’t agree with the statement, “America is the greatest country in the world.”

Blasphemy is a special category of criticism. Imagine I were to show a hard-line conservative presidential candidate all the statistics in the world that this country is NOT the greatest in the world, by many quantifiable measures. Do you think any of them would even come close to saying, “America can learn from the example of other countries, particularly the ones that beat us out on these quantifiable measures (e.g. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, Singapore, South Korea, etc)”? It would be career suicide!

Just like an atheist presenting a factual, reasoned, logical, evidence-backed case against the claims of this-or-that religion, for those in politics, particularly for those on the right, nationalism turns honest criticism into blasphemy. We’re not allowed to say that the America is not the greatest country in the world, regardless of what the every single quantifiable measure out there might suggest in terms of outcomes. We’re not allowed to say that Christians worship thin air when they pray. We’re not allowed to say that Muhammad was either delusional or a liar. To do so is transgression on the sacred, to borrow a term from Michael Taussig, an anthropology professor at Columbia.

Blasphemy is, quite simply, the lack of reverence for the sacred. This can include gods, people, documents (the Torah itself is considered sacred by Jews; if you accidentally drop a bound copy on the floor, you’re supposed to kiss it as a sign of apology), rituals, or even words: The word “Yahweh” is considered so sacred by orthodox Jews that they do not say it aloud, but instead call their god “Lord” (“adonai” in Hebrew) during prayer, or “the name” (“hashem”) when speaking about God rather than to him. If you ever see the this in writing somewhere:


the reason is that it’s considered improper (by Jews) to write out God’s full name on a piece of paper, since you don’t want that piece of paper to end up in the trash, or even electronically, since that file may end up being deleted!

As rational people, we are free to say that there is no good reason to think that these ideas and practices have any basis in reality. The meme of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god has developed the fascinating self-defense mechanism of declaring it blasphemous to criticize it openly. Can you imagine if a virus [a literal one] infected our brains in such a way that it specifically targeted our desire to combat it? That is what the meme of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god has done, and unbelievable effectively, for thousands of years, successfully infecting roughly half of the world’s population (!).

Fortunately, this self-defense measure is only applicable if you’ve already been infected, or partially-infected (in the case of those who “respect others’ beliefs”). In the words of Richard Dawkins, “Stop being so damned respectful.” Religious ideas are ideas like any other, and if they cannot stand up to scrutiny, it’s because they’re not very solid to begin with. This is not to say that, normatively, we should mock people who believe these ideas. Far from it. But positively, we are free to question the beliefs themselves, and be demanding of evidence and good reasons when it comes to why someone thinks something is true.

I love America. I am proud to be an American and I feel very fortunate that I was born a United States citizen. This is an amazing place to live and work and many people all over the planet would give anything to switch places with me. On paper, America has the strongest separation of religion and government in the world. It is a model of the right way to set up a government. But in practice, we are so far from this. For the first time in history, in 2012, the number of Americans who said they WOULD vote for an otherwise-qualified candidate for president, who also happens to be an atheist, passed 50%. We’re headed in the right direction, but if just under half the country would not vote for a presidential candidate unless s/he believes in God, clearly we have a long way to go.

Have fun blaspheming today, and every day! I also want to mention that today is the last day of early bird pricing for our 2014 National Convention in Salt Lake City, so if you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, do it now!

Until next time,

Dave Muscato
Public Relations Director, American Atheists
(908) 276-7300 x7
[email protected]