Tag Archives: skepticism

Treatise on Blasphemy

Recently the Republic of Ireland held a referendum to repeal longstanding blasphemy offenses in its country.  While blasphemy still stands as a finable offense in the Republic under the 2009 Defamation Act, the referendum is still a demonstration that, as far as the Irish people are concerned, charges of blasphemy ought not to be a part of punishable civil law in their nation.

Friends of my adopted homeland here in the United States usually have a conception of Western Europe as being made up of a set of predominantly secular and progressive cultures.  And speaking as someone who spent many years growing up in Western Europe, this conception isn’t wholly unfounded.  As a result, it might astound many Americans to hear that some of these secular, progressive, ultra-liberal, borderline lefty countries still have enforceable blasphemy laws in place.  Granted, the actual enforceability of such laws is largely theoretical in nature, given that they are usually undermined by far more salient laws allowing for the freedom of religious expression and the freedom to believe in accordance to one’s personal conscience.  Thus, blasphemy laws currently exist as a vestigial organ in European law books; without practical purpose or application, but still present nonetheless.

“If these laws are unworkable, than why even bother to fret about them with referendums at all?  Why not just continue to ignore them, and get on with your blaspheming ways?”

This could be a reasonable response, but it misses an important point concerning blasphemy laws.  Putting aside the fact that it makes perfect sense to oppose the criminality of blasphemy on principle alone as unbecoming of any modern democratic nation, there is also the issue of the frailty on which the laxity of these laws currently exist.  To put it more plainly, the reason blasphemy charges are unworkable in most of the European nations that have them is precisely because the current sociopolitical climate is too secular and progressive to enforce them.  However, as any student of history knows, sociopolitical climates are anything but static.  So what happens if the political pendulum swings too far to the right, towards a political faction that views the protection of religious sensibilities as far more important to a nation’s cultural well-being, than the free expression of its citizenry?  Suddenly, these outdated blasphemy laws that have had no real thrust in civil law for almost two centuries, become a very powerful weapon in the hands of reactionaries all too eager to use the existing rule of law to conform society to their line of quasi-pious thinking.  And this is a potential threat both believers and unbelievers alike ought to be concerned about.

Blasphemy isn’t simply the act of professing one’s disbelieve in religious claims, whole cloth.  Blasphemy is the very nature in which all religions profess the very doctrines that make up their faiths.

Whenever polytheistic faiths, like certain sects of Hinduism, profess the existence of multiple gods, they are blaspheming against monotheistic religions which insist that there is only one god, and none other (and vice versa).  Within the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, when Christians profess that Jesus Christ is the foretold messiah, they are blasphemy against the Jewish faiths that claim that the messiah is yet to come (and vice versa).  When Muslims claim that Jesus, though a prophet and a messiah, is not the son of God, they are blaspheming against a central claim of Christianity.  The Catholic Church’s stance on the supremacy of the Roman papacy is blasphemous to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant rejection of Catholic ecclesiastical authority is blasphemous to Catholics.  The Methodists are blasphemers to the Calvinists, and just about every Christian sect considers Mormonism a heresy.

The obvious point here is that to take away the right to blaspheme is to make it impossible for religious pluralism to exist within a society.  Perhaps this is fine as long as your religious opinion is the dominant one in the society you inhabit, but what happens if you find yourself just short of the majority opinion?  What if a population shift occurs, and the very laws that enforced the thin-skinned sensibilities of your religious persuasion becomes the means why which the new dominant line of thought undermines your right to religious expression?

I could stop writing now, and end on this appeal for mutual cordiality between people of all faiths, and how it is in everyone’s self-interest to oppose blasphemy laws, but I fear it would leave things very much against the spirit of healthy discomfort that blasphemy really should elicit in a person when coming across it.  On that note, allow me address the elephant in the room that needs to be brought up when concerns regarding religious offense of any sort, in law or public discourse, rears its head.

Undeniably, religions make bold claims for themselves.  Claims that offer definitive answers on matters concerning life, death, morality, with a wager on possessing a monopoly on Truth with a capital T.  And they are always keen to wrap this all-knowing, all-encompassing bit of absolutist wisdom in a garb of self-proclaimed humility, as if to say, “No, no, don’t mind me…I’m simply professing to know the answers to all of life’s mysteries, ready made with the consequences (read: threat) that will befall you if you don’t follow along with my modest creed.”

In short, religions by their inherit design simply claim to know things they couldn’t possibly know.  But I, in turn, admit that I don’t know.  I don’t know what the answers to life’s mysteries are; nor do I know which of today’s mysteries will remain mysterious forever, and which might become common knowledge for subsequent generations to come.  I don’t know which moral answers yield the most objective good for humanity; nor can I say for sure that such answers are even completely knowable.  The truths I do know come with a lowercase t, held provisionally in accordance to forthcoming evidence and reasoned arguments, and I don’t know if I can do anything other than to reject the grammar of bolder Truth claims when confronted with them.

It is precisely that I don’t know that I am left with little recourse than to examine, question, dismiss, disbelieve, and (when I see fit) deride those who do claim to know, but offer hardly a dearth of evidence for their claim.  It took centuries of debate and bloodshed of previous generations of thinkers for any of us to be able to enjoy this simple — yet powerful — privilege to skepticism.  A privilege I do hold up as my right, and which I will speak up for without hesitation or apology.  What you call blasphemy, I call critical thought.  And if anyone can appeal to traditions as a means to protect religious sensibilities by legal means, I am fully within my right to appeal to the tradition of cultural and intellectual pushback towards religious doctrines and religious authorities that has made it possible for any sort of interfaith (and non-faith) social cohesion to exist in the modern world.  A tradition that includes both the right to the profane and the blasphemous, which cannot be allowed to be abridged in a democratic republic, for as long as one wishes to be part of any nation worthy of the claim.

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The Golden Age of Conspiracy

I have an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories.  When I say this please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t actually buy into the stated details of conspiracy theories, I’m just fascinated by how much devotion and faith people put into them; how a person will take several demonstrable facts and then loosely connect them into something–which at first glance–sounds like a plausible narrative, which will appeal to a wide spectrum of people.  Despite what some might think, I am wholly unconvinced that either intelligence or education plays a significant role in deterring people away from believing in conspiracy theories, because such theories are not really about filling the gaps of our mind’s ignorance and shortcomings.  It’s more about satisfying a base desire for witnessing something greater, higher, that is closed to the majority of the “deluded” masses.  This is what makes conspiracy theories appealing to its proponents.

I was still young when Lady Diana died in 1997, but I was old enough to take note of the reactions people around me had to the news.  It took about four minutes after hearing the news for several members in my family to staunchly announce how they didn’t accept the “mainstream” story.  Why didn’t they accept it?  What tangible evidence did they have to make them doubt the news report?  Essentially none, but it didn’t matter.  There suspicion was that the simple answer must be a distraction to cover up the real story.  Or as my mother put it, “I cannot believe that there isn’t more to this whole thing.”  This sentence, I believe, captures the mindset most of us have, most of the time, when we are confronted with some awestruck piece of data.  The official report of the incident was that Diana and her boyfriend died after crashing in a road tunnel in Paris, due to the driver losing control of the vehicle.  But this just wasn’t big enough for most people, who to this day maintain there has to be more to it.  And no investigation will be enough to convince any of them otherwise, because any investigator who comes up with a different conclusion will simply be evidence of the greater conspiracy.  Most conspiracy theories follow a similar line of reasoning.

We have an innate aversion to simplicity.  Just repeating a story we hear isn’t enough, we need to add more complex details onto it to make it more digestible for wider consumption; refine it and move the narrative forward with facts we think ought to be included with the official details.  It can’t be that politicians are simply corrupt and self-serving, they must also be secretly operating under the direction of an unknown shadow government, which is menacingly pulling the strings behind the curtain [and (occasionally) this shadow government has to be made up of shape-shifting, inter-dimensional lizards, whose bloodline traces back to ancient Babylon].  It’s not enough to say that life on earth is simply adaptive to its environment, there has to be more to it; some kind of grand purpose and intent operating on a level too complex, too powerful for our meager minds to fathom.  This line of thinking is especially strong when we don’t have enough facts to draw any kind of clear conclusion, in such a case we’ll reason that even a conspiracy theory is better than no theory.

Simple reasons and answers are often not enough to do the job for us, because simplicity can never meet the expectations of our innately suspicious imaginations.  What does satisfy out suspicion is a narrative that goes counter to the “mainstream.”  That only those of us who are of the most elite intellect can grasp.  “The Illuminati may be fooling you but it’ll never fool me,” is the popular tagline.  Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is the layer of excitement they bring to everyday facts.  It is stimulating beyond belief to lose oneself in all the various plots and details of a hidden world, even if its veracity is only verified by a very questionable set of complex circumstances; this just makes it more exciting.  The other part of the appeal is the strange level of remote plausibility it brings to the table.  For instance, there is no denying that people have conspired in the past (and still do today), often for ominous reasons (an example being the documented long history of unethical humane experimentation in the United States).  And this air of remote plausibility is more than enough to keep people’s suspicions on high alert, except when it comes to scrutinizing the various details being used to support the particular conspiracy theory they have chosen to embrace.

We know that the human mind is in many ways constrained in its ability to rationalize the world, thus we are constantly seeking the higher, the greater, the unimaginable as our answer of choice.  The strange thing is that as the answer we are seeking becomes more nuanced and complex the simpler it will begin to seem to us, and we will insist that our highly elaborate–immensely complicated and circumstantial–answer is really the most simple and obvious of them all.  Because by that point we have already accepted the narrative of the conspiracy, where the grand conclusion is being used to fill in the details, instead of the observable details being used to arrive at the most possible conclusion (be it simple or complex).

Precisely because there appears to be something innate about the way the human mind is drawn to conspiracies the ease by which ideas are exchanged in our lifetime makes it a ripe golden age for conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists to thrive.  The reason being that this greater medium of communication, and the great vastness of information available to us in which we can indulge our niche interests, also makes it possible to feel as though we are exploring new pieces of data everyday without ever really having to step outside the conclusions of the particular niche interest we are being drawn to.  Given enough time, we’ll cease wanting to hear from an opposing view contradicting the knowledge we have invested so much time in attaining.  The deeper secrets we have learned will become a part of the way we view and interact with the world.  In short, the conspiracy will become a part of your identity, a personal matter for you to defend, and all competing and alternative data will work only to confirm what you already have accepted to be true.  Reducing reality to a matter of popular vs fringe consensus, the veracity of which is to be decided based on how titillating it is to one’s cynically credulous senses.