Steven Novella, the Ambivalent Blasphemer

At SkepticBlog this past week, Steven Novella endorses blasphemy as social protest (sort of): 

There are those, for example, who champion blasphemy as a form of social protest. PZ, Penn and Teller, Christopher Hitchens and others argue that nothing should be sacred. While individuals have the right to treat anything they want as sacred, they do not have the right to request that anyone else does so (a principle with which I agree). Some choose to make this point by going out of their way to blaspheme what others consider sacred – especially when they are being requested to respect the sacred. They have a right to this form of protest and free speech and I think it is important.

I am with Steven Novella here. I think that blasphemy must be a form of protected speech. If you think that the religions of Mohammad, the Apostle Paul, and Joseph Smith are hilarious bullshit, you need not keep your mouth shut about them if you don’t want to.

But notice, in the above quote, the definition of blasphemy implied by Steven Novella: people “request” that you respect the sacred, but you do not comply with the request; and you even “go out of your way to blaspheme.” But the obvious follow-up question for Steven Novella is this: what if there is no “request” at all, but a demand  that one not blaspheme? Obviously, I’m thinking of a couple of recent incidents of blatant threat and social coercion directed at secularists (as in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Mohammad cartoon incident, and Ireland’s blasphemy law).

Under such circumstances, the ground of action surely must shift, for now we are looking at outright attacks on freedom of speech. Under such conditions, isn’t nonresponsiveness cowardice?

And this is what makes Steven Novella’s next paragraph in his post all the more problematic, because he begins to chisel away at the circumstances under which blasphemy is appropriate, shifting from people  “requesting” non-blasphemy to circumstances  that “require” non-blasphemy:    

But also, not everyone should be expected to engage in this form of free speech. This has a lot to do with personality and style. It also has to do with (as PZ acknowledges) division of labor and specialization within the skeptical movement. I would add that context is also important – some venues and topics require more professionalism and courtesy than others. I would not go to a medical conference and decide that I needed to offend everyone’s religion just to make a point.

I see two problems here:

  • First, there is the danger, in following Steven Novella’s advice (because he makes a “division of labor” in the skeptical movement), that the braver skeptics among us might be left dangling in the wind when “requests” become requirements or threats.
  • Second, Steven Novella conflates blasphemy with general offense, as when he says, “I would not go to a medical conference and decide that I needed to offend everyone’s religion just to make a point.”

But declining to risk offense to “everyone’s religion” is a pretty big rhetorical decision, for there are lots of important points to be made in the public square that require risks of offense. Here are a couple:

  • You may be a biologist speaking on the origin of humans and say this: “Contra the Book of Genesis, the first humans did not come from Mesopotamia, but Africa.”
  • You may be a professor who thinks it important, for purposes of discussion, to continue to call the “Age of Faith” in medieval Europe the “Dark Ages.”
  • You may be a neuroscientist who, in speaking to a general audience, breaks the bad news to them that you have concluded that human beings have neither souls nor free will, and that, on these matters, the monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christiantiy, and Isalm—are not coherent.
  • You may be an English professor tasked with teaching the Bible as Literature (as I have been) being put in the awkward position of sharing with your students why scholars don’t think Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (even though tradition has long said that he did).

All of these circumstances risk offense and perceptions of “blasphemy,” and it is conceivable that you can avoid the topics altogether. The biologist, for example, might just drop the mention of Genesis and say, “Humans came from Africa,” and leave it at that.

But why should he or she do that? In what contexts must we be dishonest in life—and deprive others of our genuine thoughts? Must we be quiet at Thankgiving dinner, in the classroom, at work, on the Internet? Where are the strains of free speech to be felt, if not where we live?

And the charge of blasphemy or offense is largely something one person uses to shut up another person. It is rare that a person ever really  is offended by a remark or argument, however obnoxious. Instead, crying “offense” tends to be a highly manipulative ploy: an appeal  to hurt feelings. When, for example, you are in the midst of a family drama or argument, and another family member says, “You hurt my feelings,” we understand that this is a way of saying,

Time out! If we are going to remain a family, you must not crack the inner integrity of our communication with one another. You must respect that, because I can’t bear to hear what you’re saying.

In such circumstances, the family member thrust into the paternal position (as in, “I’m responsible for another family member’s feelings”) usually backs off, but, if it is an argument between adults, not without a sigh, and even perhaps resentment.

And so one can see why this paternal family drama model of communication—feelings trump directness—becomes pernicious when applied to the larger public square. If we are to live in a rational and diverse society, adults must participate in it with the full expectation that it will rarely conform to their most deeply held beliefs and feelings. Part of being an adult is to see and hear things that you don’t like, or even hate, and tolerating them for the sake of guarding each of our rights to conscience and free expression. Unlike in paternal family dynamics, what must be given first protection is the intellect, not the emotions.

And so, contra Steven Novella, I don’t think that we should be buying into the paternal model of society at any level. We should not, in other words, accept that some adults can’t hear things, and that there are contexts in which we must withhold our honest thoughts (for the sake of the “children” in our midst). For the health of our society, we should be pushing against such barriers, wherever erected, and not complying with them (let alone endorsing them). Instead, we should be working for a society in which the culture fully endorses this proposition: honesty in communication is a virtue, and adults can hear things.

But, of course, this entails an additional principle. If we are not in a parent-child relationship to other adults in our society, it is also true that we ought to at least aspire to being one another’s brothers and sisters, and so treat everyone in the democratic community with empathy and respect. Steven Novella is wrestling with a difficult question (as we all must), and trying to find a tolerable balance between mind and heart (again, as we all must).

That’s one of the lessons of the Oresteiaboth Apollo (the critical intellect) and the Dionysian furies (nature and the emotions) have their domains within the life of Athens, and getting the balance right between them can be devilishly difficult.

And mythologically, one of the traits that Prometheus gave human beings is balance and perspective. As Ovid says (in Tales from Ovid, 8):

Though all the beasts

Hang their heads from horizontal backbones

And study the earth

Beneath their feet, Prometheus

Upended man into the vertical—

So to comprehend the balance.

Then tipped up his chin

So to widen his outlook on heaven.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Steven Novella, the Ambivalent Blasphemer

  1. Pingback: A Thoroughly Awesome Take on Civility in Public Discourse from Terry Teachout (and George Washington) « Prometheus Unbound

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