....which is to say, my mother's 89th birthday. Well, except that she sort of missed the occasion by three years and a few months. So I guess that means she won't be wanting any cake or candles.
What, you thought I meant some other kind of day? Well, Mom was never much of a blasphemer. I mean, she was an agnostic all her adult life, which I guess counts for something in that department. But she was really a rather quiet, reserved woman. About the closest she ever got to overt blasphemy was that, in moments of frustration, she would mutter "Damn!" under her breath (which these days, hardly counts as blasphemy at all). And that's probably about the limit for an English girl of her generation.
Personally, I'm not big into explicit blasphemy. Even my hammer-on-thumb expletives tend to draw on the lexicon of bodily function, rather than theology. So I'm a bit ambivalent about Blasphemy Day. Somehow, it smacks of the big boys on the playground teaching some little kid all the naughty words. To me, just saying "God doesn't exist" remains a quite sufficient blasphemy -- what else needs to be said?
But my ambivalence goes deeper than that.
One chief aim of Blasphemy Day is to make it safe to diss religion. Trouble is, I've not personally spent much time in any space where religion-dissing wasn't safe. To start with, my family of origin was agnostic. My parents didn't run down religion, but they thought it was false, and told me so. When I hit the cynical adolescent stage, religion was certainly among my targets. And then when I did get religion myself, it was one that in the local context was a somewhat eccentric minority sect -- and I do this while I'm in an age group that punishes non-conformity (not that I ever had much chance of being part of the in-crowd: I was a hopelessly geeky misfit, even without the religion). Then I go off to university, and where I am conspicuously not into certain prominent facets of dorm life. So my religion, at least, was never quite respectable. A few years later I finally get into a more mainstream religion -- and soon after that, I discover Usenet, where absolutely nothing is sacred, or off-limits.
So for most of my Christian period, I seemed to have a talent for innocently wandering into free-fire zones.
Now I'm an atheist -- and therefore part of another minority religious group (using "religious" here in a loose sense). And yeah: Danish Mohamed cartoons, rampant Islamism, thin-skinned Irishmen passing anti-blasphemy statutes, the Smallkowski affair and all the other small-minded small-town bigotry that percolates out of the American hinterland by way of the internet these days -- I know all that, but very little of it is here, in Ottawa, in my face. So let's not overstate the case: in this particular neck of the woods, we have it pretty easy.
It may be that my very first personal encounter with the Thou Shalt Respect Religion meme was in the context of the Ottawa Atheist Bus Campaign, in which several city councillors thought that their personal offense at the rather mild advertisement was grounds for controlling other people's speech rights. And that experience made me realize something: we don't, in pluralistic, liberal urban Ontario, go in for the kind of bare-knuckle bigotry of some places.What we've done instead is, in a very polite-Canadian way, to bury the religion debate and agree not to discuss it. There may not be a lot of overt piety in the Canadian character, but there's a lot of Dennett's "faith in faith" -- it's a Good Thing, so don't question it too hard. That's Not Nice. Running the bus ads broke that taboo -- hence the reaction.
So a few of us (I don't know how many; I'm not planning it) are apparently celebrating Blasphemy Day by going downtown tonight wearing appropriately irreverent T-shirts. I'm going, because I think that taboo should stay broken. Because I think the thin-skinned types who wanted to squelch the bus ads should continue to be offended and uncomfortable, until they get over their own self-importance. Because I think unbelief should advertise itself the same as belief does, daily, on every corner where there is a church or mosque or synagogue. Because I think that, opening that space for out-and-explicit unbelief here helps to open it everywhere.
Because I think.