Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Today's the Day

....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.


AJM said...

It's really beautifully true, here.

I mean, I always sorta feel I gotta do my bit, hearing the horror stories out of the bible belt... kids whose parents freak out if they catch 'em reading anything not on the Sunday School's reading list... So sure, I'll happily, say a few words, make it clear: this is BS, I think so, a lot of people think so... If you think you're alone, get this part clear: you're not.

But right now, where I'm having lunch, at the next table a coupla 60-somethin' or 65-somethin' guys are shooting the shit over their coffee... And the conversation's been bits of 'yeah... my kid's thinking of marrying a Catholic... just warning her what she's getting into with priests and the like... Lotta BS comes from there...'

Don't even know if they're so much godless. But it's the very attitude. He says, explicitly: I wanted my kids to think for 'emselves. I want my grandkids to think for 'emselves, too...

It's no big thing, being godless here, for most of us. There's griping from some quarters, sure, but you make your way without much trouble, easily enough.

Me, I forget about Blasphemy Day. Again.

What can I say. I was busy. I'll make a note to be slightly more sarcastic about various superstitions for the next week...

(/Sure, that's setting something of a bar... But penance, y'know...)

Jayne said...

Do your thoughts about the importance of free speech in bus ads extend to ads that refer to homosexuality being a sin? These have been prevented by the Human Rights Commission. Were they violating people's right to free speech or was this appropriate?

Eamon Knight said...

Well, that requires a bit of untangling.

First, I'm mostly convinced that sec.13 of the CHRA should be scrapped, and the HRCs should get out of the speech-regulating business altogether (my reservations are the subject of yet another Blog Post That I Really Should Get Around To Writing).

However, that really doesn't answer the question, as even without referring to specific hate-speech legislation the transit authorities can legitimately refuse some ads -- I'm sure we can both think of expressions that we would agree should be legally allowable somewhere, but are still not appropriate for bus-side display. So the question becomes: could the transit authority legitimately refuse an ad from a religious group calling homosexuality a sin?

I don't know what the advertising policies are, but I imagine it's got something to do with "offense" -- a concept I find problematic). My own inclination would be to lean towards the free-speech side, though it might depend on the exact wording. For example, merely saying "Homosexuality is a sin" is a true statement to the effect that the speaker's god doesn't like homosexuality -- to which my response is to simply ignore the speaker and his little god, too. And maybe to kick in a few bucks for a counter-campaign. But I think I would draw the line at saying something like "Gays are gross". Such a statement is not a simple equivalent to the Atheist Bus slogan, as it constitutes an attack on people, specifically on a group which has been a historical target of abuse. "There's Probably No God" OTOH insults no one but God, who presumably can defend his own dignity should he care to. So I think there's a legitimate argument to be made for refusing ads of that nature.