A program of the Center for Inquiry
What we now celebrate as International Blasphemy Rights Day (IBRD) bubbled up from the grassroots.
The story begins in January 2009, when Johann Hari published an article in The Independent titled “Why Should I Respect These Oppressive Religions?” After India’s The Statesman reprinted the article, riots and demonstrations took place outside of its Calcutta offices. Both the editor and the publisher were arrested for “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims, and The Statesman and the editor issued public apologies for running the article.
Several students on a CFI–Canada campus leader Listserv expressed concerns about even ostensibly secular states such as India enforcing laws that protect religious fundamentalists from, in essence, hurt feelings. They wondered what they could do to draw international attention to these issues. Derek Madson, president of a student group at the University of Victoria (British Columbia), shared a link to a new Facebook group called “Blasphemy Day International” (BDI), which had been launched by a student group in the southeastern United States. Madson suggested: “One at a time we can be silenced, intimidated, picked off or—in the case of someone like Theo van Gogh—murdered. But all together we have more power. A small group can be silenced or marginalized, but a large group can’t be. . . . I think we should really get behind this project as a group!” I heartily agreed and reached out to BDI group administrators to see how we might work together.
In April, a BDI admin (who asked to remain anonymous) e-mailed me an outline of the Blasphemy Day ideas his CFI campus group had brainstormed: “The idea is to declare September 30th ‘Blasphemy Day,’ and to encourage local groups and individuals to organize public acts of blasphemy or honoring blasphemy.” September 30 had been chosen to mark the anniversary of the date when the Danish tabloid Jyllands-Posten published its famous Muhammad cartoons in 2005. The admin continued: “[W]hat I’m ultimately seeking in speaking with the rest of CFI is to have CFI adopt it as an official project.” He mentioned that he and others tried to reach out to other United States–based secular organizations with little success. (One responded that as its name reflected, its focus was not on international problems but on American ones.)
My personal interest in defending free expression against religious sentiments had blossomed when I lost a scholarship for asking the wrong kinds of questions at a Catholic high school. (It wasn’t an earth-shattering experience, but my teenage self found it quite traumatic.) From an organizational perspective, I was proud that Free Inquiry was the first U.S. publication to reprint several of the Danish Muhammad cartoons, a decision Paul Kurtz and Tom Flynn had defended in the Council for Secular Humanism newsletter, Secular Humanist Bulletin:
The right of expression is precious and needs to be defended. Political satire is a vital part of any exchange of ideas and values in a democratic society. The pen is mightier than the sword. It should not be censored. . . . There is currently a movement worldwide to prohibit any form of expression that blasphemes a religion; cartoons critical of religion would no doubt be considered blasphemous. We need to defend that right—to affirm the right to blaspheme by exercising it. . . . If Free Inquiry had not printed these caricatures, that would betray the principles that we believe in.
It seemed clear that the Blasphemy Day International initiative aligned with CFI’s mission and values. I sent a proposal to CFI’s Management Committee and was encouraged to see it met with great enthusiasm. One committee member responded, “If this is not a good fit for our organization, I don’t know what is.”
Our ad hoc campaign committee soon grew to about a dozen staff members. My Outreach colleague Lauren Becker noted that September 30 usually falls during the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. She suggested that the campaign focus on free speech issues, citing a slogan coined by then–CFI Canada Executive Director Justin Trottier: “Ideas don’t have rights. People have rights.”
There were, however, other visions of how Blasphemy Day might develop. A CFI staff member shared an exchange from the still-independent BDI Facebook group in which a commenter asked about the wisdom of suggestions to include references to pigs with drawings of Muhammad. An admin replied, “Muhammad fucking a pig DOES represent a very strong philosophical position: the position that religion is completely and utterly undeserving of respect. . . . If someone tells you you CAN’T, it DOES mean you SHOULD.” Reading that, I envisioned a handful of scrappy atheists somewhere in Texas (why not?) demonstrating outside the capitol with posters and signs depicting Muhammad engaged in various obscene activities . . . and little CFI logos in the poster corners. Let’s just say that this was not what we had in mind.
So I amended the original proposal. “What I imagine is this,” I wrote: “We can do something like a ‘Campaign for Free Expression,’ perhaps as a fall campaign. Blasphemy Day would be one (small) part of this. We’d also aim to have [CFI branch and campus] events around Banned Books Week/Blasphemy Day on censorship, being anti–anti-defamation, etc. But we’d shape this to the focus of free expression, free speech, ‘people, not ideas, have rights,’ and so on.
“We would approach this from an international perspective,” I continued. “Canada . . . doesn’t have a guaranteed right to free speech, and so CFI–Canada could focus on limits on speech proposed and enforced by the Human Rights Commission (as they’ve been doing). [Former CFI United Nations representative] Austin Dacey can make contributions about the UN’s declaration and the effects of stifling speech. We can talk about the journalists in Muslim countries who are jailed for speaking out. We do these things anyway, but they would be tied together as part of this larger campaign highlighting a very important part of CFI’s mission—to promote free speech and open inquiry, the values of democracy, and so on. . . .” There was broad support for this idea.
On June 18, 2009, CFI officially announced the Campaign for Free Expression, featuring a bold campaign image with the tagline “Ideas Don’t Need Rights—People Do. Protect Dissent.” Over the next few months, CFI staff members and volunteers strove to promote the campaign. Outreach staff worked with CFI branches to share ideas and organize diverse events on or around September 30. I promoted the Campaign at that year’s summer CFI Leadership and Secular Student Alliance conferences. CFI also posted several videos highlighting the importance of free expression and worked with online volunteers to spread the word on social media.
Fast forward to late September, when we started seeing the results of the campaign. Dozens of campus groups, community groups, and CFI branches had hosted creative events addressing banned books, free expression, censorship, and blasphemy. In addition to supporting and promoting these events, CFI ran several free expression-themed contests. Winners of the student essay contest on “The Importance of Free Expression and Its Limits (If Any)” included an American student finishing her PhD at Oxford and a South African student attending the University of Stellenbosch. CFI also announced a Blasphemy Contest open to the general public; contestants submitted “a phrase, poem, or statement that would be, or would have been, considered blasphemous.” The five winners were from the United States, Ireland, Canada, and Thailand. The winning phrases, including the grand-prize winner (and my personal favorite) “Faith is no reason,” were made available on T-shirts. Finally, the Council for Secular Humanism launched a Free Expression Cartoon Contest and published the winners in the June/July 2010 issue of Free Inquiry.
All this drew significant press attention, most of it favorable. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the aspects that didn’t go as smoothly. The day before the biggest events, CFI founder Paul Kurtz posted a CFI blog post titled “A Dissenting View About Blasphemy Day.” Responding to a “blasphemous” art show sponsored by CFI–Washington, D.C., and the Blasphemy Contest, he wrote: “The celebrating of ‘Blasphemy Day’ by the Center for Inquiry by sponsoring a contest encouraging new forms of blasphemy, I believe is most unwise. It betrays the civic virtues of democracy. . . . When we defended the right of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons deploring the violence of Muslim suicide bombers, we were supporting freedom of the press. . . . But for CFI itself to sponsor the lampooning of Christianity by encouraging anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, or any other anti-religious cartoons goes beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in pluralistic society.” Ronald A. Lindsay quickly responded with a post defending CFI’s decision to sponsor Blasphemy Day. Kurtz responded to this a few days later.
This exchange of views figured in some press coverage of Blasphemy Day. A National Public Radio segment titled “A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists” came out in mid-October. In the piece, Barbara Bradley Hagerty interviewed Kurtz, Lindsay, and others to describe a bizarre “schism” between the newer “atheist fundamentalists” and the “Old School.” The story contained several factual errors; among other things, it mis-described PZ Myers’s infamous desecration of a communion wafer (which he actually performed in July 2008) as a Blasphemy Day event.
Overall, even considering the rough patches, the first-ever Blasphemy Day International and related events for the Campaign for Free Expression were successful. The campaign demonstrated international reach and focused attention on the threats to the right of individuals to express their viewpoints, opinions, and beliefs about all subjects.
After careful consideration, CFI rebranded “Blasphemy Day International” as “International Blasphemy Rights Day” for 2010. The name change more accurately reflected the true objective of the campaign: defending the right to engage in blasphemy. CFI continues to support International Blasphemy Rights Day, while the Campaign for Free Expression has evolved to encompass much of the recent work of CFI’s Office of Public Policy. I’ll briefly mention some of the notable events over the years.
In 2010, CFI launched a Campaign for Free Expression video contest, asking contestants to submit videos about the importance of free expression in the style of public service announcements. Winners were announced just after Blasphemy Day. The August/September 2010 issue of Free Inquiry highlighted “Free Thought and Free Speech on Campus.”
In 2012, Michael De Dora, CFI’s director of Public Policy, spearheaded an effort to update the Campaign for Free Expression website to reflect the work he had engaged in through CFI’s Office of Public Policy and his new position as CFI’s representative to the United Nations. The updated website highlighted individual cases including those of Raif Badawi, Alexander Aan, Sanal Edamaruku, Pussy Riot, Asia Bibi, and Asif Mohiuddin, among others. The redesigned “Take Action” section also listed potential actions for individual activists, including writing to foreign leaders and contacting UN officials.
In coordination with other national and international organizations, in the spring of 2013 De Dora organized “Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh” to draw attention to Bangladeshi bloggers who had recently been imprisoned for blasphemy and “anti-religious” comments. Demonstrations were held on April 25 and May 2 of that year in New York; Washington, D.C.; Ottawa, Canada; London, England; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and other cities.
For International Blasphemy Rights Day 2013, CFI announced a Twitter contest seeking the most powerful tweet on the importance of the right to criticize religion.
At present, secular campus and community groups continue to organize events each September, and writers post articles highlighting blasphemy rights and free expression to mark the occasion. And each September 29 and 30, the CFI Outreach team steps up our social media outreach on the sometimes-raucous IBRD Facebook page and Twitter account to expand the campaign’s reach. (We start the online blitz on what seems to be September 29 here in the eastern United States because it’s already Blasphemy Day in New Zealand.)
Unfortunately, due to recent events—including the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the murder of four secular bloggers in Bangladesh since the new year—issues of free expression and blasphemy rights are more salient than ever. The campaigns’ goals continue to be relevant, so we will continue using the Campaign for Free Expression and International Blasphemy Rights Day initiatives to educate, raise awareness, and mobilize people to take action around these issues at the grassroots, national, and international levels.
As former student Derek Madson wrote, “A small group can be silenced or marginalized, but a large group can’t be.”
Center for Inquiry (Blasphemy Day 2009 announcements):
Hagert, Barbara Bradley. 2009. “A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists.” National Public Radio, October 19. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113889251. Accessed August 11, 2015.
Hari, Johann. 2009. “Why Should I Respect These Oppressive Religions?” The Independent, January 28. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-why-should-i-respect-these-oppressive-religions-1517789.html. Accessed August 11, 2015.
Kurtz, Paul. 2009. “A Dissenting View About Blasphemy Day,” September 29. http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/a_disssenting_view_about_blashphemy_day/. Accessed August 11, 2015.
Kurtz, Paul, and Tom Flynn. 2006. “Was It Right to Publish the Islam Cartoons? YES: In Defense of Blasphemy.” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Spring. Available online at http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/3454.
Lindsay, Ronald A. “2009. Two Different Understandings of Blasphemy—Two Different Visions of CFI.” September 29. http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/two_different_understandings_of_blasphemy_--_two_different_visions_of_cfi/. Accessed August 11, 2015.
Debbie Goddard is vice president for Outreach at the Center for Inquiry.