Blasphemy Rights Day is a defense of free speech
Published: Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 12:10
Last Thursday, the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers held its second annual Blasphemy Rights Day event. The goal was to raise awareness about free speech and the right to criticize ideas without fear of retaliation. We wanted people to recognize that ideas don't have rights, but people do, and dissent and criticism of ideas should not be met with threats of violence. Additionally, we wanted the day to be a jumping-off point for conversations about blasphemy and free expression.
Unfortunately though, I think that a lot of our message was totally lost on some students. We went to great lengths this year to publicize our intentions for the event in advance so that people would know exactly what we were doing and why we were doing it. More than a few Christians on campus took the day as an attack on religion, and their response was to chalk back friendly, happy messages about God's love for everyone.
They never saw the larger discussion that we were trying to spark. Imagine if you asked someone, "Should free speech be protected, even if you disagree with it? Even if it offends you?" and they replied with "Jesus loves you." It's a conversational dead end.
Not everyone fell into that trap though. One vocal Christian on campus, Mikayla Thompson, commented on our blog at unifreethought.com in order to express her frustrations at the religious response to the event. She lamented that many Christians "seem to prefer to chalk a nice Bible verse, and complain to their other Christian friends about how mean the UNIFI people are for speaking against their God. They could openly profess their faith and share their opinion at a faith forum and meet people that have a different belief, and heaven forbid, maybe even make a friend that happens to be an atheist. But rather than doing these things, they call people names behind their back and whine about others simply exercising their free speech."
This is exactly how I felt, and I heard something similar from many others throughout the day, both religious and secular. Of course, it's not entirely the fault of the Christian groups on campus that our intentions were lost on them. Many people assumed that this year would be a free-for-all attack on religion, despite our huge publicity blitz prior to the event itself.
What I would love to see in the future though, in an ideal world, is an end to the knee-jerk reactions to criticism of religious ideas (and secular ideas) on campus, and for those criticisms to be the starting points for discussion between people of differing views. I don't want people to only care about these issues on days when they feel like they are under attack. To quote Mikayla once again, "I'm all about getting your opinion and beliefs out there, especially when there is opportunity to engage and befriend people that have an opposing opinion, but it seems so silly that many Christians only care about sharing their opinion on blasphemy (rights) day."
It's my sincere hope that our event will lead to further discussions in the future, and that people will not be afraid to expose their beliefs to criticism and discussion, and will not be afraid to criticize and discuss the beliefs of others. The progress of mankind can be measured by people challenging the beliefs of those with whom they disagree, and the outcome of those discussions almost always leads to a better world for everyone.
UNIFI stood proudly on Blasphemy Rights Day in support of the right to free expression, and it would be a shame if people didn't exercise that right, but instead tried to stifle discussion, or tried to avoid it with really nice-sounding platitudes. You have heard how UNIFI feels about blasphemy; we would absolutely love to know what you think.