All Things Bold and Blasphemous

Tom Flynn

Happy International Blasphemy Rights Day (IBRD)!

Secular humanists and other free-speech stalwarts celebrate IBRD each September 30. For more on the observance, see my Introduction to this issue’s cov er feature, “Art, Blasphemy, and Humanism”. That feature presents the work of two freethinking—and gleefully blasphemous—artists. Another such artist’s work adorns this issue’s cover. Adam LaMonica used mixed media and PhotoShop to create a series of secular, even blasphemous, images designed and composed within the forms of Greek Orthodox iconography. He calls the series “Unlikely Icons.”

Reproduced with this editorial are three more icons from the series. Robert Green Ingersoll is shown displaying tablets that bear his best-loved aphorism. Ingersoll admirers may find his depiction in iconographic style startling—though it’s worth noting that “the Great Agnostic” appears sans the traditional halo.

Giordano Bruno does get the halo treatment. He clutches a sealed volume of his works, banned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. More provocatively, he holds a golden cross upside-down. Presumably this alludes to the degree to which Bruno’s religious views, inflected as they were by the youthful sciences, would ultimately overturn large parts of the Christian worldview.

Finally, what can possibly be said of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Perhaps only this: “Beware his noodly appendage, lest sauce be flicked upon you.”

A moment’s contemplation of these three icons should make clear what distinguishes them from this issue’s cover image. On the cover, the halo is empty. The caption says “Prophet Muhammad,” but no one is there, reflecting a bitter fact: because some Muslims consider any depiction of their religion’s founder blasphemous and because some are willing to enforce that judgment not just within their own faith community but upon the world at large—and, too often, violently—none of us can make, publish, or even view images of Muhammad.

“And that’s why we can’t have nice things,” I was tempted to write. But then I didn’t. After all, that might be blasphemous.

Dark humor aside, Free Inquiry has a proud record of defending and, frequently, publishing blasphemous content. In our April/May 2006 issue, we famously reprinted a selection of the famous Danish “Muhammad cartoons,” so named even though few of the images explicitly depicted the founder of Islam. FI was the first U.S. periodical of national circulation to do so, which seems astonishing given that the cartoons, first commissioned by a Danish newspaper, had fomented months of controversy and violence, resulting in more than two hundred deaths. That is to say, the cartoons were news—and in any other context, it would go without saying that news consumers should be able to view the images and judge for themselves. Whether out of misplaced regard for Muslim sensibilities or out of cowardice, major American media sources spent late 2005 and early 2006 doggedly refusing to show their audiences what the chaos was all about. After FI published some of the images, the magazine was pulled from the shelves of two national bookstore chains that no longer exist. (I’m quite sure there’s no connection.) A few months later, Harper’s magazine ran a splashy cover feature on the cartoons. That feature republished each Danish cartoon multiple times, amplified by a magisterial analysis from graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. No newsstands were bombed; no Harper’s staffers were targeted. The lesson should then have been learned once and for all: America the free is safe for blasphemy. Sadly, very few would dare follow where FI and later Harper’s had led.

The April/May 2006 issue of FI also featured “Representation in Islam,” an article by then–Center for Inquiry research fellow Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim. Warraq documented what others have noted before and since: contrary to the assertion of today’s radical Islamists, aniconism—the prohibition of representational images—is far from universal in Islam. At various times and in various countries, it has been utterly acceptable to depict Allah or his prophet in art. Today’s near-unanimous conviction that images of Allah or Muhammad are always and everywhere haram (forbidden) is an error of our own day, a product of the interaction between a recent resurgence of Islamist radicalism and a weirdly prickly expression of political correctness in the West.

In the years since, FI has revisited the issue of blasphemy several times. In September 2009, the Center for Inquiry observed the first Blasphemy Day, a precursor of IBRD, by (among other things) holding a blasphemy contest. The contest winners were announced in the February/March 2010 issue.

In its October/November 2015 issue, FI reprinted a wickedly clever Bosch Fostin cartoon, winner of a “Draw Muhammad” contest sponsored by a right-leaning group. Two homegrown jihadis had been shot dead by security personnel during a failed attack on the contest site in Garland, Texas. In an Escheresque composition, a menacing, sword-wielding Arab man (Muhammad? You decide.) snarls “You can’t draw me!”—to which the largely out-of-frame artist, the curve of whose drawing hand counterpoints the composition of the Arab figure, calmly replies, “That’s why I draw you.”

In its December 2016/January 2017 issue, FI republished a cartoon by the anonymous artist “M80″ depicting a recently “martyred” jihadi lying in bed between two young women in a desert tent, asking a voyeuristically peering Allah to grab him some refreshments. That cartoon cost the life of Jordanian blogger Nahed Hattar, who had republished it on his blog and was assassinated on his way to court to face blasphemy charges.

Most recently, in our June/July 2017 issue, FI published a cover feature on blasphemy in the political realm. One of the contributors was Flemming Rose, the editor who first commissioned the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2005.

Blasphemy, they say, is a victimless crime. Yet blasphemers themselves too often become its victims. Blasphemy will retain a home—and a defender—in Free Inquiry.

Planning Ahead for a Silver Celebration
(Save the Date!)

If you are planning a visit to New York State’s Finger Lakes region, you still have a few weeks to visit North America’s only freethought museum. The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, New York (on the west shore of Seneca Lake), will be open weekends through the end of October 2017. But my sights are already set on next season.

You see, the Ingersoll Museum first welcomed the public in 1993. That means the 2018 season will be the Museum’s twenty-fifth. (Want to feel old? Recognize that something you helped to build will soon mark its silver anniversary.) I’m proud to say that we have a stem-winding celebration in the works.

But first, some background. Freethought orator Robert Ingersoll was born in the house in 1833. His family left Dresden four months later, never to return. Ingersoll, of course, raised a Civil War regiment and after the war emerged as a top-tier lawyer; a leading Republican speechmaker (keep telling yourself: “The party of Lincoln, the party of Lincoln”); and, of course, an outspoken agnostic, the most electrifying figure in America’s Golden Age of public oratory. While Ingersoll’s later residences in places such as Peoria, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and New York City were demolished, the neglected wood-frame former parsonage where his life began survived. It was restored twice before: in 1921 by a blue-ribbon committee and in 1954 by a group led by atheist activist Joseph Lewis. Each time, interest and funds ran out after a handful of years.

In 1987 CODESH´1, a precursor of Free Inquiry’s copublisher, the Council for Secular Humanism, purchased the house and its two-acre lot for a mere $7,000. Abandoned since the late 1960s, the historic building was near collapse. CODESH raised and spent close to $300,000—at the time, the organization’s largest capital campaign—stabilizing and restoring the structure. My close involvement began in 1992, when I designed the museum that would occupy the building’s public areas. (Strange but true: I was chosen for that job because of my prior experience designing “haunted house” fundraisers in legacy buildings in the Midwest.) The Ingersoll Museum opened for the 1993 season, and under the Council’s—and later CFI’s—management, it has stayed open every year since. That means that in its third (current) incarnation, the “Inger-Hut” has been open for more years than the 1921 and 1954 restorations combined. And there’s no end in sight; periodic updates and improvements, including a complete interior redesign in 2014, have kept the attraction fresh.

In that context, 2018’s silver-anniversary Museum season will be something in which all secular humanists can take pride. We envision a very special celebration indeed. On the weekend of August 18–19, 2018 (as close as we could get to Ingersoll’s birth date, August 11), we will hold a gala conference in downtown Syracuse, New York, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, adjacent to the campus of Syracuse University. Saturday, August 18, will be given over to lectures, historical presentations, and a banquet. On Sunday, August 19, all-day luxury motorcoach tours will visit one freethought site, one abolitionist site, and one women’s rights site, recognizing the three most important radical-reform causes featured on the Council’s Freethought Trail. Attendees will visit the Ingersoll Museum; the Gerrit Smith Estate and National Abolition Hall of Fame in Peterboro, New York; and the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, New York. (The Gage Center and the Ingersoll Museum are the dual anchors of the Freethought Trail, which collects more than 110 marked and unmarked radical-reform sites in West-Central New York State. To learn more, visit www.freethought-trail.org.)

Plans for the conference are still being firmed up. Watch future issues of Free Inquiry and the Museum’s web page (secularhumanism.org/Ingersoll) for detailed announcements and registration information. If you’ve ever been curious about Robert Ingersoll’s legacy—and especially if you are among the numerous supporters who have contributed to the Museum project over more than two decades—please join us. I very much hope to see you there!

 


Notes

  1. The Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Happy International Blasphemy Rights Day (IBRD)! Secular humanists and other free-speech stalwarts celebrate IBRD each September 30. For more on the observance, see my Introduction to this issue’s cover feature, “Art, Blasphemy, and Humanism”.

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