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International Blasphemy Day Post: the Gods as a Foreign Policy Problem

September 30, 2009

The idea of celebrating today, September 30, as International Blasphemy Day seems to be gaining traction in some circles. The date commemorates the publication in a Danish newspaper, back in 2005, of some cartoons that were supposedly insulting to the Prophet Muhammed. The uproar this caused in the Islamic world was alarming to advocates of free thought and free speech, as was the squeamish reluctance of media outlets in the West to reprint the images so that people could see what all the fuss was about. Hence the need for Blasphemy Day, intended to challenge the “dangerous misconception… that all religious beliefs and ideas deserve respect and are beyond criticism and satire”. This misconception remains a problem in Canada, to put it mildly.

Photo taken from bors blog.

Photo taken from 'bors blog.'

Rather than posting silly pictures of Muhammed, Jesus Christ or the Buddha, I thought I would celebrate Blasphemy Day by engaging in what may be the most blasphemous activity of all – thinking seriously and honestly about religious ideas and their implications. This might seem like a bit of a stretch for a blog that’s supposed to be about Canadian foreign policy, but I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that the gods have Canadian passports. When you pray to a deity, you attempt to enter into your own private dialogue with a power that is every bit as external to Canada as Russia or Japan or the United States.

A deity that demanded public propitiation and sacrifice, then, would be a bit like a foreign country demanding free access to the northwest passage, or else. Canadians would have to balance the cost and bother of the sacrifical ceremonies against the risk of enraging the deity, and decide what level of compliance with the divine commandments was appropriate. If there was a real risk that our cities might be blasted with divine fire if the sacred rites were not performed, surely any responsible government would consider stepping in to make sure the rites were duly carried out. The separation of church and state only works if you have a reasonable sort of deity, not given to sort of brutal collective punishments that are repeatedly documented in the Old Testament.

In Canada, however, I don’t think anyone seriously argues that we need to adopt a state religion in order to avert divine wrath. If we were going to get blasted for our heathenish ways, it probably would have happened a long time ago. We take it for granted that religion is a private matter, and that any punishments meted out to infidels will be either postponed until the individual passes into the next world or inflicted so subtly as to be indistinguishable from simple bad luck. This leaves members of the public free to take their own chances with the gods, worshipping or not under the assumption that any direct consequences will be limited to the person concerned.

A political leader with religious beliefs is in a slightly more ticklish position, however. Stephen Harper highlighted the problem when he recently said that he was more concerned about “God’s verdict” (presumably he was referring to Yahweh) than the verdict of historians. Where Canadian voters fit into this scheme is a matter of some public concern. In Harper’s mind, voters could be:

(a)    Even more important than Yahweh;

(b)   Less important than Yahweh, but more important than historians; or

(c)    Even less important than historians.

Options (b) and (c) are both potentially problematic. After all, they would imply that Harper is more concerned with the will of a distant entity, whose motivations are rather murky and whose very existence is (to say the least) open to question, than with the needs of the Canadian people. The core of the problem is that we really have very little idea of what Harper thinks he needs to do in order to get Yahweh to render a positive verdict. If Yahweh just wants him to be prudent and honest, fair enough. If Yahweh wants him to ensure that man does not lie with man, and that we all honour the sabbath day and keep it holy, then not so much.

This is not to say, even on Blasphemy Day, that no religious person should ever be allowed to become Prime Minister. However, I would argue that religious convictions should be fair game for public discussion, and that politicians who refuse to divulge their beliefs should be viewed with a certain suspicion. If the Prime Minister really feels beholden to some notional gitche manitou, the Canadian public need to know how the demands of the gitche manitou will influence his behaviour in office. And if he says “not at all”, the gitche manitou must be a very indifferent or amorphous thing indeed – an entity hardly worth bothering with.


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