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God doesn’t mind blasphemy, but we do

Religious feelings, bullying, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Two editors stake out the issues four years after the Mohammed cartoons

»Danes are know-it-alls and religious illiterates«.

Erik Bjerager isn’t pulling any punches with his opening line at the Theological Association’s blasphemy debate in Copenhagen.
Looking around the surprisingly full basement, it is clear that no offence has been taken.

The audience clearly hasn’t missed the unspoken addendum ‘present company excepted’.

It’s not about God

In 17th Century Denmark, blasphemers had their tongue cut out and were executed.

»Derision of God was the same as mockery of the King, who was considered a part of the church,« explains Erik Bjerager, the editor of the Christian conservative daily Kristeligt Dagblad.

Blasphemy was a political issue then, and apparently still is, although your tongue is a lot safer these days.

It’s quickly made clear that any modern discussion of blasphemy is not about looking out for God’s best interests.

»Blasphemy has gone from being a derision of God, to being an affront to individuals’ religious feelings,« Erik Bjerager explains.

Holy bust-up

Tøger Seidenfaden, editor of the centre-left daily Politiken agrees, saying that »using the concept of blasphemy to protect God makes absolutely no sense at all«.

Neither deigns to elaborate the point, as it’s so boringly obvious: Insults are clearly not an issue for one as almighty as, well, the Almighty.

At this point, I am hoping that someone, of any religious persuasion, will jump in and wildly protest that God does have feelings and that it does matter what we say or write about Him. A bit of religious rabble rousing would brighten up my evening no end.

No luck there. The closest we get to a holy bust-up comes later. The bashful heckler next to me hisses under his breath »polish your halo!« at Tøger Seidenfaden’s self-congratulatory tone concerning his newspaper Politiken’s coverage of the cartoon crisis. Oh well.

Blasphemy law and masturbation

On the controversial issues of the Danish Blasphemy law, the two editors agree that it’s a good idea to leave it be, at least for the time being.

The law was last invoked in 1938 to punish Nazi Anti-Semitism, although, fairly recently, Danish stand-up comedian Uffe Holm came close in 2005 when he made a joke involving crucifixion and masturbation through Christ’s nail-perforated hand. Blasphemy? Maybe. Funny? No.

According to Erik and Tøger, two groups are particularly interested in getting rid of the Blasphemy paragraph:

The first is the right-wing political party Dansk Folkeparti (DF), who are concerned that the paragraph may be abused by a (Muslim) religious minority to threaten Danishness. Actually DF are no strangers to tactless religious comments.

Just this week, the Party leader Pia Kjærsgaard described Muhammad as »a crazy, self-proclaimed prophet […] who yapped up in the 7th Century«.

The second group are Christians who protest the law’s theological soundness, claiming that »God should not be defended in a courtroom, as this is raising the servant above the master«.

Atheist’s conversion

Interestingly, atheist Tøger Seidenfaden used to be a staunch critic of the law. He was ‘converted’ on the day, in the throes of the cartoon crisis, when a few misguided Danes threatened to burn a Quran in the middle of the city square in Copenhagen. But for the existence of this much debated paragraph, the police would have had no power to intervene.

Fortunately, no books were burned that day.

Tøger realised that the law might have its uses in upholding public order when things go to extremes.
Indeed, the law comes under ‘Crimes against the public order and peace’, just after the dubious sounding law against ‘improper conduct with a corpse’. Oh dear me. I think that law is probably best left alone, too.

The introductory speeches conclude that self-regulation and common decency are the way forward and that ‘religiously illiterate’ Denmark is just not ready for a change. Also abolishing the law would be a dangerous signal, which may be interpreted as an incitement to insulting or offensive remarks, ‘because we can’.

Just a picture, for God’s sake!

Enough has been written and said about the infamous Muhammad cartoons, but it is the anniversary, and an article on blasphemy wouldn’t be the same without them, so here goes.

For those of you who were doing extensive field work in a jungle at the time, the cartoons were published in the Danish broadsheet Jyllands-Posten after the author of a childrens book about the Prophet accused cartoonists of self-censorship when they wouldn’t illustrate his book.

Half a year later, Danish embassies and numerous flags (some of them Icelandic, but hey, anyone can make a mistake) had burned, and Danish companies in the Middle East felt the effects to their bottom line.

Perfection no laughing matter

Eric Bjerager has a theological explanation to what went wrong. Theologically speaking, the explanation for the long tradition of jokes about Jews and Christians – which are unproblematic as long as you do it in a sort of friendly kind of a way, and as long as you only joke about your own religion – is that the central figures of these religions are not considered to be perfect. They have human failings and are therefore ‘fair game’.

Muhammad, on the other hand, is considered by believers to be the only perfect human being. He is therefore no laughing matter.

On the other hand, as Tøger Seidenfaden logically points out, that still makes him a person, and this lies at the root of the ban on pictorial representations of Muhammad. The point of the ban is to prevent idol worship and maintain the purity of Islamic monotheism.

Bullying, not theology

Whatever the purpose of the infamous cartoons, it was certainly not to raise the Prophet to the level of God. So the problem with the cartoons is actually not theological at all, argues Seidenfaden. It is about bullying a minority.

Does that mean we should just say pleasant things about Muhammad and be done with it? Not according to our two speakers. There is a big difference between religious critique and ridicule, says Seidenfaden, and religions should be respected on the same level as race, sexuality and political persuasion, as they are so fundamental to human identity that they cannot be considered a choice.

Too silly to deserve respect?

This statement led to my favourite question of the evening. Do all religious feelings, even the feelings of members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Jedi Church, deserve to be respected on the same level as race, sexuality and political persuasion, or are some simply too silly to be taken seriously?

Tøger is rash enough to call the Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster and Jedi religions ‘absurd’. I wouldn’t dare, personally.

Never mind religious sentiments, those Jedi know some pretty scary mind tricks, and who knows what Spaghetti monsters would do, if provoked.

Apparently religions have to earn respect, just like the rest of us. To deserve a solemn tone, they have to be around for a long time, have lots of followers and get involved in public debates, says Tøger. But bullying is always a no-no, no matter how silly things get.