Vriezen: Blasphemy Rights Day is a day of free speech

Claire Vriezen

It’s not uncommon to see advertisements for student-related events chalked onto Iowa State’s sidewalks. One day in particular yields a surprising amount of sidewalk script. Friday is International Blasphemy Rights Day, and Iowa State’s Atheist and Agnostic Society celebrates by writing “blasphemous” quotes around campus. Quotes from the Founding Fathers, scientists, philosophers and even Bible verses are used to voice opinions about religion. While most are not incendiary or blatantly offensive, irreverence and criticism for religion is not something shied away from.

Last year, the Atheist and Agnostic Society participated in International Blasphemy Rights Day and offered chalk to anyone passing by, whether it was to write their own blasphemous quote or to write in disagreement with the blasphemy. Despite repeated, patient attempts to explain that Blasphemy Rights Day was all about the freedom to speak as they liked about religious views, some students at Iowa State still felt it necessary to try and silence this message by pouring water over, scuffing up or crossing out messages on the sidewalks.

These reactions reveal exactly why Blasphemy Rights Day is so important. Opposition to religion is met with an attempt to censor those ideas and to demonize those who speak out against it.

Secular groups across the world will be participating in their own forms of blasphemy, whether it consists of drawing pictures of the prophet Muhammad, claiming that Zeus is our god or simply declaring that Jesus is not. This is not done to spend a day making fun of religious beliefs, but to promote the idea that these beliefs can, and should, be questioned.

International Blasphemy Rights Day is, at its core, a day of free speech. It is a day to remind citizens that any idea — regardless of how taboo — still can be criticized, and that ability to criticize any and all ideas is a right granted to us by the First Amendment.

Groups and individuals are welcome to protest Blasphemy Rights Day. Some people may find the concept offensive and are welcome to say as much. But realize that you don’t have the right not to be offended. Additionally, realize that what is offensive or blasphemous to you may not be to other people, and vice versa.

Across the globe, we find examples of censorship, violence and anger when someone dares contradict or express a “blasphemous” opinion of someone’s religious beliefs. Six years ago in Denmark, cartoon depictions of Muhammad sparked protests, bombings, and turmoil across Europe. A few weeks ago, an atheist group in California arranged a demonstration during which they tore up printed versions of Bible verses.

While these actions may arguably be offensive to some, that does not change the fact that many objected to the mere concept of addressing the religious beliefs of others in this manner, as if religion should not be subject to public scrutiny.

Currently, several states in America still have blasphemy laws on their books. Massachusetts and Maryland still have laws prohibiting blasphemous speech or actions, punishable by jail time, fines or both. While these laws have not been used in a conviction since around the 1930s, the cultural sentiment toward blasphemy does not seem to have changed.

Even though the 1952 Supreme Court decision in Joseph Burstyn Inc v. Wilson stated that “it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures,” there is continually outrage and incredulity expressed toward those that voice disagreement with regards to religion’s privileged status in the public eye.

While religious beliefs are often held very near and dear to our hearts, religious beliefs in America frequently inform how one votes in matters of public or social policy. Because there is such a link between religion and politics, it is vital that we must question and examine the very beliefs themselves.