TORONTO — You’ve never seen Jesus like this before: dripping red nail polish around the nails in his feet and hands, an irreverent riff on the crucifixion wounds. The provocative title of the painting: “Jesus Does His Nails.”
Blasphemous? Absolutely. Deliberately provocative? You bet.
It is part of an upcoming art exhibit in Washington that will mark the first-ever International Blasphemy Day Sept. 30 at the Center for Inquiry DC near Capitol Hill.
Artist Dana Ellyn says her “Blasphemy” paintings are a tongue-in-cheek expression of her lack of belief in God and religion. The self-described “agnostic atheist” — she doesn’t believe in the existence of any deity but can’t say for sure one doesn’t exist — says her introduction to religion was in college when she studied art history. Stories from the Bible, she says, are just that: stories.
“My point is not to offend, but I realize it can offend, because religion is such a polarizing topic,” Ellyn said of the exhibit.
Atheists, skeptics, freethinkers and free-speech advocates around the world will mark Blasphemy Day by mounting their soapboxes — figuratively and literally — and uttering words and displaying images that may cause offense.
And they’re making no apologies.
“We’re not seeking to offend, but if in the course of dialogue and debate, people become offended, that’s not an issue for us,” said Justin Trottier, a Toronto coordinator of Blasphemy Day and executive director of the Ontario chapter of the Center for Inquiry. “There is no human right not to be offended.”
St. Thomas Aquinas described blasphemy — deliberately showing contempt or irreverence for something considered sacred — as a sin “committed directly against God … more grave than murder.” In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
While it may sound as anachronistic as a witchcraft trial, blasphemy remains punishable by death in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, Ireland recently introduced a defamation law making blasphemy punishable by fines up to 25,000 euros ($37,000 US). What’s more, six U.S. states (Massachusetts, Michigan, South Carolina,
Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wyoming) have laws that, in some way, prohibit or regulate blasphemy, noted Ron Lindsay, a lawyer and president of the CFI International in Amherst, N.Y.
CFI also cites efforts by the United Nations to introduce anti-blasphemy resolutions that many say would curtail free speech about religion.
Sept. 30 was chosen for the inaugural Blasphemy Day because it is the anniversary of the 2005 publication of the controversial Muhammad cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons resulted in worldwide riots by outraged Muslims and widespread self-censorship by media.
Lindsay said the Blasphemy Day events are part of his group’s larger Campaign for Free Expression, which encompasses more than protection of speech about religion. CFI, he said, aims to expose all religious beliefs to the same level of inquiry, discussion and criticism to which other areas of intellectual interest are subjected.
Will the public events and demonstrations disturb some people? Without a doubt, said Lindsay, but causing offense is not the intention. Participants are encouraged to avoid vulgarity and profanity.
“We’re stressing that we want something that is insightful and thoughtful,” Lindsay said. “The point we’re trying to make is that we’re against restrictions on speech based purely on the possibility that some people might be offended, because if you go down that path there’s no end to it.”