Nicki Minaj, regardless of your opinion as to whether she is talented or talentless, has raised the hackles of the religious. Her recent Grammy appearance has some Catholics raising the Blasphemy battle flag, and the airwaves are fairly humming with the combined outrage of the Bill Donohoes and Bill Donohoe-wannabes pontificating on the tasteless portent of the end times that Minaj's performance represents. A prime example is Michael Gerson, over at the Washington Post. Gerson is apparently of the opinion that Minaj's blasphemy heralds the collapse of civilization-- no, I'm not joking. "Some believe it is a transparent publicity stunt. Others believe it is the sign of a collapsing civilization. We should stop all this bickering. There is no reason it can't be both."
This says much about those making the allegations, but little about how they see themselves. There is an apparent irony in the pronouncements of those who, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, proclaim Minaj's performance "anti-Catholic", "anti-clericalism", and general blasphemy, and that is this-- these same people tend to be completely blind to their hypocrisy when blaspheming against anyone else's religion but their own.
In 2005, numerous followers of Islam rioted after Danish cartoonists created editorial cartoons of the prophet Mohamed. In 2011, more Muslims rioted after a bigoted south Florida preacher broadcast his burning of a Koran. In both cases, there were those folks here in America who supported "free speech." Others counseled that free speech comes with responsibility, and that speakers have an obligation to consider the impact of their words. Still others argued that criticism of religion equated to "hate speech", and that such criticism should be curtailed. But the statements which I found to be particularly misguided were the ones that used the incidents to point out how much better Christians are than Muslims, because "we" don't do that kind of thing, whereas "they" do.
...newspapers and magazines and online blogs are stuffed full every day of exactly the same thing about Christians and Christ yet no one is threatening the drawers of those cartoons...
...They burn bibles all the time in the Middle East you do not see Christians going crazy and murdering people for it.
...Christians don't go nuts when somebody criticizes Christianity. You don't see Christians rioting over insulting depictions of Jesus.
...Christians mount a protest against having their religion insulted . Islamists issue a fatwah on the head of Molly Norris for starting the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day".
...some artist dips a crucifix in urine, and you don't see Christians freaking out about it.
Of course, these observations rely on a number of flawed assumptions and biases. It seems obvious that those making the claims are unfamiliar with actual incidents in which large groups of Christians flew into paroxysms of rage over perceived insults to their religion. The assumption is made that low body counts resulting from Christian rage point toward the inherent reasonableness and placidity of Christians, who are presumed to politely register their discontent in verbal exchanges which leave feelings bloodied, but bodies and property untouched.
This is, of course, nonsense. Consider, for instance, the behavior of Christians in largely secular France-- Attack on 'blasphemous' art work fires debate on role of religion i...
When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.
Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an "anti-blasphemy" campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.
Piss Christ has, of course, raised Christian hackles for twenty four years. It has been the subject of numerous attacks, both metaphorical and physical, throughout its existence.
- The artist, Andres Serrano, received hate mail and death threats beginning in 1989, when the photograph was first exhibited in the United States
- The photograph was vandalized in the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, in 1997, and gallery officials received death threats, forcing the exhibit to close
- The Catholic Church has filed lawsuits to try to prevent its exhibition on grounds of "blasphemy"
- In 2007, neo-Nazis ransacked a Serrano show in Sweden
And then this. One thousand "protestors" besiege a gallery, threaten guards with a hammer, and destroy artwork they find "blasphemous." What was that bit about how different Christians are from Muslims, again?
Religion of Peace: Christian Violence and the Cry of "Blasphemy"
Of course, anyone familiar with Christianity's history of violence realizes the true issues, here-- fundamentalism and a failure to accept a pluralistic society governed by a secular government. America has its own checkered past in this regard. For instance, it is only recently (1961) that atheists have been fully accorded recognition of their civil rights (Torcaso v Watkins):
In a 1920 Missouri case, two men were found by a jury to be guilty of murder. They had shot an allegedly peaceable, elderly, ill man. His sons found him dying from several bullet wounds, and he told his sons the manner and cause of his fatal injuries, as well as who the assailants were. The trial court did not permit the defendants' attorney to inquire into the dead man's alleged atheism. The Supreme Court of Missouri then held that the trial court's exclusion of evidence of his atheism was an error serious enough to undermine the verdict. The case was remanded back to the trial court with instructions that the evidence of the victim's atheism be admitted and could be used to help undermine the dead man's credibility. Those murderers then went free.
Agnostics have traditionally fared a little better, but only because of the mistaken notion that they're fence-sitters waiting to be convince of God's existence, rather than individuals who believe the concept of "god" is unintelligible and unknowable. Even in the "secular" West, we are dealing with centuries of religious assumptions that only the "chosen" are worthy of recognition, and are inherently "superior" to everyone else.
In truth, the world's Christians are little different from the world's Muslims-- a varied body that hosts a variety of ideologues who would happily use violence and the threat of violence to right any perceived wrong and punish any perceived slight. Need further examples?
- The Last Temptation of Christ: The book was controversial when it was first published in 1960, winding up repeatedly on banned book lists. The situation didn't get much better when it was turned into a film by Martin Scorsese.
On October 22, 1988, a French Christian fundamentalist group launched molotov cocktails inside the Parisian Saint Michel movie theater while it was showing the film. This attack injured thirteen people, four of whom were severely burned. The Saint Michel theater was heavily damaged, and reopened 3 years later after restoration. ...Similar attacks against theatres included graffiti, setting off tear-gas canisters and stink bombs, and assaulting filmgoers.
- Corpus Christi (1998): The play, which follows the life and actions of a gay Jesus and his gay disciples, spawned hate mail and death threats, culminating in bomb threats and theater goers having to enter the theater through metal detectors. The threats eventually shut the production down.
- Chocolate Jesus exhibit canceled after uproar (2007): The "My Sweet Lord" display, consisting of a 6-foot tall, anatomically correct, chocolate Jesus, was shut down by angry Christians. Catholic League's Bill Donohoe, in a fit of hyperbole, called it "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever," just like every other "assault" that tweaked his sensibilities. The gallery pulled the exhibit over safety concerns arising from numerous angry phone calls and emails, including death threats.
- PZ Myers desecrates a communion wafer (2008): In solidarity with a college student, Webster Cook, who faced death threats and threats of expulsion for "kidnapping" a communion wafer from a Catholic service, and to highlight the stupidity of such complaints, Myers "desecrated" a communion wafer and wrote about it on his blog, Pharyngula. Myers received hundreds of emails:
My email is melting down with swarms of insults, threats, pleas, and promises of prayers because I threatened to violate one of their holy crackers. In my years of loud and often inflammatory blogging, it is the most impressive demonstration of mass lunacy I have ever seen.The Catholic League demanded that Myers be fired, and he received numerous death threats and threats against his family.
These examples highlight that the difference between Christians and Muslims is not one of kind, but only one of degree. That relatively few deaths result from Christian outrage in civilized nations isn't an indication of the inherent peacefulness of Christianity or Christians, but an indication of a functioning government based in part on the notions that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are paramount. It appears as though the strong rule of law and promises of the quick incarceration of any violent religious zealots do a good job of keeping Christian zealots from murdering blasphemers in America. As is, we still have the occasional shooting of an abortion provider, or the assault on women's health clinics, rooted in the fervent belief that the perpetrator is doing "God's work." But to the extent that, as a pluralistic society, we believe in humanist concepts rooted in freedom of conscience, we've done an ok job of reining in the worst abuses of the religious.
Take a step outside civilized Western nations, and you find "reasonable" Christians burning "witch" children in the na... That should eliminate any smug sense of religio-cultural superiority Christians are feeling when comparing themselves to Muslims, but probably won't. After all, there's always the No True Scotsman argument.
In the end, something as trivial as a song at the Grammy Awards isn't important because it offends the sensibilities of the religious, but because it has the capacity to reveal for our contemplation just how short a step toward rationality we've come from the frenzied, murderous omophagy of our religious origins.