The table in the Arts Tunnel boasted a sign loudly proclaiming, “Trade your soul for a cookie.” The station beside it asked passersby to “draw a deity.” These were part of the proud on-campus celebration of Blasphemy Day.
Blasphemy Day is an international campaign that seeks to promote freedom of speech and, therefore, freedom to blaspheme a religion without fear of reprisal. Anyone who didn’t have a chance to stop by the University of Saskatchewan Freethought Alliance’s celebration of Blasphemy Day on Oct. 1 missed a display that was both hard-hitting and thought-provoking.
They also missed quite a commotion in the Arts Tunnel, one much like ongoing debates around the world over the conflict between the freedoms of religion and speech.
The Freethought Alliance’s booth drew a crowd including students of various faiths offended by the table’s contents. When I got there the front of the table was occupied by a number of women arguing with the workers of the booth. The women claimed the booth was there only because of ignorance of their religion and that the drawings of the gods or deities of their religion were blasphemous.
Blasphemy is a legitimate concern, especially when the people denigrating one’s belief system are doing so in a public space. What the women wanted, however, was not and should not have been done. They wanted the group to leave the Arts Tunnel because the booth offended them. The girls caused enough trouble that the U of S Students’ Union had to come down and tell them that the Freethought Alliance was allowed to be there.
Canada considers certain rights worth protecting above all else. Included under that protection is freedom of speech, as described in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The right to free speech allows people in Canada to voice their opinions and views in a vocal or public manner. Also included in the Charter is the freedom of religion. This right protects people’s ability to follow and practice the traditions of any religion they choose.
Canada is a nation ruled by law. Members of the Freethought Alliance have the right to voice their opinions, just as the offended parties have a right to practice their religion.
Let’s be clear: the Freethought Alliance’s right to free speech does not in any way supersede the right to freedom of religion because in this instance they do not interfere with one another. The Alliance was voicing an opinion that did not limit the women’s ability to practice their religion. It merely disrespected those practices.
As the recent release of The Innocence of Muslims has shown, disrespecting a religion can ignite a firestorm, and can result in physical repercussions. Islam is not, of course, the only religion whose members have responded violently to a slight; every major religion has at least a few bloody moments in its history.
The Freethought Alliance’s booth showcased things that were likely to provoke reactions from religious groups. The idea of trading one’s soul for a cookie, as the booth invited people to do, made some people feel uncomfortable. The “draw a deity” station offended some Muslim students because it is a central tenet of Islam that the Prophet Muhammad is not to be depicted in any way, shape or form.
Still, everything that the Freethought Alliance did was well within Canadian law. Most importantly, they are not here to be liked: the group is meant to make people think, which often causes controversy. That does not mean that they have to stop what they are doing.
In fact, they should continue.