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Should American Religious Groups Censor Outsiders Who Blaspheme?

When you think of Urban Outfitters, what do you think of? I think of young people who want to wear clothes that will be designed by a known national brand, but will be just a little bit outside of what they would find at a suburban shopping mall. It’s a baby step toward hipster, but not at all really hipster.

I don’t think of Hindu gods.

ganesha bedsheetsApparently, Urban Outfitters wanted to stretch its brand a little bit, so they posted some bed sheets for sale online, featuring a large image of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.

When Hindus found out about it, some became very upset. Murali Balaji, director of education at the Hindu American Foundation, called the Urban Outfitters Ganesh bedsheets “hipster racism”, though it’s not clear how offending the religious sensibilities of Hindus is racist. The bedsheets didn’t depict people with ancestry on the Indian subcontinent in any negative way. The bedsheets didn’t communicate any message about human beings at all, but about a god that some human beings believe in.

When non-Hindus didn’t understand the controversy, Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, issued a code for the proper display of Ganesh: “You can put him in a frame and on the wall. That is fine, but not to be put on the bed, on which you lie and your feet will go on. That is very inappropriate.”

Even the Council for Secular Humanism, which claims to “defend the rights of those who reject religious beliefs”, has gotten in on the outrage, issuing a terse statement that “Urban Outfitters offends by commodifying Ganesh,” implying that there’s something wrong with commodifying religious images. Of course, Hindus sometimes commodify images of their deities themselves, including Ganesh, when they sell items showing the deities’ images. Is the Council for Secular Humanism against this commodification as well?

For that matter, when will the protests begin against Etsy, which sells Ganesh bedsheets that are manufactured by Lalit Rathi in Dehli, India? Is Mr. Rathi Hindu, or does he belong to one of India’s other religions? Is he, perhaps, an Indian atheist, a blasphemer defying the religious codes of conduct in his native country?

There are Ganesh bedsheets sold in many places, including Amazon, Cafepress, and Vision Bedding. When will the protests against these retailers begin? Will the protests continue until it becomes impossible to buy any bedsheet with an image of Ganesh?

Urban Outfitters has responded to the Hindu protests by removing the Ganesh bedsheets from its collection of products. That decision makes good business sense. Urban Outfitters doesn’t gain anything through the notoriety of having religiously controversial products. It’s not really a nonconformist brand.

jesus i need a smokeBut what about for the rest of us? How is the Hindu campaign against Ganesh bedsheets different from the campaigns by American Christians to censor depictions of Jesus that they don’t approve of?

Why should people who aren’t members of a religion be expected to follow that religion’s codes of conduct? Should we all be obliged to stop any behavior that anyone finds offensive to their religious sensibilities? Should blasphemy be banned?

Actually, there is some evidence that suggests that the practice of blasphemy may be socially beneficial. For example, a study recently published in the scholarly journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts found that, in a small Texas town, teenagers who read commonly banned books, many of which were considered religiously blasphemous, were more likely than their peers to volunteer their labor for local civic organizations.

September 30 is International Blasphemy Rights Day, an unholy day on which people celebrate the legal right to defy religious leaders’ attempts to restrict speech and artistic expression. I’m tempted to design a set of bedsheets carrying the images of Ganesh, Mohammed, and Jesus to mark the occasion.

5 thoughts on “Should American Religious Groups Censor Outsiders Who Blaspheme?”

  1. Dave says:

    Peregrin, there have been a number of posts on Irregular Times recently lamenting discrimination against or mistreatment of atheists by the mostly religious society at large, so your question “should we all be obliged to stop any behavior that anyone finds offensive to their religious sensibilities[?]” seems a little ironic. If you want respect from people, show respect. Would you accept the same premise for the same question coming from religious believers regarding atheists?

    Ancient proverb: He who would have friends must first show himself friendly.

    Being a bit of an iconoclast, the illustration above with Jesus and the smoke doesn’t bother me in any way though I’m sure it’s intent is to bother someone. It doesn’t, however, say anything about Jesus, nor about Christians, but it does say something about you. If you intend to offend people for the hell of it, when some Christian dad responds disapprovingly to a poll about atheists marrying his daughter, well … I’m not sure if I’m picking up on surprise or resentment or just a desire to pick a fight with believing humanity but the irony here, well, it burns.

  2. Peregrin Wood says:

    I see the point you’re aiming at, Dave, but there’s an important difference that I don’t think you’re picking up on.

    It’s the difference between people and ideas.

    It’s the difference between declaring an entire class of people to be inherently unworthy, and failing to agree with other people’s ideas.

    We have never claimed that Christians shouldn’t be able to do things to offend atheist “sensibilities”. We have been arguing against prejudicial discrimination against atheist people.

    The concerns we’ve been talking about lately here on Irregular Times have to do with the way that Christians judge, reject, marginalize people: Atheists. We haven’t been complaining about the way that Christians disagree with, denounce, declare as immoral, and otherwise object to atheistic ideas.

    This is a distinction that Murali Balaji missed too, when he described the use of the image of Ganesh in a way that didn’t match his code as “racism”. Racism is about human beings, not gods.

    Marginalize people in reality, and that’s a kind of practical form of nasty. Simply failing to pay homage to other people’s religious codes of behavior is something different.

    I don’t believe that disrespecting ideas and disrespecting people are the same thing.

    I have no desire to require other people to follow my code of behavior as an atheist. I’m not demanding that stores remove religious items from their stores because I don’t agree with those religious items. I’m not calling people “racist” for practicing their religion. People do religious things all the time, and I don’t find those religious practices to be my cup of tea, but I don’t demand that they stop it all the time. Neither do I insist that everyone stop making fun of Richard Dawkins, or Charles Darwin, or Carl Sagan. Go ahead and make jokes about “bullions and bullions”. Go on and keep on showing Charles Darwin’s head on top of a monkey. So long as you’re not doing it in a public school, have at it (and I wouldn’t want to see Hindu or Christian figures of veneration targeted for ridicule in public school either – government spaces are different than private ones).

    If you do these things, I will feel free to disagree with what you’ve done, and to express my disagreement. But, I don’t feel that it’s an affront to my atheist identity that Christians are allowed to say and do things that I don’t agree with.

    In fact, when it comes down to it, I believe that Christians ought to have the legal right to choose to reject the social company of atheists, if they’re idiotic enough to have that attitude. There is freedom of association in this country. They’re being bigoted when they do it, but they have the right to be bigots.

    What this article talks about is the use of social pressure by religious groups to squelch private speech, linguistic or artistic, that doesn’t meet their own religious rules for behavior. It’s not just about Hindus saying to Urban Outfitters that they don’t like seeing Ganesh on a bedsheet. It’s about Hindus demanding that such bedsheets be made commercially unavailable. It’s not about Christians saying that they don’t like seeing what they think are disrespectful images of Jesus. It’s about Christians demanding that such images be removed from view.

    When Irregular Times demands that Christians censor artwork or other forms of speech that atheists find disrespectful, then you will be able to accurately criticize us for hypocrisy. I just don’t think your accusation of fits here. You haven’t understood the distinctions we make.

    Also, about your proverb, I have a bone to pick: The research we have cited this month shows that Christians are willing to prejudge atheists -before- getting to know them… Meaning that it doesn’t really matter if atheists are friendly or personally respectful, or smell nice, or any of that. Before atheists even have a chance to make a positive impression, Christians have judged them as unworthy of association… as people, in practice.

    Do you really claim that the only thing that’s keeping Christians from being nice to atheists is that atheists haven’t been nice enough to Christians first? Really?!?

    Besides, if you really, genuinely believe that, in order to show proper respect to people of other religions, people need to conform to the behavioral codes of those other religions, then have you removed all images of people from your house, as Islamic code would require? Have you stopped eating beef, as Hinduism would require? Do you keep Kosher?

    Unless you’re following these codes, you are an idolator and a blasphemer, aren’t you?

  3. Dave says:

    I hear you. And yes, the one from India with the chip on his shoulder demanding compliance with his beliefs is minding someone else’s business but today grievance is an industry as well as a pastime for many. I’m not giving up my Carl Sagan bedsheets, I don’t care what they say.

    I make no claim that Christians are waiting for atheists to be nice to them, it’s just that everybody has to start somewhere. It works best on a personal level, I suppose. I also think the polls reflect what they do because people tend to separate themselves into groups because of ideology anyway. I know Democrats who would faint if their daughter brought home a Reagan Republican to meet the folks. Same thing is at work Christian/Atheist. Funny that. Atheists and Reagan Republicans sharing the same boat.

  4. Peregrin Wood says:

    For the record, Dave, I think that you’re a pretty good representative for your religion.

  5. ronwilliams says:


    Each religious having their own rules and belief points. If we don’t trust on other religious god nobody can pressurize you but other people believe on it so we have remermber this think on mind and respect all religious no metter you can trust on it or not.

    You can say about hindu religious that is very true because hindu people believe that almost every activity related to god can message us.

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