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irregular times logoIrregular Irreverance: Is it Offensive?

As much as people seem to love our political bumper stickers, every now and then we receive some anxious email by people who are bothered by the bumper stickers and t-shirts that we create to comment on religion.

For instance, we recently received the following email:

I loved all your anti-Bush merchandise, but I didn't like your "Irregular Heresies" section. Of course I believe in seperation of church and state, but putting down an entire religion is just plain mean. You wouldn't make fun of Muslims because of 911, would you? Just keep the "seperation of Church and Bush," throw out the ones that insult people because of their beliefs. It's not fair.

Wow. This email makes it seem that we're really up to something nasty. Putting down entire religions and insulting people because of their beliefs, is, after all, a very very bad thing.

To deal with this issue of irreverent insults, we invite all of our readers to see for themselves and critique us. First, go to our Irregular Heresies page, consider what you see, and then read what we have to say about it below.

Looking at this page, which items on our Irregular Heresies page insult people because of their beliefs? Which of these items puts down an entire religion?

Okay, I'll point out one that could be interpreted as insulting people because of their beliefs: There's the bumper sticker that reads "Religious Right: Intolerance. Hatred. Bigotry. Hypocrisy." Of course, the insult is really only implied there - some people would be proud to be called intolerant. Some of the beliefs that the criticism of this bumper sticker are based upon are: support for racial segregation, gay-bashing, anti-education campaigns, attempts to destroy the separation of church and state, and ignoring biblical dictates that are inconvenient (such as the prohibition of usury). This constitutes criticism of a specific religious group, right-wing religious conservatives, not an entire religion. What's more, these critiques are as much political as religious.

Then there's the "Intelligent Design" bumper sticker, which insults an idea, not people. Personally, I think that intelligent design is a stupid idea. It's stupid because it suggests that human beings just aren't intelligent enough to figure out how the universe works, and ought to just give up trying. That's a pro-stupidity, pro-ignorance position, and I'm proud to criticize it.

Also, we've got a bumper sticker that reads "Their eyes were watching God. Their hands were molesting little boys." This bumper sticker refers to the priests, Catholic and non-Catholic, who molested children. Again, I'm proud to criticize such abuse. For far too long, the abusive priests hid behind their religious authority. Their churches claimed that because the priests were religious professionals, they were not subject to the ordinary standards of prosecution that the rest of us have to deal with. This kind of religious exemption from criticism and punishment is a serious problem that still needs attention.

Finally, there's a bumper sticker that reads, "Does God speak to you? Consider medication." The bumper sticker implies that people who believe that God speaks to them might be in need of medication. Personally, I think that this is true. I've never met anybody, no matter how religious, who thinks that God actually speaks to them. This bumper sticker was requested by someone who wanted it in order to critique Bush's suggestion that God tells him what to do as President.

Here we have a basic disagreement. There are people who believe in a supernatural, omnipotent being who speaks to people and tells them what to do, but does so in such a way that no one else can hear the voice, much less see where the voice is coming from. Then, there are other people who believe that when people hear voices that seem to come from nowhere, voices that no one else can hear, the people who hear those voices are in need of medical attention.

I put myself in the second category of person. Brain tumors have been known to cause such hallucinations, and brain tumors are not the kind of thing we want to toy around with. Schizophrenics also hear voices, and they can be helped by medication. I believe that hearing disembodied voices is a sign of mental instability, and when the President of the United States suggests that he has conversations with such voices, I get nervous. I don't think that there's anything wrong with pointing this out.

A lot of our bumper stickers and t-shirts have some fun with religious ideas or sayings - by saying things like "Jesus Died for Your Shins", or "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses". These items are meant to be at least a little bit funny in the way that they take popular phrases and alter them in such a way that they become absurd.

Some biblical literalists might be offended as a result of their inability to take amusement in absurdity. These literal believers might make petulant retorts such as "We do NOT make friends with cheese!" and "Jesus did not die for my ankles, my knees or my shins! How dare you suggest otherwise!?!" Well, it must be a very interesting world that these people live in, but I can't say that I really understand it.

The only other way I can understand how these messages would be actually offensive is in that they fail to treat with reverence what some people consider to be holy ideas. The thing about a diverse society, however, is that people who do not share one group's beliefs are under no obligation to share that group's reverence.

I have long since reconciled myself to the fact that most religious groups condemn people like me, and I think that that's their right. I think they're wrong. They think that I'm wrong to have a sense of humor with religious ideas. Why should we at Irregular Times censor ourselves just to comply with the theological preferences of these particular religions?

What I'm most confused by is that the people who send us emails like the one above seem to think that it's okay for us to engage in very strong criticism and satire of political ideas, but believe that religious ideas should be completely off limits to satire or criticism. They have no problem when we make fun of George W. Bush, or Republicans as a group of people, but are shocked when we make fun of prominent religious figures, or the beliefs of some religious sects.

What is it about religion that gives it the special privilege of being beyond criticism or outside the scope of a healthy sense of humor? If religion gets kids gloves, why not politics? Furthermore, what exactly is wrong with putting people down because of their beliefs? When I lived in Memphis, Tennessee, I worked with a guy who believed that people of European descent are inherently superior to all other people. I think that it's perfectly reasonable to put down this person because of his beliefs. The same goes for religious beliefs. If someone has a religiously-based belief that the United States should become a theocracy, I'll put them down for that belief.

When we satirize or contradict religion, or promote alternatives to conventional religion, we are not inciting violence, or encouraging hatred, or putting down any "entire religion". We wish that we could say the same for most of America's religious groups, many of whom frequently proclaim that people who do not agree with their particular beliefs deserve eternal torture.

In a time when churches are receiving government funding, when the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign is actively soliciting church involvement in the election, when George W. Bush makes an official presidential visit to Rome in order to ask a Cardinal to pressure American Catholic priests to support his campaign, and when the Catholic Church threatens to deprive John Kerry of the right to participate in his own religion because of his political beliefs, I think that we have very good reason to give religion a small share of our satire and criticism. Across America, churches are abusing their tax-exempt status to influence the political process. To exempt these religious groups from criticism would be an outrageous omission, given their attempt to dictate religiously-based laws that would apply to us all, whether or not we are religious.

Everyone who writes for Irregular Times is aware that our opinions do not represent those of the majority of Americans. We expect people to make fun of us. That's how things are when there is freedom of speech, and we would never ask our detractors to censor themselves. We believe that wide open criticism makes our society stronger, not weaker. In fact, it is our opinion that beliefs held without doubt or need of reason are the greatest source of weakness in American society. It's just this kind of blind belief that led us to invade Iraq.

Not all religious people hold their beliefs without question, or take offense at criticism of their beliefs. The choice of some to take offense at our irreverence is their choice, and we will not alter our own speech to accommodate it.

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