Blasphemy Contest winner announced

Still settling in here in the land of endless (and depressing) sunshine. More on climategate coming shortly.

Two months ago, the Center for Inquiry sponsored a Blasphemy Contest. The results are in, and the winner is…

Faith is no reason.

This, it will become clear, philosophically unsound slogan was dreamt up by Ken Peters, who lives in—wait for it—California (I’ll let you know if I bump into him).

Thrilled with the chant, CFI president and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay said “This entry, using only four words, summarizes nicely one of the key principles of post-Enlightenment thought. Beliefs should be based on evidence and reason. Faith is not a basis for logically sound belief.”

When the CFI first announced this contest, some people dared call it a bad idea. Some said that CFI was “soliciting hate speech.” Others “likened CFI to Nazis publishing anti-Semitic attacks.” CFI rejected these criticisms as “mischaracterizations.” “In holding a blasphemy contest, we wished to underscore our position that religious beliefs are subject to examination and criticism, just like other beliefs,” said Lindsay. “Sometimes that criticism may take the form of a scholarly essay; sometimes the criticism may take the form of a pithy, pointed remark. Both are appropriate forms of free expression.”

A nice reply, that. But only if it is used in answer to an argument that held CFI should not be allowed to hold their contest—a position nobody held. Lindsay should have known that he was stuffing a straw man, given his organization is supposed to deal with logical thinking.

Worse, nowhere does Lindsay attempt to defend the most common charges that the contest was juvenile, mean spirited, crass, pointless, and asinine. Probably for the good reason that these would be have been, in fact, impossible to refute given the logically false winning entry, and given the evidence of the four runners up:

  • “There’s no religion like no religion,” submitted by Daniel Boles of Thailand
  • “I wouldn’t even follow your god on Twitter,” submitted by Michael Hein of South Carolina
  • “The reason religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous,” submitted by Michael Nugent of Ireland
  • “I survived the God virus,” submitted by Perry Bulwer of British Columbia, Canada.

Of these, only Boles’s manages the tiniest gloss of humor. Hein’s Twitter entry is a symptom of the low-IQ, Daily-Show quality of thinking that passes for reasoned arguments nowadays. You’re supposed to chuckle when you hear things like that, and then allow a warm glow of superiority to suffuse your cockles. This induces a euphoria-like state in the mind of its victims and is what allows them to, for example, knowingly purchase a Noam Chomsky book.

Nugent’s “ridiculous” charge has never been leveled by any scholar of religion, for the excellent reason that it is easy to show that it can be rational to believe specific religious claims. Not all claims and not for all religions, certainly—I have yet to see a defense of money-hungry Scientology, for example—but there are many works showing the advantages, such as group cohesion, etc., that accrue from adhering to religious ceremony.

Bulwer’s is the standard communist party line, and hearing it reminds us why we are fearful of the left’s innate blood lust (which was amply indulged over the past century). To hard-core Progressives, religion is a medical phenomenon that, if it can’t be forcefully cured (for the good of the infected), can at least justify the removal of the “vectors” from polite society.

Back to “Faith is no reason.” Faith, used in this sense, means belief without resort to empirical evidence. There exists a large philosophical literature on the subject of a priori knowledge, which asks if we can know certain things without resorting to external evidence. That is, if our intuitions can sometimes be relied upon (nobody argues that it always can).

Of course, not all philosophers agree that a priori knowledge is possible. But all do agree that there are at least promising arguments for it. They know that in certain fields, such as mathematics, such knowledge forms the base—the unproved solid ground—upon which all else is based.

This isn’t the place for a complete defense of the idea, but consider this brief one: you can’t first know that an empirical observation supports a theory (or statement, or proposition) without first knowing that empirical observations can be used to support theories. And you can’t learn that from experience. That much must be innate and taken as true.

Which is to say, that faith can be and is a reason for belief. Lindsay should have known that. But it wouldn’t have been as pithy to say, “Faith is sometimes a reason—but just not for religion.”


  1. ken

    I found this entry very entertaining for a number of reasons. The earlier remark (I think associated with the blasphemy contest) referencing the JREF (& others of the “skeptic” ilk, I’ll add) & its recent leanings toward an anti-religion activism, focused more or less exclusively on Christianity, brings to mind something H.L. Mencken observed a long time ago (which might be put in the “some things never change” category):

    “This has been the main effect of skepticism in the world, working over long ages: that it has become gauche and embarassing to admit certain indubitable facts. Their unpopularity is due not to their destruction or abandonment but simply to the forensic talent of the skeptics, a bombastic and tyrannical sect of men, with a great deal of cruelty concealed in their so-called love of truth. It is not altruism that moves them to their assaults upon what other men hold to be precious; it is something no more than a yearning to make those other men leap. The fundamentalists of Tennessee are thus right in denouncing Clarence Darrow. Mr. Darrow, I have no doubt, loves the truth—but it is with a passion comparable to that a man has for an amiable maiden aunt. When he went to Tennessee he went on safari, which is a Hindu word signifying the chase.

    “The skeptics, pursuing this immemorial sport, have driven certain congenital beliefs of the human race under cover, and made them furtive and apologetic. When they tackled the belief in witches, two or three hundred years ago, it was as respectable as going to church; now it is so dubious that those who continue to cherish it keep the fact to themselves. In the course of time, perhaps, they will reduce the belief in democracy to the same disrepute, but I don’t think they will ever obliterate it.”

    Quoted from: Prejudices: Third Series, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 157-160.) “On Human Progress” by H. L. Mencken (from the Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1927);

  2. Steve Borodin

    “which asks if we can know certain things without resorting to external evidence. That is, if our intuitions can sometimes be relied upon (nobody argues that it always can).”

    I don’t which to pick holes in your post – with which I tend to agree. I don’t believe religions deserve any protection but I find this sort of thing a bit silly and counter-productive. But I am interested in your take on intuition. You imply that intuition is based on something other than evidence and is, presumably, irrational. (Or, is there something that you would call internal evidence?) I can’t imagine how such a process would work. The most plausible explanation I have come across is that intuition is simply a process that allows us to make quick and dirty decisions without the time delay and energy expenditure associated with conscious, rational thought.

    When I drive a familiar route, I usually make many decisions without conscious thought. I navigate, change gear, slow down at junctions and take many other actions without being aware of them. Is this unconscious decision making not much the same as the experience of someone using their intuition. But these decisions are almost certainly based on an analysis of experience – and they are invariably right, fortunately. If one contemplates decisions that are more conventionally called intuition, we can see that they could also be based on experiences that seem to have similar characteristics. If the experiences are not good ‘evidence’ then our intuition may often be misleading. Our brain adopts a quick and dirty appraisal when it is not justified. Of course, we tend to remember the times that intuition gets it right and forget the errors.

    That would make intuition a rational but unconscious process. Is there any problem with that?

  3. There’s another interpretation of the winner, namely as an judgment comparing reason (favorably) to faith; “faith is no reason” along the lines of “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”. It doesn’t have to imply that faith is the absence of reason.

    Also, desiring social cohesion doesn’t make it rational to actually believe any particular religious tenets. I imagine you can get many of the social benefits of religion by pretending to believe the tenets.

  4. Joy

    This post was excellent, a subject I have strong views/ intuitions about. Too much obvious fun poked at people’s sensitivities. Why would anyone want to do that knowingly. It’s like Dawkins’ “There’s no God, have a nice day!” on the side of London busses. Totally cruel and counterproductive. I think he protests too much. People are less happy and contented today when they have less moral restrictions and now that society is more permissive. Take Ali G’s Nan, for example!

    I think; you mean Norman Chompski, a most patient man, without a hint of intellectual snobbery or superciliousness. Donald Trump really showed his true colours when he was interviewed by Ali G as well.
    Some of the American interviewees were very charming. Same over here.

  5. It is not helpful to conflate religion, but not science, with faith — to contra-pose religion and science in matters of faith.

    Both rely on faith in first principles; both apply logic to evidence. Both are enamored of myth and metaphor. The similarities swamp the differences (AGW alarmism is a good example).

    Faith is ultimately rational, in fact it is the basis for rationality. If we didn’t have faith in logic, in mathematics, in reproducibility, in cause and effect, in our own lying eyes, if we didn’t believe the world was logically arranged in a way that makes it knowable, then we would run around like lunatics and die off forthwith.

    Breathing is instinctive. So is eating to many lower lifeforms. Going out to an expensive dinner with wine and cigars afterwards requires mountains of faith in many directions.

  6. JD

    The Center for Inquiry ought to be ashamed. They hold a blasphemy contest and “Faith is no reason” is the best they can come up with. Is it even blasphemous? Jerry Falwell could have done better. They should leave the blasphemy to comics which is my preferred choice for blasphemy. As for poking fun at people, it seems to be a trait shared by many. Kind of like making snide remarks about Californians or New Yorkers.

  7. 49erDweet

    (sigh) I was going to enter my all time favorite blasphemy, “chocolate brownie fudgies”, but thought it too far over-the-top – even for a Californian. Isn’t the winning entry somewhat analogous to “Food is no oreo”?

  8. Briggs


    You cannot go far wrong with Mencken. Thanks.

    Steven Borodin,

    The word intuition, like faith, has a lot of flavors. Your intuition is more of a muscle memory; it’s not wrong, but not quite what I’m after.


    True, but they clearly mean it to be taken that way.


    Ali G? Really?

    Mike D.,



    I love all people equally. Especially Californians.


    You know we don’t like that kind of language around here.

  9. Rich

    A bit bemused, me. Which of these would ever have been considered blasphemous? Of the five, only two even mention God, the first distances itself with “your” and the second is oblique. It almost seems that these guys are just a little afraid that God might be listening. Perhaps they were hampered by the need to be witty but then they only managed clever-clever. It would appear to be an exercise in “Thank God we’ve gotten rid of God!”. I feel I want to say, “Very funny boys. Now go and play in the garden till dinner time”.

  10. The word faith is a label for an interior phenomenon of the mind that’s orthogonal to reason; it may be properly applied only to propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved. That phenomenon is sui generis. It bears no relation to reason, and cannot be used as a reason.

    Consider the following hypothetical exchange:
    Smith: Why do you believe in God?
    Jones: Because of my faith.
    Smith: What is your faith?
    Jones: That God exists.

    Has Jones given Smith a reason, or just a label?

    It is grotesquely improper for skeptics to deride faith for being unprovable; that’s in its nature. it is equally improper for the believer to deride the skeptic for his lack of faith; as faith arises from private events and private knowledge, it travels on its own schedule and cannot be commanded to appear.

    In other words: Believers and unbelievers both should lighten up and learn to be amiable!

    By the way, I’m a devout Catholic.

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