(CNN) -- In his youth, Ronald Lindsey planned to enter the priesthood, so fervent was his devotion to God. But these days, Lindsay is devoted to protecting a person's right to ridicule, criticize -- even lambaste God.
Super Bowl Sunday Praying for a Hail Mary was painted by Dana Ellyn.
You might say he is a blasphemer's savior.
The devout Catholic turned non-believer leads a movement that is all about protecting people's rights to speak irreverently about religion.
Criticizing God is an act punishable by death in several nations. In America, blasphemy laws remain on the books in six states, though they are largely arcane and not enforced.
But everywhere, it seems to Lindsay, scoffing at God is not socially acceptable.
People are willing to tolerate the harshest statements about the president of the United States, he said. But talk about Jesus or Mohammed -- that's a whole different ball game.
"We think religious beliefs should be subject to examination and criticism just as political beliefs are," said Lindsay, 56, who heads the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, an organization that claims about 100,000 followers worldwide. "But we have a taboo on religion."
Outraged by nations that want to execute blasphemers and propelled by a deep belief in the freedom of expression, Lindsay is forging ahead with his "nothing is sacred" movement. Wednesday marks the first organized observance of Blasphemy Day, a series of events, exhibits and lectures unfolding in a host of mostly North American cities that are part of a larger Campaign for Free Expression.
The day coincides with the fifth anniversary of a Danish newspaper's publication of controversial cartoons about Mohammed. The depictions of the prophet wearing a bomb as a turban with a lit fuse sparked protests by Muslims worldwide and prompted media outlets to censor themselves.
But to Lindsay, a society is not truly free unless people can freely air their views on any subject -- including God.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, when asked about the day on Wednesday, declined to comment.
Blasphemy Day even includes a contest that invites participants to come up with slogans that might be judged blasphemous by society. And, yes, the winner gets a T-shirt heralding the prized slogan.
Lindsay offered this sample: "There's nothing wrong with God that a dose of reality won't cure."
Some of the entries are so crude they can't be published by CNN. But since the Center for Inquiry is all about freedom of expression, it can't reject any of them.
Lindsay has made it clear that expletive-ridden, crass slogans are not the type of entry that is destined to win, but he makes no apologies for statements that might offend a devout person's sensitivities.
Neither does artist Dana Ellyn, 38, of Washington D.C., who is showing her provocative paintings of God and religion in a special Blasphemy Day show Wednesday evening.
Ellyn grew up as a non-believer but later studied religion on her own to understand it. After all, she said, it's such an important part of society.
She found the concept of faith fascinating. It was an unknown to her.
She painted a scene from Noah's Ark with a black child sitting under the table. How did the races evolve, her art asks those who believed in the Biblical tale? She portrayed Jesus painting his crucifixion nails after she noticed a church group using space next to a nail salon in a shopping mall stung by recession.
She said she realizes her work makes people uncomfortable, though her intent is not to disrespect.
"Even to say, 'I don't believe in God' is enough to knock someone out of their chair and then to see it in a picture ... I've had a lot of hate come my way."
And even though she doesn't believe in hell, she feels a bit uneasy hearing that she is going straight to it.
"I am in no way trying to be a poster child for atheism," Ellyn said. "But I don't want to be punished for not believing in God."
Ellyn said she never means to harm anyone, so she finds it frightening that someone could be punished -- or lose their life -- over remarks or actions considered blasphemous. An Afghan student journalist was sentenced to death for distributing a paper that allegedly blasphemed Islam. A British schoolteacher spent time in a Sudanese jail after she allowed her students to name teddy bears after Mohammed.
These are cases that worry Lindsay and the members of his organization. He is most distressed by the U.N. General Assembly considering next month a binding resolution on the defamation of religion.
All this did not come easy to Lindsay, the son of Catholic parents who bared his soul in a confession booth each week. Later, he studied religion and philosophy in at Georgetown University. The more he read, the more he questioned beliefs that had been ingrained from childhood.
Slowly, the would-be-priest turned into an atheist lawyer -- and a 21st-century defender of time-worn sacrilege.
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