Who Can Blaspheme?

Who Can Blaspheme? September 30, 2012

Today is International Blasphemy Rights Day, spearheaded by the Center for Inquiry.  It’s pretty much Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, but with a broader focus.  I fully back CFI’s fight against blasphemy laws (remember, just in the past few months, Alexander Aan and that girl in Pakistan).  I’m a little more dubious about the practical use of having people in the U.S. and other relatively free nations blaspheme as a way of drawing attention/funds to the fight against blasphemy laws.  But neither of those two issues is the topic I want to discuss today.

Blasphemy is one of the sins I’m a little confused about.  It seems like it’s about the betrayal of a relationship, and I don’t really understand how that can happen if you’re unaware of the relationship.  Let’s contrast blasphemy with the crime of insulting the Thai monarchy.  Although these laws might be enforceable in Thailand, they aren’t binding in the rest of the world.  Whether or not the Thai king actually has rightful authority over Thailand, he definitely doesn’t have it over the whole world.  I have no fealty to him, so the only responsibility I have to betray is the same kind of responsibility I have to all human beings (which is rather a lot to be going on with).

Christianity makes a more audacious claim.  Christ the King does have rightful authority over everyone, but this claim is as unobvious to many people as the Thai king’s claim to the whole world would be.  So maybe the better analogy would be being raised by a single mother, unaware of the identity of your father, and then failing to meet him and take care of him in his old age.  This lapse would be tragic, for you and for him, but it wouldn’t be a chosen slight.  And a mortal sin must be committed with full knowledge and consent.

So, are people participating in Blasphemy day actually blaspheming?  I’m not sure.  Intuitively, this seems more like the kind of sin that only religious people can commit against their own religions; to choose to profane something, you must first acknowledge it as holy.


Further reading: While still an atheist, I wrote a series of posts opposing PZ Myers’s desecration of a consecrated Host, since it seemed only intended to upset people, not to defend his own freedom.

Further further reading: Atheist Kenan Malick has posted the transcript of a talk he gave on the history of blasphemy laws.  It includes this interesting excerpt:

Despite the concern with God and Christianity, the outlawing of blasphemy was less about defending the dignity of the divine than of protecting the sanctity of the state. In 1676 John Taylor was convicted of blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ was a ‘bastard’ and a ‘whoremaker’ and that religion was a ‘cheat’. ‘That such kind of wicked and blasphemous words were not only an offence against God and religion’, observed the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, in front of whom Taylor was tried, ‘but a crime against the laws, States and Government; and therefore punishable in this court; that to say religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved; and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.’

…Four hundred years after Taylor’s conviction, Lord Denning, perhaps Britain’s most important judge of the twentieth century, made, in 1949, much the same point about the relationship between blasphemy and social disorder, though he drew the opposite conclusion about the necessity of the law. Historically, he observed, ‘The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded on Christian religion.’ But, Denning added, ‘There is no such danger in society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.’

Back then, there was more agreement that Christian natural law undergirded social law.  Now, post-Christian thinking has managed to pull in a lot of the results of Christian metaphysics, but hasn’t always bothered to derive them from a new metaphysics.  So Denning is probably right that all the scaffolding exists to sustain the necessary ideas without belief in God.  But it makes me wonder what the new unthinkable thought is.  (Possibly relativism).

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