Kenan Malik, who will likely be joining Freethoughtblogs soon, has an interesting article about the history and nature of blasphemy, based on a talk he gave at a conference on blasphemy in England that was sponsored by the Center for Inquiry. First, some history:
Until the abolition of the offence in 2008, blasphemy was committed in British law if there was published ‘any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject using words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive, and which tend to vilify the Christian religion’. The origins of the law go back a millennium. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 two orders of courts were established. Church courts decided all ecclesiastical cases, under the guidance of canon law, which legislated on moral offences. The civil or king’s courts were concerned with offences against the person or property. In 1401, King Henry IV empowered bishops to arrest and imprison suspected heretics, including ‘all preachers of heresy, all school masters infected with heresy and all owners and writers of heretical books’. If a heretic refused to abjure, or if he later relapsed, he could be ‘handed over to the civil officers, to be taken to a high place before the people and there to be burnt, so that their punishment might strike fear into the hearts of others’.
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.’
Any challenge to Christian doctrine was, in other words, also a challenge to the secular social order. The heresy that troubled Lord Chief Justice Hale was the kind of heresy that promoted ‘subversion of the law’, the kind of dissent that might unstitch civil society. The outlawing of blasphemy was therefore a necessary defence of traditional political authority.
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.’
Not only had Christianity become unwoven from the nation’s social fabric, but over the next half-century other faiths and cultures wove themselves in. The multicultural transformation of Britain made even less plausible the traditional arguments for the blasphemy law. In 1985, three years before the Rushdie affair, the Law Commission published a report on blasphemy entitled Offences against Religion and Public Worship. ‘In the circumstances now prevailing in this country,’ the Commission argued, ‘the limitation of protection to Christianity and, it would seem, the tenets of the Church of England, could not be justified.’ It should be abolished ‘without replacement’.
But if the reweaving of Britain’s social fabric provided an argument for the abolition of the blasphemy law, it also provided a reason, in some people’s minds, for its refashioning into a new offence that embraced non-Christian faiths and cultures. ‘A significant number of lawyers, clergymen and laymen’, wrote Richard Webster in A Brief History of Blasphemy, a book that came out a year after the Satanic Verses controversy and was highly critical of Rushdie and his supporters, ‘have begun to take the view that some protection of people’s religious feelings is necessary not primarily for religious or spiritual reasons but in the interests of social harmony.’
Thus we get new laws prohibiting the “defamation of religion” in some countries.
Blasphemy was a form of social regulation for society that thought of itself as homogenous. For a society that thinks of itself as plural, blasphemy can no longer play that role, at least in its traditional sense. Society was, in fact, never as homogenous as we now imagine that it used to be. Contemporary society is not as plural as many insist. What matters, however, is the perception of this shift, and the consequences of this perception for ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy. As people came to see themselves as living in a far more plural society, so blasphemy became reworked to be an offence not primarily against God, or even religion, but against an individual’s identity.
A distinction without a difference, and a very dangerous one.