It should have been this

Charlie Klendjian of the Lawyers’ Secular Society gave a talk yesterday at UCL ASH. He pointed out that “offence” is, in some contexts, code for blasphemy.

So, somehow we have accepted that we are allowed to cause offence generally, and we’re even allowed to offend virtually all religious sensibilities, for example with films such as the Life of Brian, artwork showing a crucifix in urine, or plays about Mormonism.

So it appears there is one exception to this rule that we’re generally allowed to cause offence. That exception, as we have seen, is Islam. Islam is refusing to play by the rules. We are not allowed to offend Islam.

I think we need a different word to “offence” for the purposes of this discussion. Don’t you? How about, I don’t know, the word “blasphemy”? Shall we just call it what it is? It’s blasphemy.

Because when we use the term “offence” we are really using a code word for blasphemy.

Today, we are living under a blasphemy law. And the saddest thing is, most people can’t even bring themselves to admit this.

I wonder if the not admitting is partly because people think it’s not a blasphemy law when it applies only to someone else’s god – when you obey it to be generous to others, as opposed to when bristling in defense of your own gods. Vicarious blasphemy doesn’t count as blasphemy, perhaps.

Unfortunately I have to report that nothing has really changed since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as far as I can see. Of course everyone found it very easy to condemn murder, as they should, but they didn’t find it quite so easy to unequivocally defend the right to free speech – and in particular the right to depict Mohammed. And they found it harder still to actually physically exercise that right to depict Mohammed.

Charlie Hebdo wasn’t a turning point; it was just the next step in a rapid downward spiral.

If anything was going to be the turning point, it should have been this. If anything was going to create the “I am Spartacus” moment across the media and the press, it should have been this.

Unfortunately it didn’t happen. There were some exceptions, for example theIndependent and even the Guardian of all newspapers printed an image, and the BBC showed an image on the 10 o’clock News, on Newsnight, on Panorama, and on its website.

But the other papers bottled it, the Spectator bottled it, and even Private Eye bottled it.

The New York Times bottled it.

What can we do? Blaspheme more.

But let me end on a positive note by talking about the solution. I know my speech has been downbeat. Forgive me, but as a secularist and an Armenian and a lawyer I occupy a unique position on the Venn diagram of pessimism.

How do you solve the problem of this blasphemy code? It’s so easy, it’s embarrassing. You don’t have to lobby Parliament, you don’t need to start a political party, nothing like that. There’s only one way to repeal this blasphemy code – and that’s by breaching it. Over and over and over again. Do it loudly and do it proudly, and don’t apologise. If someone asks you why you’re depicting Mohammed, say “someone has to”.

Is it scary? Yes of course it is. But the more of us who do it, the less scary it becomes. We have to spread the risk, and we have to use the power of ridicule to isolate the nutcases – and their apologists.

Well, I now have my blasphemous copy of blasphemous Charlie Hebdo.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I don’t like calling it a blasphemy law, even mockingly. A law is something that is explicitly passed by an entity empowered by a society to do so, hopefully after a good discussion by at least a majority of the society has had a chance to consider the pros and cons of the law. These terrorist actions are by tiny, tiny, splinter groups deciding that their feelings and opinions trump 99.9999% of the rest of the society. Don’t give them the honor of calling their temper-tantrums laws.

    And the prophet Mohammed drinks bacon flavored vodka!

  2. says

    So it appears there is one exception to this rule that we’re generally allowed to cause offence. That exception, as we have seen, is Islam.

    I just can’t agree with this, and I think the idea that we should specifically focus on Islam is a bad and dangerous one. Charlie Hebdo has been sued more than a dozen times in the past 20 years by the Catholic Right. The Catholic Right in France has proposed anti-blasphemy laws (and as another recent post points out these laws exist in Christian countries). The Catholic Right in France under Vichy destroyed monuments to martyrs of blasphemy. Even the more leftwing Pope suggested that violence is a reasonable response to religious offense.

    In the US, 300 of the 301 members of the Republican congressional majority are Christian. Many, including most if not all of those going on the trip to Israel organized and paid for by the explicitly theocratic AFA, are themselves theocrats. They couldn’t care less about Muslims’ religious sensibilities or blasphemy about Islam, and would happily deport Muslims (and in some cases Jews and the members of minority Christian sects), destroy their places of worship, and deny them the right to practice their religion. They do care, though, about blasphemy, and are only prevented from criminalizing and viciously punishing it by secular laws and the people who defend these laws and exercise their rights.

    It’s essential to continue to blaspheme against Christianity, Judaism, and other religions as we continue to do with Islam. Not just because focusing exclusively on anti-Islamic blasphemy can lead to the appearance of allying with bigots and actually attract bigots who want to use blaspheming as a cover for their racism, but because the Islamic Right is not remotely our only foe. We have to defend the principle of blasphemy, which extends to all religions and challenges the whole religious Right.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    Once more, alas, I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

    True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did [Clarence] Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of [William Jennings] Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.

    The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

    I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

    What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero’s shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours. – H. L. Mencken, “Aftermath” of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Sept. 14, 1925

    We must respond honestly, regardless of the religious’ tender feelings. This was written almost 90 years ago; it remains as current, timely, and appropriate as it was then, though the context has changed. This is sad 🙁

  4. says

    The only way one could truly “offend” the religious is by calling their beliefs lies, or wrong. They do this to eachother, implicitly, all the time. But it’s not my fault that their beliefs are lies, and it would be easy to demonstrate their truth. “Blasphemy” is just religious people projecting their inner fear of being exposed as gullible, onto those who might expose them. Sorry, believers, but you don’t get to blame me for your own foolishness.

  5. AMM says

    I can’t get on board with this. This all sounds too much like one punk knocking a chip off another one’s shoulder because he dared him to. If the point of “blaspheming” is simply to prove we can, how is that different from (white) people running around shouting the N-word in black people’s faces, just to prove we can? Yeah, I’d have to defend your right not to be put in jail for it (assuming you’ve observed reasonable time-and-place restrictions), but what does it prove? It would be one thing if saying something reasonable or necessary (or something you think is reasonable and necessary) happened to count as blasphemy for some people, but just doing because you know someone will get offended?

    I’m speaking particularly as a USAan, a citizen and resident of a country where “blasphemy”, especially “blasphemy” against a religion most people here think the worst of anyway, isn’t going to get you into much trouble. But if you are an atheist in a country where blasphemy will get you into trouble (like Saudi Arabia), I don’t think that the idea of blasphemy for the sake of blasphemy is going to make much sense, either. If you’re going to die for your principles, or get 1,000 lashes for them, you probably want to do so for something more than the right to be obnoxious.

    We defend obnoxious speech (in the USA), not because we think obnoxious speech is good or necessary. We defend it because trying to forbid it has historically also ended up forbidding speech we consider essential to having the kind of country we want to live in. Cf. the Nazi march in Skokie, IL. Should we run around parroting Nazi slogans just to demonstrate that we can?

  6. PatrickG says

    How about when people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher blaspheme? If it were sincerely about debunking superstitious belief, they’d be a bit more liberal with the application. I would absolutely agree that this form of “blasphemy” is straight-up analogous to saying “nigger” (because you can’t!).

    It’s just so edgy and in-your-face. How brave!

    To be clear, I absolutely get and agree with what you’re saying. But there’s a lot of asshats who will jump on the anti-Islam bandwagon while ignoring basically everything SC said at #5. It’s a problem.

  7. PatrickG says

    To add, I have a great deal more respect for people like our gracious bloghost, who derides and pulicizes the abuses of all religions than people who bash Islam while rah-rahing how awesome this Pope dude is.

  8. says

    Yes but people who bash Islam while rah-rahing how awesome this Pope dude is aren’t going to like this blog, so why talk about that here? It doesn’t seem relevant to anything here.

  9. Bruce says

    Intellectual and moral integrity demand that we should blaspheme against all religions, cults, and superstitions. But in each society, the top priority ideally should be whichever of these is closest to cultural or societal dominance. So, for example, in Italy it is more important to blaspheme against the pope, while in the UK it is more necessary to blaspheme against the dominance by Islam. In the USA, it is more vital to blaspheme against the Protestant fundamentalists and the Catholics, who team up to push anti-choice restrictions on the rest of the country.
    Of course, in places such as Arabia, people should also consider self-preservation in the face of the barbarism there.
    But for many of us, there’s no reason to avoid the old slogan “fuck god”.

  10. PatrickG says

    Your blog post is about blaspheming, spreading numbers, making it safer, and pushing media organizations (e.g. the NY Times) to get to a different standard. The problem is we already have a great deal of media that is quite happy to trash talk Muslims while treating Christianity with kid gloves, if not outright deference.

    It’d be great to get the NYT to publish the cover of CH! It’d be greater if they did that and came out against precisely the same efforts by the Catholic Church, as one example. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination saying that you’re claiming we should only pursue the former — I’m asserting that there a lot of people out there who do.

    Therefore, I think it’s highly relevant to discuss how the specific tactic you’ve written about over many blog posts (i.e. draw Mohammed) could easily feed into that paradigm. I’m also a bit puzzled that you would claim discussion is irrelevant on the basis of, what, you don’t intend people who don’t like your work to ever read your work? I think you underestimate your reach!

    P.S. (o.o) <– Mohammed. My ASCII skills suck, granted.

  11. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Having been threatened with a blasphemy charge in the UK, I think that it is actually a bit more than mere offense, it is pointing out that their religious faith is illogical or inconsistent.

    My problem came from actually reading Mathew:

    16 and Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary,
    who gave birth to[h] Jesus who is called the Messiah.
    17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were 14 generations; and from David until the exile to Babylon, 14 generations; and from the exile to Babylon until the Messiah, 14 generations.
    18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.

    See the problem? The laborious geneology is for Joseph who we are told in the next line isn’t the father. But it gets worse, lets try Luke:

    30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. 33 And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

    So Gabriel turns up and tells Mary she is pregnant. What do we call that sort of behavior these days? Sounds a little bit like rape.

    Now once you start to hold God up to his own system of morality then it quickly collapses. According to the Bible he has the moral compass of a three year old.

    Thing is though, once the religion falls apart, so will the house of Saud.

  12. PatrickG says

    Having been threatened with a blasphemy charge in the UK

    Jesus Christ! Maybe the Anglicans need to submit to secularism!

  13. says

    What do you mean “threatened with”? You mean some random person said “that’s blasphemy!”? Or what? I don’t actually believe you were formally “threatened with” a criminal charge by anyone in an official capacity. I call bullshit.

  14. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Ophelia, UK law at the time still allowed for private prosecutions. Take a look at Mary Whitehouse and the Romans in Britain.

  15. AMM says

    Ophelia Benson @8

    AMM – can you explain how “blasphemy” is in any way like shouting “nigger” in people’s faces?

    Blasphemy simply for the sake of being blasphemous (which is what your article seems to be promoting) and shouting “n*****” are both examples of offending people for the sake of offending people.

    Both are protected speech (at least in the USA, subject to reasonable time and place restrictions), but not because they make the world a better place.

    (They are, however, a good way of expressing solidarity with people who hate the groups being offended — or of being seen as such people.)

  16. says

    AMM – that works only if you leave out very important differences between the two. Shouting “nigger” has no content or substance, it’s just an insult, an epithet, a racist dogwhistle. “Blasphemy” is not like that at all. Blasphemy is full of content, and content that matters. That’s especially true given that theocrats define even mere criticism and dissent as “blasphemy.”

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