Understanding blasphemy

In recent years, there has been significant debate about the role of blasphemy law in a multicultural society, and although some governments have considered abolishing elements of existing blasphemy laws, which only protect Christianity, there have also been suggestions that they should be extended to cover all religious groups. At the core of this debate is an important concern: how best to protect and respect religious pluralism, through freedom of speech or through the recognition and extension of blasphemy laws.

Understanding blasphemy poses an enormous challenge, largely because both its definition and our comprehension of its harm are generally understood within a legal framework.[8] Laws against blasphemy and sacrilege are infrequently exercised in most Western democracies. Nonetheless, certain acts elicit strong public reactions and widespread debate. Recent famous cases include the fatwa issued against Salmon Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses, and the attack on Andres Serrano’s photograph ‘Piss Christ’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, with the subsequent closure of the exhibition. The extent that a liberal democracy should respect and engage with these religious sentiments presents an ongoing problem for any multicultural society. In law, blasphemy is prohibited as a form of libel within the criminal code. Its origins are from the ecclesiastical courts of the Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission. Since the early twentieth century, when it lost its connection with heresy and sedition under Australian law, blasphemy has been defined as vilification, ridicule and irreverence towards Christianity. As such, it is concerned with the manner rather than the matter (content) of something that is publicly spoken or published. Its primary purpose is understood to be the protection of the sentiments of Christians and the prevention of social disorder.[9] As such, it might be thought that the primary moral wrong of an act of blasphemy involves giving offence.

Interestingly, however, the authors collected here who speak from a religious perspective have resisted interpreting blasphemy in terms protecting religious sentiment. Pringle specifically argues against this interpretation (chapter 3). She notes that it is almost universally agreed that blasphemy laws should be abolished. If their purpose is to protect the public order, and to protect Christians from outrage and insult, then there seems little point in keeping them. Blasphemy has become almost impossible to prove, and it is not clear what it is really protecting. The charge of blasphemy mounted by Bishop George Pell, in Melbourne, against Serrano’s Piss Christ, was dismissed because it did not incite social unrest. The case mounted by Mary Whitehouse against Gay News for its publication of a poem and illustration of Christ’s crucifixion, while in part based on the claim that it offended believers, was also based on the claim that it offended God. Pringle argues a belief in blasphemy ultimately relies on the belief that God can be offended. And she thinks that this is the case. Blasphemy is an offence to God which calls into question the ethical integrity of the world, and which has consequences that resonate through God and the world. Similarly, St John argues that blasphemy, which she develops as a category separate from specific belief systems, is the abandonment of a cardinal virtue common to all human beings, that is, the experience of awe which is central to the subjectivity of all peoples.

Like Pringle, Brady does not think blasphemy is a harm of offence to the believer, but in contrast, sees it as an act of denial (chapter 4). The existence of blasphemy is tied to the existence of the sacred, and where the latter does not exist, or is not accepted by the dominant group in society, then blasphemy occurs in the denial of the sacred as an aspect of human existence. Thus, Brady argues that the experience of the sacred is not tied to organised religion, but the sense of that which extends beyond the known world, mysterium tremendum et fascinans, and the failure to recognise this is in itself blasphemous. As Brady argues, contemporary Australia is materialistic, and (growing out of its origins in imperial expansion and domination) has an exploitative and utilitarian orientation to other peoples, the land and the future. As a result, rights, and the dignity of subordinate groups are ignored or denied, and enormous moral harm done both to those who are rejected and to the ethical being of those who reject them. As she puts it ‘the growing coarseness, narrow-mindedness and violence, the paranoia and xenophobia evident around us today point to its consequences’.

For Rutland, it is not the agnostic or atheist who blaspheme, but the religious extremists and bigots who foster hatred and destruction. Yet, while there is disagreement between Rutland, Pringle, St John and Brady about which acts constitute blasphemy, all four interpretations seem to share a common theme: blasphemous acts constitute a disruption of ‘right relations’ in the world and a diminution of what it is to be fully human.

These authors should not be understood as promoting religious orthodoxy. Nor should they be thought of as undermining the political ideals of toleration, the secularisation of the state, or the policy of multiculturalism. Their interpretations of blasphemy operate beyond debates about the relationship between organised religion and the state, because they refuse to align the concept of ‘the sacred’ with any particular organised religion. Rather, they should be thought of as directing their attack on the culture or process of secularisation that leaves no place for the sacred as an important value that needs to be taken into account in our public and private lives.

Liberals, on the other hand, would like to see religion as a matter for the individual in the private sphere (which they can then comfortably defend) but they do not want it as a public matter in the political sphere. This becomes most problematic when religions—other than individualised Protestantism and Catholicism—enter liberal societies, since often they will take the position that religious adherence is not about the privatised practices of the individual, but about the provision of a total environment in which the religious life can be led. Where the sacred is directly tied to a specific religion, as in Islam, it would appear then that there is less scope to negotiate the sacred. However, as Kuranda Seyit argues, there has been a long history of legitimate dissent within Islam, culminating in attempts by modern Islamic scholars to develop a position that is ‘authentically Islamic and effectively modern’ (chapter 5). Like Rutland and Lamb, scholars such as Omid Safi and Tariq Ramadan identify fanatic fundamentalists as the real blasphemers, and call for Muslims to wrestle with their faith and to reject traditionalism that is embraced for the sake of traditionalism. Nevertheless, there are strong social tendencies, especially in the Salaf movement, in Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which resist critical debate, calling for the strict observance of Shari’a law. Seyit, however, is confident that the history of critical thought within Islam, will prevail over fundamentalism.