Some, perhaps even many, people in Thomas Aikenhead’s time held the view that it is possible to offend God, and that dire consequences would follow from such offence. For example, the informer Mungo Craig argued in his first pamphlet against Aikenhead that the magistrates should ‘attone with Blood, th’affronts of heav’n’s offended throne’.[31] Although the category into which a particular form of speech or action fell might be unclear, God in the view of Craig and others was certainly capable of being offended, and (civil) persons were capable of avenging the affront and restoring divine order. Moreover, they had a duty to respond on God’s behalf. In concluding, I want to suggest that understandings of blasphemy changed decisively not when we became secular, and devoted to free speech, but at some point much earlier, when understandings of God began to shift radically, such that God was understood as incapable of being offended.

Some fragments of the earlier understandings can still be glimpsed in other than Christian religious traditions. For example, in a remarkable reflection on Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner’s Nefesh ha’Hayyim, Emmanuel Levinas argues that our acts, words and thoughts condition the association of God with the world(s). Levinas quotes Volozhiner:

Let nobody in Israel—God forbid! ask himself, ‘what am I, and what can my humble acts achieve in the world?’. Let him rather understand this, that he may know it and fix it in his thoughts: not one detail of his acts, of his words, and of his thoughts is ever lost. Each one leads back to its origin, where it takes effect in the height of heights, in the worlds…The man of intelligence who understands this in its truth will be fearful at heart and will tremble as he thinks how far his bad acts reach and what corruption and destruction even a small misdeed may cause.[32]

In this view of God and his demands, blasphemy is perhaps best understood as the opposite of prayer, or rather of the moment of offering and grace in the benediction. Levinas argues that in prayer we make possible the association of God with the worlds in a creating and sustaining association. In contrast, blasphemy is something like a violent infidelity to God which shakes the foundations of the world by destroying its ethical intelligibility, not just by disturbing the social or political order by insulting believers. What flows on from blasphemy in this view is the malediction, not of God’s punishment, but simply of the breach between God and the world.

According to such older views, few remnants of which survive today, the verb ‘to blaspheme’ is transitive, and the object of the verb is God. Hence it was possible to claim that someone had ‘blasphemed God’, or to claim like St Paul to have been ‘blasphemed’. In older understandings of blasphemy, there was still the difficulty of whether we as citizens are capable of repairing the violence to God accomplished by the blasphemer, that is, whether the faithful have standing to apply for a civil remedy of wrong to the deity. Such a difficulty aside, the coherence of the position rests centrally on acceptance of blasphemy as constituted by affront to God, not to fellow believers.

One of the more interesting recent developments in regard to the offence of blasphemy are attempts to salvage what is still alive in the offence by substituting the category of religious vilification for that of blasphemy. For example, the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2001 makes unlawful the incitement of hatred, contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule on the grounds of religious belief or activity.[33] Rather than being explicitly targeted against discrimination, the Act is linked to the promotion of tolerance. In this way, I would argue, the Act understands vilification as akin to blasphemy, by construing the issue as involving offence to believers and as a matter of public order. Hence, I would argue, the Act does not avoid the problems of modern blasphemy law, and still does not grapple with the problem of offence to God.