Concluding remarks

Let me conclude by offering a few tentative remarks on how the history I have sketched might bear on current issues, including some of those raised at this conference. I have stressed that the European religious settlements of the late seventeenth century took no single form, and were we to look at France whose settlement had to wait another century, that would only add a third quite different model to those of Germany and England. Nonetheless, despite this, it still makes sense to talk of a broad European-wide movement in which the religious crimes of heresy, sacrilege and blasphemy would lose their status as public crimes. They underwent a sea change, such that the boundary between the sacred and the profane no longer marks the perimeter of the political community but only that of particular religious communities, or sometimes simply particular religious sensibilities.

The historical account offered of this complex of developments should lead us to be sceptical of two modern philosophical and theological attitudes towards the transformations in question. First, it should lead us to question the accounts of toleration given by philosophical liberalism, which seek to ground toleration in the recovery of universal reason and universal subjective rights. As I have already indicated, in Brandenburg-Prussia, Thomasius’s arguments for toleration and against heresy, witchcraft and sacrilege laws were grounded not in universal reason and subjective rights, but in an intensely spiritualist theology and a quasi-Hobbesian politics oriented to the desacralisation of the state. Second, for the same reasons, though, we should also be sceptical of philosophical-communitarian accounts of these developments which portray them in terms of the loss of identity-affirming community membership, the emergence of atomised rights-bearing individuals, and a privatisation of religion that would rob political life of depth and meaning. It is true that the undoing of heresy, sacrilege and blasphemy laws gradually allowed for the uncoupling of the religious and political communities, but this multiplied rather than diminished the number of communities to which individuals might belong, or the number of personae they might cultivate. Moreover, while it is also true that religion was privatised in the sense of eventually being removed from the coercive apparatus of the state, the threshold of the ‘public’ that was established—namely, the likelihood of causing civil violence—was high enough to allow for a wide variety of religious institutions and activities to flourish in the civil arena. In fact, the more the state came to approximate a detranscendentalised security envelope, the more it became possible for religious communities to pursue intensely transcendental forms of religious cultivation inside this envelope, without having to fear reprisals from neighbouring communities to whom their version of the sacred might appear sacrilegious.

As a result of the broad developments we have discussed, in those Western European-based jurisdictions where sacrilege and blasphemy laws remained on the books, they lost their sacral character. As these laws evolved in the modern period, it was no longer the violation of persons, things and places inhabited by a transcendent divinity that defined the crime, but something else altogether: the giving of offence in a manner that might lead to civil disorder or violence. Thomasius had already reconstructed the laws pertaining to heresy, blasphemy and witchcraft in this way during the 1690s, in order to prevent their use as weapons of mutual persecution by those who disagreed about the way in which the Christian God inhabited the world. And this broadly is the history of blasphemy law presumed by the New South Wales Law Reform Commission in its Blasphemy Report of 1994; for the Commissioners argue that the key element of the law—that of offensiveness likely to cause civil disturbance—obviates the need for a special law on blasphemy, as this element is well covered by other public-order and anti-discrimination laws.[20] I would suggest that this kind of recommendation is indicative not of a state of affairs in which society has lost touch with the sacred; rather, it is indicative of one in which the sacred exists only at the level of society—that is, at the level of voluntary religious associations—having been purged from the coercive apparatus of the state as a result of the early modern religious settlements.