I gave a talk called ‘Beyond the sacred’, on the changing character of ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy, at a conference on blasphemy organised this weekend by the Centre for Inquiry at London’s Conway Hall on Saturday. Here is a transcript.
To talk about blasphemy is also to talk about the idea of the sacred. To see something as blasphemous is to see it in some way as violating a sacred space. In recent years, both the notion of blasphemy and that of the sacred have transformed. What I want to explore here is the nature of that transformation, and what it means for free speech.
For believers, the idea of the sacred is key to moral life. Detachment from the sacred, the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor claimed at the installation ceremony for his successor, Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, has been responsible for war and terror, sin and evil. In this view the acceptance of the sacred is indispensable for the creation of a moral framework and for the injection of meaning and purpose into life.
I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the relationship between religion and morality. As an atheist, I do not see myself as lacking a moral compass, or being unaware of boundaries, or being burdened by a sense of a purposeless life. What I do want to do is look more carefully at what we mean by the ‘sacred’. Religion, Leszek Kolokowski, the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, acknowledged, ‘is man’s way of accepting life as inevitable defeat’. ‘To reject the sacred is’, as he puts it, ‘to reject our own limits.’ In this Tragic view of the human condition, the sacred exists to protect human beings from the flaws of their own nature. ‘The sacred order’, as Kolokowski observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’
The sacred, in this sense, is less about the transcendent than it is about the taboo. The sacred sphere, as French sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out a century ago, constitutes a social space that is set apart and protected from being defiled: a set of rules and practices that cannot be challenged. It provides a means of protecting not the kingdom of heaven but the citadels of earthly power. The sacred, Kolakowski observes, ‘simply reaffirms and stabilizes the structure of society – its forms and its systems of divisions, and also its injustices, its privileges and its institutionalized instruments of oppression.’ Blasphemy, and the sacred, in other words, are not simply about theology and religion, but also about politics and power. We can see the way that blasphemy and the sacred have helped speak to social and political power if we look at the history of blasphemy in Britain.
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.’
One such figure was Lord Scarman. Two years before he wrote his famous report on the Brixton riots, he was one of the Law Lords who presided over the last great blasphemy trial in Britain. In 1977 Mary Whitehouse had brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the newspaper Gay News. It had published a poem by James Kirkup called ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’, about the love of a centurion for Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. Whitehouse won the case and Gay News appealed against the conviction.
In 1979 the case finally came to the House of Lords, then the highest appeal court in Britain. The Law Lords, one of whom was Lord Scarman, upheld the original verdict. ‘I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law,’ Scarman wrote in his judgement. But such a law must be extended ‘to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians’. Blasphemy ‘belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom. In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, ridicule and contempt.’ ‘The internal tranquility of the kingdom’: the role of blasphemy, in other words, is again acknowledged not as protecting religion but as defending social peace.
In 1985 the Law Commission looked into this and rejected such an extension, arguing that the deficiencies of the law ‘are so serious and so fundamental that… no measure short of abolition would be adequate to deal with these deficiencies’. The Commission dismissed the idea that religion should have special protection, observing that ‘Reverence for God… does not differ fundamentally in character from reverence accorded to any person against whom those according respect are unwilling to entertain grounds of criticism.’ It pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’.
The Law Commission inquiry was, however, far from united in its view. Two of the five members appended a Note of Dissent to the majority report. The dissenters were particularly influenced by an outside working party that had insisted that some legal constraints were necessary for the protection of social harmony. ‘If scurrilous attacks on religious beliefs go unpunished by law,’ the working party suggested, ‘they could embitter strongly held feelings within substantial groups of people, could destroy working relationships between different groups, and where religion and race are intimately bound together could deepen the tensions that already are a disturbing feature in some parts of this country.’ The Note of Dissent proposed the replacement of blasphemy by a new offence that recognized ‘the duty on our citizens, in our society of different races and people of different faiths and of no faith, not purposely to insult or outrage the religious feelings of others’.
In the end both the majority and minority views came to fruition. The blasphemy law was finally repealed in 2008. But it had already been replaced by a number of laws that secularized the offence of blasphemy. Two years before the blasphemy law was abolished, parliament had passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which made it an offence to incite hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. The aim was to extend to Muslims, and other faith groups, the same protection that racial groups, including Sikhs and Jews, possessed under Britain’s various Race Relations Acts. In fact, it was already an offence to perpetrate hate speech. In 1998 the Public Order Act had been amended to make it an offence to ‘display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’.
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.
Consider, for instance, Ziauddin Sardar’s account of his encounter with The Satanic Verses. Sardar is a liberal Muslim, highly critical of Islamism and other fundamentalist strands. In his book Distorted Imagination, he describes reading Rushdie’s novel on a plane from Kuala Lumpur to London. By the time he landed at Heathrow, he writes,
It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity. Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.
Sardar’s friend Gulzar Haider, Professor of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, was ‘lying on a sofa’ when he heard the news of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. ‘So catastrophic was the effect’, Sardar reports, ‘he couldn’t move, it was as though his body had been struck down by a disease. He was sofa bound for almost a year. His friend and colleague Merryl Davies ‘bellowed like a fiery dragon goaded by a million arrows, writhing by turns with sorrow and rage.’ It is almost as if Sardar and his friends were driving themselves into a kind of self-induced hysteria, as if they felt that they had to suffer personally for their faith to be meaningful.
This intensely personal, deeply emotional response marks a shift in the way that believers understood their relationship to belief. Faith has always had an emotional components and for some faiths such emotional spirituality has been central to their outlook. Nevertheless there has been a fundamental shift in the character of religious belief in recent decades. Sociologist talk of the rise of the ‘therapy culture’ to describe the growing emotionalism of our age. Scholars such as the philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Olivier Roy have described how such emotionalism has become central to new forms of ‘expressive’ faiths. Faith, as Charles Taylor observes in his book A Secular Age, has become disembedded from its historical culture, and reconstituted instead as part of the culture of ‘expressive individualism’, forms of spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and rooted in the social values of what the writer Tom Wolfe has called the ‘me generation’. ‘All religious revival movements of the late twentieth century’, Olivier Roy writes, are marked by an ‘anti-intellectualism that favours a more emotional religiosity’, so that ‘feelings are more important than knowledge’. This is true not just of radical Islam but also of other ‘born again’ religions such as charismatic Christianity, the Lubavitch, one of the largest Jewish Hasidic communities, and the Hinduvta, a Hindu revivalist movement. Such faiths, in Roy’s words, ‘play on emotion through ritual and collective expressions of faith, using symbolic and ostensible markers of belonging’.
In Spiritual Revolution, their study of religious practices in a small town in northern England, the sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead show that while traditional religious congregations are on the decline, ‘New Age’ forms of spirituality are beginning to fill the gap. But more than this, many once-traditional believers are beginning to adopt New Age attitudes and rituals, developing new forms of faith that celebrate the emotional aspects of spirituality and seek to fulfil the believer’s inner needs. Such congregations often combine a literal reading of the Holy Book, and an insistence on the unchanging character of religious truths, with a God that speaks to their individual, subjective needs. ‘We don’t go to mass because we feel like it, or not go because we don’t feel like it, we go because the church gave us an obligation to go to mass’, an elderly Roman Catholic lady explained to Heelas and Woodhead. For all the literalism of the new forms of faith, such obligation is alien to them. Instead, they provide ‘more space for each every individual participant to explore and express his emotions in his own way, and to let those emotions set the agenda of the religion rather than vice versa.’
In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics. Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness. The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity. That is why for Sardar, ‘Every word [of The Satanic Verses] was directed at me and I took everything personally’, why he imagined that Rushdie had ‘despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity’. This is also why many laws these days that ostensibly protect faith – such as Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act – are framed primarily in terms of protecting the culture and identity of individuals or communities. In today’s world, identity is God, in more ways than one.
The transformation in the meaning of blasphemy has not, however, transformed its underlying role. The prohibition of blasphemy remains a means, in Kolokowski’s words, of ‘reaffirming and stabilizing the structure of society’, of ‘proclaiming “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”’. But it has become a means of protecting beliefs deemed essential not to society as a whole, but to specific communities, and to an individual’s identity and self-esteem. What, however, defines a community? And who defines which beliefs are essential to a community? Or to the identity of individuals within it? These, too, are matters not of theology, or even of culture, but of power. The struggle to define certain beliefs or thoughts as offensive or blasphemous is a struggle to establish power within a community and to establish one voice as representative or authentic of that community. What is called offence to a community is in reality usually a debate within a community. – but in viewing that debate as a matter of offence or of blasphemy, one side gets instantly silenced.
Take the row over Salman Rushdie’s appearance, or rather non-appearance, at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The Islamists who, with connivance from the state and the festival organizers, successfully prevented Rushdie from appearing, even by video link, no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within different Muslim communities. And this has been true since the beginnings of the Rushdie affair. Back in the 1980s Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in then was deeply entrenched within Asian communities. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.
The same is true of, say, the controversy over Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti which was driven off stage by protestors in 2004. The protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by Kaur Bhatti’s play no more spoke for the Sikh community than did Kaur Bhatti herself. Both spoke for different strands within that community. But, as in the Rushdie affair, only the protestors were seen as authentically of their community, while Kaur Bhatti, like Rushdie, was regarded as too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic or truly of her community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, in secular liberal eyes, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti. The argument for the necessity of blasphemy laws, or for the outlawing of offensiveness, is, then, both rooted in stereotypes of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce those stereotypes. This, of course, has nothing to do with the reality of being a Muslim or a Sikh, but everything to do with the reality of identity politics. Identity politics has rendered communities into homogenous, distinct, authentic groups, composed of people all speaking with a single voice, all driven by a single understanding of their faith. Once authenticity is so defined, then only the most conservative, reactionary figures come to be seen as the true voices of those communities.
The idea that certain views are off limits because they are offensive or blasphemous is both an expression of an essentialized view of what constitutes a community and a means of justifying that view. On the one hand, the contemporary, identity-driven notion of blasphemy only makes sense if we accept the myth of communities as homogenous, distinctive, authentic, composed of people all speaking with a single voice. On the other, it is a means of instantiating that myth by asserting the power of one strand of opinion within that community, by establishing that strand as the true authentic view, and hence of silencing all opposing views. Or, to put it another way, ‘You can’t say that!’ is the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be contested, that certain beliefs are so important or valuable or essential that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. It is the creation of a sacred space safe from the prospect of violation.
The idea of blasphemy or offensiveness speaks to power in a second sense too. It has become an important means not just of grounding the power of particular community leaders, but of allowing the state to regulate relations between social groups. The modern argument for blasphemy laws from liberals such as Lord Scarman or Richard Webster is that such laws are necessary ‘in the interests of social harmony’, to protect ‘the internal tranquillity of the kingdom’. In fact the consequence of such laws has been the creation of greater disharmony and turmoil. Every group has sought to create its own sacred space, upon which no one may encroach, leading to an explosion of sectarian rivalries as each one demands its right not to be offended or blasphemed against. As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’
But the marketplace of outrage has created not just a problem but an opportunity too. For in a fragmented, tribal society, the state is able to step in as peacemaker. Speech regulation has become a mechanism through which to regulate social relations between groups in an era of identity politics. And that only establishes even more securely the need for a secular sacred space, or rather for a plethora of secular sacred spaces, none of which must not be violated.
The importance of blasphemy is in providing a language of power. To decree certain views, certain ideas, certain practices, even certain thoughts, as taboo is to demand that certain forms of power cannot be contested. The importance of the principle of free speech is, on the other hand, in providing a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence in acting as an ever-present test to authority. Its importance is in insisting that nothing is so sacred that it cannot be questioned or debated. Once we give up the right to offend or to blaspheme, once we accept the idea of a sacred space, whether religious or secular, then we erode our ability to defy those in power. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’