A Different Perspective on Blasphemy

Ronald A. Lindsay

The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights, by Austin Dacey (New York: Continuum, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4411-8392-7) 208 pp. Paper, $19.95.

The word blasphemy has such an antique ring to it that one is tempted to think it went the way of the Spanish Inquisition. But prohibitions on speech critical of religion are no relic of the past. They remain a matter of serious concern. As the recent case involving the Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan reminds us, laws proscribing blasphemy continue in force in much of the world, even in so-called “moderate” Islamic countries.

Moreover, even in some secular Western democracies, blasphemous speech still may be subject to penalties, although the term blasphemy may have been discarded and the rationale for punishing the speech may have changed. The traditional core meaning of blasphemy is expressive conduct that disparages a deity or persons or objects entitled to special reverence because of their association with the divine (e.g., Muhammad). In secular states, this traditional understanding of blasphemy cannot provide a legitimate justification for restricting speech. Instead, various countries have utilized the concepts of “hate speech” or “defamation of religion” as a rationale for forbidding or curtailing speech critical of religion. Individual believers are said to have a right not to have their beliefs attacked in an offensive manner; there is an obligation to “respect” the religious sentiments of others. Blasphemy has been recategorized as a personal offense, not an act of irreverence against the divine.

This rationale for limiting expression cannot withstand scrutiny. It certainly cannot withstand the scrutiny of Austin Dacey, who in The Future of Blasphemy ably dissects the flaws in the argument that “personal blasphemy” should be prohibited. Dacey is well positioned to carry out this analysis, having served for several years as the Center for Inquiry’s United Nations representative, during which time he participated in debates on resolutions that sought to restrict “defamation of religion.”

The conventional argument against restricting expression critical of religion is the importance of freedom of speech. Although this is a powerful argument, Dacey also maintains we need to confront directly the claim that religious believers are entitled to respect. Dacey agrees that believers are entitled to respect—as that concept is properly cashed out. Respect for another does not require silence. To the contrary, if I am to treat someone as a moral equal, with equivalent standing in the community, then I must take his or her commitments and beliefs seriously. This implies, among other things, that I should critically examine the person’s beliefs and commitments and express my views regarding them. To fail to do so out of a concern of giving offense effectively treats the believer as someone who is not a full member of civil society but rather a person in need of special protection because he or she is unable to accept scrutiny of his or her beliefs. Restrictions on speech critical of religion treat believers as children.

This summary cannot do justice to Dacey’s closely argued thesis. In the course of addressing the lack of justification for blasphemy laws, Dacey provides illuminating discussions of several issues connected to our understanding of respect for others, such as the implications of human rights and the importance of democratic discourse. Suffice it to say that the first two-thirds of the book provides a compelling argument that we should not penalize expression critical of religion, whether it is classified as blasphemy or hate speech or something else.

The last section of the book provides a complex argument that will intrigue the philosophically inclined but perhaps does not pack the persuasive punch Dacey believes it possesses. In essence, Dacey argues we need to reframe the debate over blasphemy. Disputes over blasphemous expression are usually portrayed as a battle between the sacred and the secular. Dacey contends that a better framework for analyzing these disputes is to understand them as disagreements over particular conceptions of the sacred. He reminds us that blasphemy is committed by the religious as well as the nonreligious. For example, long before P Z Myers threw a Communion wafer into the trash, there had been a history of Protestants ridiculing the idea that the body of Jesus Christ is present in a consecrated host. For many of the Protestant faithful, the notion that God can be located in a wafer constitutes an insult to their notion of the sacred.

According to Dacey, the nonreligious also hold certain things to be sacred—or inviolable, if one prefers that term. Their criticism of religious beliefs is not a rejection of the notion of the inviolable but rather an expression of their different understanding of the sacred. And because all societies should allow for disagreements about competing notions of the sacred to be aired in the public forum, there should be no restrictions on speech that some consider blasphemous.

Essentially, what Dacey has done is to secularize the notion of the sacred, stripping it of its supernatural connotations. His reinterpretation of the sacred reminds me of a similar move by Ronald Dworkin in his book Life’s Dominion, in which Dworkin tried to reframe the debate over abortion by claiming that both sides believe in the sanctity of life; they just have different conceptions of “sanctity.” Dworkin’s argument, while bold, was largely considered a failure. Similarly, I am not convinced that Dacey’s reframing of the debate over blasphemy succeeds. He may be trying to squeeze the debate into a frame that does not fit. Surely, some secularists will maintain that disputes about blasphemy are not disputes over different conceptions of the sacred but rather disputes about whether the sacred is entitled to special protection from criticism. A key premise of Dacey’s argument is that the nonreligious hold certain things to be inviolable just as the religious do. That may be true, but we do not (generally) punish speech that criticizes or ridicules beliefs, concepts, or objects many hold inviolable. At least in the United States, Holocaust deniers are simply reviled, not silenced. Moreover, arguably nothing is more inviolable than the body of one’s spouse or child, but although mutilation of corpses is forbidden, we allow protesters to call your son a pervert who will be punished eternally at the same time as his solemn memorial services are taking place. The secular presumption is that conduct may be restricted (one can’t torch a church or mutilate a corpse) but not speech.

Nonetheless, whether Dacey’s reconceptualization of the debate ultimately succeeds, his argument merits serious consideration. This is a thoughtful, richly informative book that will reward any reader interested in freedom of expression.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.

The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights, by Austin Dacey (New York: Continuum, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4411-8392-7) 208 pp. Paper, $19.95. The word blasphemy has such an antique ring to it that one is tempted to think it went the way of the Spanish Inquisition. But prohibitions on speech …

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