Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On Blasphemy

A TV ad for a hair styler has been judged offensive by the Advertising Standards Authority. The ad uses part of the Lord's Prayer - 'Thy will be done' - and the initial 't' is made to resemble the cross. This is combined with erotic images of women. There's a very pale echo here of Theo van Gogh's film Submission in which verses from the Koran were projected on to the naked bodies of women. Van Gogh was killed, the ADA only requires the withdrawal of the ad and I don't think there are many British Christians like Mohammed Bouyeri. Then, of course, there were the Danish cartoons of the Prophet. Here's the question - is blasphemy a category of expression so distinct from any other that it cannot claim the defence of free speech? The strong liberal position is that it cannot, people are free to believe anything they like but must accept that those beliefs are open to criticism and abuse. The strong anti-liberal position is that a religion embodies a final truth, insulting which represents a crime against God. To permit such insults in the name of preserving freedom or social order is to misunderstand human destiny. I incline towards the first position for many reasons, not least because the second position is self-compromising - if a truth is so final, how can a few earthly insults be so important; indeed, how can they happen at all if the truth has been so thoroughly finalised? On the other hand, religious belief is, to a rough approximation, a universal human phenomenon and insults to belief do cause believers real anguish. The more genuine and pragmatic liberal position, therefore, might be an acceptance of this and the proscription of certain levels of blasphemy. We do, after all, proscribe racist 'hate' speech. The problem is that blasphemy is too easily self-defined and, as a result, this latter sort of liberalism is now being abused by Muslim extremists whose agitators are trying to turn almost every non-Muslim reference to Islam into blasphemy. Theo van Gogh's film is the flip side of that - religious extremism produces liberal extremism in response. The ordinary, respectful and very English acceptance of the faith of others that requires recourse to neither law nor murder seems to be a thing of the past. Which is a pity because, on the whole, neither lawyers nor murderers are the best hope for the future of the species.


  1. As the base of the law hinges on property, in One Is the owner of a belief. And from there it is not a liberal difficulty but a legal one. It is much easier to say that a belief holds us. Which is philosophical tosh, but theologically reasonably sound. Such a concept is very difficult to digest in the current climate.

  2. i saw an ad for some football thing once, with the slogan: "many are called but few are chosen!"

    Although i'm not a Xian, and indeed some have called me the Devil, i found this misuse of the Gospels really distasteful (probably because i hate football). But what could one do? It would, i think, be ridiculous to make laws prohibiting the use of religious texts for use in advertisements - if such a law is needed, things are already so far gone that laws will only plaster over the widening cracks.

    We no longer have any sense of the sacred. Everything is profane. This extends across all human activities, from religion to sex, to childbirth, to death. Everything is matter for an advert, for a reality TV show, we are all profane, outside the temple.

    What we need here is some muscular Christianity, not laws but vigilantes - we need Nick Cave.

  3. I saw that ad and I thought it pretty funny - if weird. Not offensive to me at least though...

  4. I'm probably inclined to the view that God is above such things,and, as you said, what are a few earthly insults?

    But then I was slightly puzzled by the news that soldiers somewhere had been told not to wear uniform in town because of the insults being thrown at them. I'd have thought they'd have preferred insults to the bullets and bombs they signed up to face. Which is unrelated but connected in my mind ...


    ...the best hope for the future of the species

    There is surely no more deluded approach to future of the species than the absurd belief that the abolition of political correctness is the logical climax to universal enlightenment. Rather than spurring humanity onward, ever onward to the stars, we are forced into an increasingly congested existence. As far as I am concerned, the disputed blasphemy laws are nothing but the regulatory consequences of maximum demographic growth inside a closed ecological system. The sense of humanity under siege becomes acute and, in the event, disastrously belies its promise.

    I am, in fact, less struck by the complete pointlessness of much of the blasphemy altercation than by the inherent sightlessness of Bryan’s argument.


  6. Selena, at what point does dreaming morph into insanity?

    Or prolixity into incomprehensibility?

  7. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing the advertisment but suspect that we need the return of ecclesiastical courts to rediscover how ridiculous blasphemy cases can be. Could keep the lawyers busy but what about the murderers.

  8. The prolixity might not be to everyone’s taste, Recusant, but then, neither are circular, self-perpetuating arguments...


  9. 'insults to belief do cause believers real anguish.'

    well, Christianity is founded upon a pretty formidable insult, the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus..

    and he didnt exactly mind..

    While any insulter can ask himself destabilising questions as to why he should want to debase himself such as to insult somebody, those who feel they are insulted might want to ask themselves...'so what? would I prefer fake praise? am I so weak and pathetically insecure that I cannot endure these offences, from people who do not even understand what I believe in...'

    Shouldn't being insulted give you the opportunity to assume the higher ground, to turn the other cheek?

    On the other hand, what about being insulted by others being insulted by you, by others taking offence, especially when you mean no offence. Does this have a future?

  10. I'm a slightly agnostic atheist but even i find offensive the contant guardian type articles attacking religion. What stands out most is how arrogant they are.
    The reason the blasphemy laws are wrong is that if you hate the atheist moanings then you'll hate it ten times worse if you ban free speech in this area. In short they will secretly love it. Every play, television programme, you name it will be used to push the boat out and cause offense to religion. Also why should people of a religious bent be given special treatment above everyone else? Who gives a fuck if it causes them anguish? People used to lay into me all the time about my big nose and i was just expected to bear it.

  11. I don't think practising murderers should be allowed to work in ecclesiastical courts...only murderers who promise to stay celibate - we can call this an Anglican compromise!

  12. Working Class HeroMarch 14, 2008 4:40 pm

    '...the Prophet.' Which one is that, Bryan?