A few days ago at UBC I attended a CFI talk by Austin Dacey about the future of blasphemy. It was an interesting lecture and while I felt that Dacey was leaning towards the “olive branch” side of the spectrum, I did find his points rather persuasive. Or, at the least, extremely thought provoking. Namely, what is blasphemy and what does it mean to atheists and skeptics in the free thought movement? How do we navigate the new modern view of blasphemy and is there a way that we can take advantage of this interpretation? If we can though, what is sacred to free thinkers?
The main focus of the talk was on the changing dynamic of blasphemy interpretation. In early biblical times, blasphemy was viewed as an affront to God. Literally speaking. If you committed the crime of blasphemy, the victim was God. In most cases, the penalty for this was death.
However as time went on the view of who the victim of blasphemy began to change. No longer was God seen as the victim but rather society. If someone blasphemed, they were harming the community and thus blasphemy was seen as a civic crime.
In modern times blasphemy morphed into a new type of crime, a personal attack on the feelings and beliefs of an individual. In fact, this new form is how the United Nations and various human rights agencies around the world view blasphemy, a crime wherein the feelings and beliefs of individuals are mocked and hurt by the act of blasphemy.
I don’t think I need to go into huge detail about why this is such a troubling and dangerous definition for any law. Subjective emotions and feelings exist in a vague and esoteric dimension guarded by hounds of close mindedness and ectoplasm.
If someone puts up a sign that offends me, how can any just society consider having that person arrested and put in jail for the terrible crime of offending me?
Of course we rarely see someone incarcerated in North America for blasphemy but we do see other forms of punitive action taking place when someone is so offended. A number of atheist billboards have been taken down because some religious person couldn’t stand the fact that atheists exists.
Elsewhere people who blaspheme may face more serious action. Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian skeptic was arrested for blasphemy in March. Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi Arabian writer, was forced to flee his country when he was accused of blasphemy under the penalty of death.
Solving the problem of blasphemy laws will be an uphill battle. These laws were put in place by human rights activists to protect against religious minorities being singled out for violence in the way that Jewish people were singled out for violence by Nazi Germany. However as Dacey pointed out, that’s not what these laws do. If anything, they actually empower the oppressor to subject minority voices.
Blasphemy laws seem to be used by the most conservative and holier than thou’s of religions for the express purpose of strengthening their own positions and silencing criticism.
But Dacey said something I had never considered. Perhaps we atheists and skeptics can turn the tables and use these blasphemy laws to our own advantage. The only catch is that we have to have something sacred to blaspheme against.
So the thorny question is: what (if anything) is sacred to free thinkers?
My first instinct is to say nothing. The reason I say that is because when I think of sacred, I imagine something that is profoundly unquestionable. Something that is so important, no part of it could change or be altered or the risk would be its total destruction.
This is where I was having problems with Dacey’s thesis, it would seem that in order to have something “sacred” I would need a definition of sacred that is so watered down as to hardly even make sense when talking with anyone with a more mainstream definition.
Even with such a watered down definition I have trouble with Dacey’s idea as he applies to physical objects. He gave an example of great works of art or old books. But even then, if I was in the Louvre and it was freezing cold and it was either burn the Mona Lisa or freeze to death…I’m probably burning that painting.
However where I found myself thinking that Dacey’s idea could work for me was the idea of human dignity. The idea that human beings shouldn’t be tortured, demeaned, humiliated, wrongfully incarcerated, abused or destroyed. Whether we want to call these human rights or not, I’m pretty sure that they are as close to sacred as I can get.
And of course to blaspheme against them would have to be more than suggest that those ideas are wrong. After all, free speech and free expression would fall under the umbrella of human dignity, to lock someone up for that would seem to be hypocritical.
I think the only form of blaspheme against human dignity would be violations of human dignity. Perhaps the enactment of laws designed to erode the values of human rights or the justifications for egregious violations of human beings. The actual acts of torture etc already have laws on the books to punish such crimes.
But even setting aside the actual blasphemy claim, can we accept the idea of sacred ideas? Even if we decided to include the notion of great art into that category. Would we lock someone up for defacing the Mona Lisa? Would a musician who remixes Mozart go to jail? Under these new laws could George Lucas be arrested for the Star Wars prequels?