Banning ‘Blasphemy’

Well that whole thing about ruminating on my own reactions to things and thinking about the epidemic impulse to leap to the defensive didn’t last all that long… I’m angry. So angry. So yes, this is reactionary post. It isn’t a defense, though. Nothing here to defend.

You can’t control the world, cole. Have to keep telling myself that today. As the existential reflection goes on and on…

I love language. I love languages– I’ve learned a fair number of them- some out of necessity, given the path my studies have taken, but some simply for the appreciation of the inherent music of the words and for what those words and phrases and colloquialisms can tell us about the underlying culture in which the language evolved.

Certain words are more fun than others. This one, for example. Interestingly, the stuff I wrote about while talking about that word, in particular, kinda echoes some of the things I feel like I need to talk about now.

Some words, admittedly, become loaded with negative associations or misused to a degree that leaves the original meaning lost in the dust of history. Cult is one. That’s a whole other post, though (seriously, it’s in the Drafts folder as I write this).

Others have become so offensive to progressive and rational views of the world that we have removed them from polite conversation- if not the actual lexicon itself.

I’d like to suggest another.

Blasphemy.

I’m not talking, here, about its colloquial, secular usage- ‘irreverence’– especially since I, myself, do tend to use it hyperbolically when (jokingly) defending something that I like against a dissenting opinion. Example? Call the Monkees a ‘manufactured, talentless band.’ THAT’ll get an exclamation of blasphemy! thrown backatcha. (While they were, certainly, ‘manufactured’, they were/are hardly talentless. Read this if you want some more of that particular defense).

The original meaning of the word is tied up, inextricably, with religion and belief.  From the Greek, the word means ‘impious’, or ‘to speak evil of’- which, given my disdain of the ‘E-word’- unless it is being used hyperbolically and illustratively (as in, ‘that Justin Bieber? He’s just evil.’)- is the most uncomfortable of the uncomfortable meanings. The sense of the original Greek root implies ‘injury through speech or utterance’. Which calls to mind sticks and stones and the like… but I’ll come back to that in a minute…

From its earliest usage it was employed almost exclusively to describe lack of reverence for one deity or another. An expression of disdain for those things that were considered ‘sacred’ and ‘inviolate’. Back in the bad old days, when there was no such thing as the separation of religion and state anywhere, laws were put on the books to deal with those who violated the inviolate- through words or actions. Laws. That are still active in too many parts of the world.

Including the Alsace-Moselle region, in France.

Last year, in fact, a group of French Muslims remembered the existence of the law (a hold-over from the annexation of the region by Germany, and the retention of that little piece of nonsense once it was returned to French control) and sued Charlie Hebdo under the statute. Previous to the 2014 suit, the law was last invoked in 1918.  1918.

The 2014 case was thrown out of court, not, as one would hope, because of its implied reversion to archaic anti-secular ideals, but because the law only protects against blasphemy to Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism (that the latter was included, surprised me a little, TBH). So any perceived insult to Islam wasn’t covered by this blip in common sense. And common law. Legal statutes against blasphemy have not existed elsewhere in France since the Revolution (that started in 1789, for those who mightn’t know their history).

No regression of ideology here. That isn’t the least bit anachronistic. Surely not a indicator of a devolution of human rationalism and progressiveness.

That ^^^ was sarcasm. Which, like satire, is an expression of derision for the ridiculous. According to the Wikipedia, satire is a genre of literature and art  “in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.”

The emphasis in that there definition is mine. ‘Constructive social criticism’. I’m all about the constructive social criticism.

I’ve stayed away from the news groups today- partly because I’ve had too much else to do, but mainly because I know that this horrible event is going to be used as another example of the ‘evil’ of ‘the Other’- and will provide further evidence (as if such was needed) that institutionalized religion is an archaic concept that has no role in progressive societies. That its only role is one of divisiveness, when what we have to be focusing on is our shared humanity.

And, of course, there will be all kinds of articles and comments and ignorance passed around in the www that will focus on Islamic extremist ideology and assertions that ‘we’ are ‘above’ this sort of thing. Which, certainly, speaks to this horrific example, but misses the larger point.

Because are we? Really?

Most of our Western ideas about blasphemy come from that Big Book O’ Myths that I so love to talk about (and that so many others love to cite- out of context and never having read the thing in its entirety). In fact, most Xian theology places blasphemy as the most sinniest of all sins. Worse than things like murder. The NT calls it the eternal sin (Mark 3.29).

The most common punishment for violating the inviolable? For busting this specific Big Ten Rule? For taking names in vain and all that sort of thing?

Stoning.

Before anyone starts tossing stones on this side of the Atlantic (or over there in the UK and the rest of Europe for that matter), I think we’d all better be taking a good look at our own glass houses. There are charges of ‘blasphemy’ from religious groups in North America All. The. Time. And before the stones start flying even faster, we need to check our own cultural/religious perspective and acknowledge that we are experiencing a crisis of reason and secularism ’round these parts, too.

Although laws against blasphemy are prohibited under the language contained in the Constitution of the USofA, some States retain statutes that uphold the possibility of prosecution for blaspheming. You think we’re not culpable of resorting to supporting the ridiculous? Throw on FoxNews of an evening and then tell me another one.

So. It should be obvious. Secularism is the only solution that makes anything like sense. We may not be able to affect that level of change on a worldwide scale- at least not yet- but we can certainly bring it into being hereabouts. It’s going to cause a whole lot of pushback- from a whole lot of people (many of whom were likely first to hop on the anti-extremism bus while screaming about freedoms this morning)- who misunderstand the term and equate it with atheism (which is becoming, increasingly, a BAD thing to be labelled. In my experience, lately, anyway).

As Jacques Berlinerblau emphasized in his 2012 HuffPost article, and despite assertions from the religious right to the contrary, Secularism is Not AtheismAtheism is about (anti-)metaphysical discussions of the non-existence of god(s). Secularism, on the other hand, doesn’t even address the existence or non-existence of god(s). It is about politics- specifically the tension between and suspicions about “any entanglement between government and religion.” ANY entanglement.

While Prof. Berlinerblau reminds us that there is flexibility to be found in the designation ‘secularism’, I maintain that complete separation is the route we need to be taking- for our own societal benefits and to better-position ourselves as an example to the rest of the world. We have to stop making belief/nonbelief in a supernatural entity (or a bunch of them) the focus. Of ANYthing- let alone things like governance and ethics and education. It isn’t something that matters. Not really. It shouldn’t drive the ways in which we make decisions that impact all of humanity.

The way I see it, we NEED to push for full-on secularization “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance… Secularization refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, religious organizations have little social power.” (again, from the Wikipedia)

Believe in sky gods or earth goddesses or pasta monsters if you must – just keep all of it the hell out of journalism, our schools, public institutions and politics. If religious belief marks an extremity of unreason (and I’d argue that it does- Salman Rushdie agrees with me, evidently), then blasphemy, as a concept, has no place in rational conversation.

Especially when you realize, as Brandon Withrow outlined in another HuffPost article, that blasphemy laws are not about religion. They are about power, and rather than safeguarding religion (as the claim would have it), such laws quash the marginalized voice(s) (religious and non-religious). Which, as we saw today, is the grasping, desperate and cowardly recourse taken, all too often, by those who have their beliefs challenged.

Which seems to justify- rather than dispute- the reality that those beliefs should be continually challenged.

If they can’t withstand such scrutiny, they have no place in evolved, modern society.

Freedom of speech is something that is required for societies to function as anything other than totalitarian states. As such, people who choose (since the freedom to choose is another much-lauded hallmark of democratic societies) to take our collective mythologies at face value have every right to chat about them as they will. Of course, personally, I’d prefer that we talk about something sourced in THIS world, but that freedom has to allow for others to talk about things with which I may not always agree.

To talk about them. I don’t have to listen. I can choose to focus my energies elsewhere.

When violence and murder come to be seen as anything at all like an acceptable human response to the exposure of problems, contradictions or discrepancies in a worldview- religious or political- then that worldview isn’t worth supporting. And those actions cannot be condoned.

Full stop.

So… as much as I hate to blame words for the uses to which people might put them, and as counter-intuitive as it might be to talk about banning a word in light of the crime against free speech that occurred today, I feel like I have to advocate for the removal of this one from our secular lexicon. And, since we live- ostensibly and for now, at least- in a secular society, that means removing it from our day-to-day discourse- in the media, in entertainment, in literature and song.

It has become dangerous.

As a concept, it has no place in 2015. None.

For something to be blasphemous, all sides of the discussion have to agree, at the least, about the sacredness of that which is being discussed/questioned/maligned. Since it seems unlikely that we will arrive on common ground with that one, let’s do away with this whole blasphemy thing altogether, shall we?

Your god is someone else’s fairy tale. Get over it.

If your specific sacred cows can’t survive having the light of reason and evidence shined upon them, then shouldn’t they warrant further examination? Shouldn’t YOU be the one looking more deeply into the reasons why their support requires justification? If your ideas/beliefs can’t hold up under the pressure of some constructive social criticism, are they not something that deserves to be outed as irrelevant and/or replaceable?

As Withrow noted, protecting freedom of religion must also involve protecting freedom from religion. Somehow our dialogues about ‘tolerance’ have started to be more about fear of religious belief than respect for religious belief. And that fear isn’t focused on one particular worldview. As much as right wing talking heads might wish us to believe otherwise (Charlie Hebdo isn’t ‘anti-Islam’. It isn’t anti-anything- except perhaps anti-credulity and anti-unchecked-power-mongering. The magazine satirizes all kinds of things. Religious and otherwise. It is their mandate to do so). Withrow summed it up quite nicely: “If you want to change society for the better, and convince others of the power of your beliefs, or even rationality of the absence of them, do not hallow them through law. Demonstrate it by promoting civil conversation and show it by how you live and support your neighbors.”

Satire is among the oldest ways of committing sociology. It is a lens through which we can see problems, contradictions, and irrationality. It isn’t meant to offer up solutions, but to point out where the institution is failing. Satire is our collective wake up call. It can counterbalance the power- challenging leaders, dogma, doctrine and common practices- and calling these things to account. When used effectively, it can help to restore social equilibrium. It’s a vastly important form of communication. It’s also why so many people are going to miss The Colbert Report so much.

I’m not a satirist. It takes a special type of insight and analysis and talent to pull it off effectively. I’m an historian. And a writer. I can- and do, when possible- offer up solutions for the situations that the satirists bring to our attention. I can- and do- assert that we have to view religion as little more than an historical cautionary tale that may, in some ways, guide us as we reach for better answers- sourced in the availability of all the resources that this world of ours has to offer, and the capacity of our evolved human brains to search ever further for evidence-based solutions to those things we don’t yet understand. That its time of functional divisiveness is over.

The hashtag #jesuischarlie has been trending all day, as people express support for those freedoms associated with speech and expression. Whether or not you heard of the magazine before today, please take some time to think about the repercussions of the incomprehensible crime that took place in Paris this morning. And please be aware that attempts to silence criticism isn’t the province of any one religious faith or political ideology. Those with power- who would like to retain that power- do it as a matter of course.

Writers, musicians, artists, scientists and factivists (I told you I’d be using that word again) the world over face opposition- often at the institutional level- when their words or pictures or numbers or statistics or experimental results challenge the status quo. They are frequently silenced- although rarely as finally and heinously as happened in Paris.

Given the events of the day, there’s really only one dude who can sum up all this stuff. He was, appropriately, French. His work was considered blasphemous. He spent his life advocating things like freedom of expression and the separation of church and state. He was a satirical polemicist who critiqued the dogmas and institutions of his day (1694-1778).

François-Marie Arouet.

But you can call him Voltaire.

We need to keep on challenging those who seek to make us believe those absurdities. And commit the atrocities.

#jesuischarlie

I’m thinking really hard about what the truth of that means, for me. I hope, before you take ownership of the hashtag, and the responsibility that goes along with the claim, that you will do the same.

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21 comments on “Banning ‘Blasphemy’

  1. Doobster418 says:

    Excellent, provocative essay, Cole. Well done. If only people would pay attention.

    • colemining says:

      Thank you, Doobster. Indeed. I’ll keep talking- but I’m not sure that the message is getting where it needs to go. Appreciate you stopping by- and taking the time to read the lengthy diatribe. It’s been an emotional day.

  2. No arguments against the concept of free speech, but I wonder — how do we “do” secularization? Didn’t the province of Quebec take a rather ham-fisted stab at it a while ago (to mix a metaphor), banning employees of public institutions from wearing any kind of religious symbol? People surely have a right to wear symbols of their beliefs, however repugnant others may find them. Isn’t that analogous to free speech? But I agree that states have no business making laws forbidding words and ideas, only actions.

    • colemining says:

      Hi Audrey- Happy New Year! Yes- the ‘initiative’ in Quebec was ham-fisted, to say the least. It is ridiculous to expect people to not wear outward signs of their beliefs in public places- I wrote about it actually (https://colemining.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/quest-ce-que-cest-que-ca/). That approach was obviously slanted against people of faith other than RC- and quite ridiculous in its scope. I couldn’t care less what people wear- and I realize that belief is going to creep into decisions that are made at a policy level- but we have to move FAR away from permitting any religious belief to become officially ‘sanctioned’, if you will, in our governments and schools.

      In some US states, for example, their statutes say that people can’t hold office unless they acknowledge ‘Almighty God’ or some such. I have an issue with that. And with people masking all manner of sins by slapping a ‘it’s what I believe’ label over top.

      Realistically, it’s an extremely difficult proposition. Religion has been used as a political tool for as long as both religion and politics have been around. They are inextricable in ways we don’t even realize. But we have made strides toward both secularism and secularization in a relatively short period of time. I guess I’m just hoping that the progressive trajectory continues. Unfortunately, in some places, we seem to be backsliding into institutionalized superstition and the development of policy based in the beliefs of specific policy makers- and those with the money to bankroll them.

      That may be cynical- I’m trying to shake off the cynicism- but I’m seeing it more and more.

      Thanks for reading- and for your thoughtful comment.

  3. bethbyrnes says:

    A lot of thoughts arise, reading this. Your ‘sticks and stones’ point immediately came to mind as I watched the coverage of the massacre yesterday. As for the term ‘blasphemy’, the easily offended will simply react to some other word if we remove that one. ‘Ridicule’ will become incendiary or ‘mockery’.

    The problem is their adolescent mentality, more than anything else. The ability to be offended because one’s personal identity has not yet matured sufficiently to be flexible and resilient in the face of a perceived challenge. The combination of low information, rigid ideology, poverty, and 10th century inter-personal structures is dangerous.

    How France deals with this in their midst is a serious dilemma. In a vast geographic territory like the USA, people who cling to these kinds of beliefs can be clustered in micro-niches and thus avoided for the most part. But in Europe, that advertence is difficult.

    I am at a loss to know what comes next. In a few years, there will be an epic struggle (all manufactured by ignorance, imho) between 50%, each, of the world’s population lining up on two sides: Christianity and Islam. It needn’t be so, but it appears to me that is where it is headed, before humanity relinquishes its obsession with this kind of fruitless self-identification.

    • colemining says:

      Beth- so many great points here. I agree- this clinging to unexamined ideologies is adolescent behaviour, at best (sometimes it seems even more ‘childish’ than ‘teen-aged’). We are encouraged to remain stunted at that developmental level- have a look at any of our putative ‘entertainment’ and ‘news’ sources, if you have any doubt about that.

      I admit that I was being rhetorical (and reactionary) when I chose ‘blasphemy’ as the word to ban. ‘Apostasy’ might, actually, have been more appropriate in this particular case- although it might have afforded an emphasis on Islamist associations, something that I was seeking to avoid as I attempted to point out the reality that we can’t take any real level of moral high ground when it comes to certain freedoms. We imbue our words with meaning- and they become loaded and distorted past all recognition because we make them so. I tried to make that point early on in the rant, but I was pretty het up, so that mightn’t come through as clearly as I’d intended.

      I think that you’re quite prescient in suggesting the path that is to come- if we don’t act to change it. We will continue down this reactionary path- drawing lines and self-defining by what we aren’t as much as by what we are. Like you, I’m at a loss as to how we begin to change minds. In times of stress, people like to cling to the familiar- even if doing so guarantees the same lack of positive outcome that has become the pattern.

      Failure to know history and all that.

      I’m having to let go of some of my own, personal, illusions- which is, admittedly, a struggle. But I firmly believe that the only way to progress is to do so. I’m hoping that in this self-examination (coupled as it is, always, with my observances of my world) might lead me to some new insights about how I can affect some real change. As terrifying (and sickening) as yesterday’s attack was, the reality that it is symptomatic of larger, more wide-spread and deeply-seated societal issues is literally keeping me up nights.

      Thank you for reading- and for taking the time to think about what I’ve said- and for sharing your own insights. I am truly thankful that there are people, like you, out there who are willing to engage in dialogue about these issues. It’s easy to claim allegiance by posting a meme or attending a vigil (or tweeting a soundbite on behalf of a nation- sorry, our PM pissed me off rather royally with his default lip-service to the tragedy)- really thinking about the whys and wherefores behind such inexplicable crimes takes a whole other level of commitment. xo

  4. Well stated, Cole. But unfortunately for many of us in the United States (depending on what region you live in), anyone who runs for office on a platform of secularism is almost guaranteed to be labeled in pejorative terms by their opposition and has little chance at winning election.

    My state is among those that includes in its constitution a provision that states, “No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor who denies the existence of the Supreme Being.” Any serious candidate or elected official who tried to change that would find their political career at an end.

    I’m convinced the majority would sooner elect a dozen bible-thumping Boss Tweeds than an agnostic George Washington.

    • colemining says:

      Oh, CBC. As I was cruising around looking at some sources and links for this post, I saw some to various states that had the same sort of nonsense in their constitutions. Sigh. I don’t understand. I reallyreally don’t.

      As I said in my response to Beth, my rhetoric got away from me a little bit as I wrote that post. I realize that the proposal that we completely separate religion from politics is something that will be far easier said than done. The two things have been inseparable bedfellows as long as both things have been around.

      To be perfectly honest, I haven’t first clue how to engage in discussion with people who insist that belief in one deity over another- or any deity at all- is a prerequisite for holding public office. I can’t understand the other side of that argument at all, so I have no idea how to address it. The fallacy at its heart is so glaringly obvious to me… sigh, again.

      Hoping that all this self-evaluation might lead me to some clarity of path. But 2015 isn’t starting off in a manner that is making it easy to find that clarity.

      Thanks for the visit- and the comment.

      • It’s interesting that my state’s current constitution, with its belief in Supreme Being caveat, was written in 1895 – long after the US Constitution. Of course, 1895 South Carolina wasn’t exactly noted for its progressivism. It’s widely believed that the document was written specifically to give the governor as little power as possible, on the off chance a black man might some day be elected chief executive. We here in S.C. still have not been willing to accept, never mind enact, the concept of separation of powers, and it has held us back for 120 years.

      • colemining says:

        I can almost wrap my brain around the institution of such caveats- from an historical perspective and based in the specific cultural context of the time (that’s not to say I agree with it, of course). I’m not sure I will ever understand the underlying impulse that keeps such a thing on the books- and impeding progress, as you note.

        Thanks for the info, CBC. Always good to get as much background as possible.

  5. […] I can add to what has been said, world-wide, about the events in Paris on Wednesday? My good friend Cole has an interesting discussion that you can read, to take a scholarly approach to the entire subject of what I would refer to […]

  6. I haven’t responded until now, though I wanted to. That’s because I have nothing to add to this brilliant essay. But I am relieved that you wrote it, and your words are important, even brave. I have watched in disbelief as many of my most learned friends have spoken out against the “I am Charlie” concept, critiquing Voltaire, smugly dismissing the outpouring of grief as “racist”. There is a notion that somehow the Paris attack was justified. We are silenced by our own community. Where do we go from here?

    • colemining says:

      Oh, Booksy. This whole thing has made me so angry- and so sad. I was off sick today- and didn’t have the tv or computer on until a little while ago, so I missed the day’s events as they happened. In the short time I’ve been online this evening, I’ve seen a whole lot of posts talking about things like the ‘racism’ of Charlie Hebdo. Sigh.

      TBH, the type of satire/humour that the magazine demonstrates isn’t my cup o’ joe. There was a good article in the Walrus about differences in what we find to be funny- and I tend to like my satire more Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/Rick Mercer and less Charlie Hebdo, but the fact remains that we have the freedom to choose our satire- and the satirists have the freedom to keep on producing it. Even if it offends.

      There can be no tolerance for any mindset that suggests that an IDEA can justify the murder of other human beings. NONE.

      I have no idea where we go from here. The ‘sacred’- in its many expressions and variances- has no place in our public discourse and certainly none in our public institutions. Until we get that through out thick heads, I really can’t suggest what else we need to be doing.

      Thank you for reading- and thinking about this stuff and commenting. I appreciate the support. I don’t feel brave- I feel quite defeated right now. xo

  7. Cole, I’ve just cut a massive comment to this. I’m not even sure how much sense I was making between first week back shatteredness and anger turned to dismay at the whole mess the world is. My sister phoned mid-comment so I just cut it and pasted elsewhere till I can look at it again and make sense of what I was thinking in response.
    As usual, it’s a fabulous piece of writing with faultless reasoning.
    I’ll get back to you once I’ve slept for about twelve hours!x

    • colemining says:

      Anne-Marie- it’s been a tough week. Hope you get some sleep- I’m dealing with a brutal cold of some sort so I’ll be headed back to bed shortly, myself.

      Thanks for reading! xo

  8. […] if Cole is right and all the myriad […]

  9. I believe we should abide by the doctor’s code: “First, do no harm.” In today’s world there seems to be little respect for one another’s religion or rights that sometimes collide. There is too much hate and violence that solve nothing. Maybe it is time for a “Common Sense” part to rise?

    • colemining says:

      So true, Lady Professor. All too true. We have become all about divisiveness, rather than anything like common sense. We certainly need a hefty dose of the latter.

      Thank you for visiting- and commenting.

  10. […] continue to stand by my assertion that blasphemy isn’t a word that has any practical use or value in a secular society, so it is, therefore, […]

  11. […] stand around (or go for a troll on the internet) calling others ‘immoral’ and ‘blasphemous‘ and ‘against god(s)’ and ‘idiotic’ (I’m guilty of that one) […]

  12. […] out-of-context ideologies that suborn these types of horrors. I’m exhausted from re-hashing my dialectic around why we must address- and enact- the complete separation of world statecraft and politics […]

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