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.