Monday, January 18, 2010

Nick Spencer accidentally makes an erudite observation

The Guardian's Comment Is Free section last week asked the question, "What is blasphemy today?" Of course, Ophelia Benson once again is the voice of reason, "stridently" arguing that religion is exactly the kind of institution that needs criticism, and that the very concept of blasphemy is merely a shield against that badly-needed critique. Jeremy Havardi concurs on the harmfulness of blasphemy laws, as any reasonably modern person ought.

Nick Spencer, who appears based on his credentials to be some kind of theologian, ends his piece with a predictably theologian-like load of bullshit:

The less we hold sacred, the less blasphemy will matter. Some may welcome that prospect but its flip side – the less we hold sacred, the less we hold together – isn't so appealing.

I'm not even going to address that, because trying to tie a lack of need for blasphemy laws to some kind of alleged social disintegration is just stupid. I don't even know how he can say this without being ashamed of himself. But in any case, on the way to this mind-numbingly stupid conclusion, he makes an observation that I think is rather insightful:

Historically, the idea of blasphemy was not some kind of humourless puritanical bolt-on to an otherwise functioning social order. The sacred was understood to be woven into the fabric of society. The temporal depended on the spiritual. The divine underpinned the cosmic and often the political order. It united people who might otherwise be at one another's throats. To blaspheme was to detune this order, to strike at the root of what made common life possible...If we recognise this, we may appreciate that there is less to separate us from our forbears than we imagine, as the public's willingness to sacrifice free speech for public order testifies.

This last sentence refers to numbers he had just quoted demonstrating that the British public, at least, has long ranked "maintaining order" as a much higher priority than "free speech" (and I imagine the results would be similar throughout the world).

My wife and I have been watching The Tudors, a historical drama about Henry VIII. It's a decent historical drama, nothing to write home about, except there's lots of sex so that's fun. Coincidentally, just last night, inspired by Henry's concern about legitimacy of his heir, we were discussing how tenuous a grasp a hereditary monarchy would have on power. The only justification for why this particular guy should be the unquestioned leader, and not somebody else, is divine mandate, i.e. made-up shit. Convincing people of this divine mandate/made-up shit is paramount to maintaining power.

So in that light, I think I see where Nick Spencer is coming from. If the sole mandate your government has to operate is a divine one, then criticism of divinity amounts to a very real attack on the present government. It's not that much of a stretch to assert that unbridled questioning of theological ideas in such a time and place would lead to an outright collapse of the social order.

Of course, one could debate whether that would have really been such a bad thing after all, given the historically exploitative practices of monarchies. My feeling is that an outright governmental collapse is worse than a bad government, at least in the short term (the French Revolution comes to mind) -- but perhaps in the long term it tends to be a net positive. Then again, is the long term goal of a more benevolent government feasible in the absence of Enlightenment-era ideals? Flipping it around again, were such ideals only being held back by this very same prohibition on blasphemy?

In any case, those are all complex historical questions I'm not qualified to even speculate on. Spencer's point, however, is valid: In a society ruled by a divinely-mandated monarchy, blasphemy is a direct threat to the existing social order, and as such it seems rather practical that such a government would want to -- no, would need to -- outlaw blasphemy.

If only Spencer hadn't then veered off into some sort of sentimental pining about a return to the sacred, he was about to make a great point: Whatever you think about the special deference shown to religion, the rationale used to justify anti-blasphemy laws in their heyday is no longer applicable. The practical rug has been pulled out from under it.

In other words, we don't even need to invoke heady ideals like free speech and free thought and an "open marketplace of ideas", etcetera, in opposing anti-blasphemy laws. We need to simply observe that the purpose they once served -- ignoring for the moment whether that purpose was ever justified -- no longer exists. Even the most ardent proponent of excessive religious deference and religious meddling in public life ought to recognize this.


  1. In a society ruled by a divinely-mandated monarchy, blasphemy is a direct threat to the existing social order, and as such it seems rather practical that such a government would want to -- no, would need to -- outlaw blasphemy.

    Exercise: what's the analog of this in a representative democracy?

  2. monarchy based on divine mandate --> outlaw blasphemy

    The analog would be:

    democracry based on informed populace --> outlaw stupidity, bad education, government secrecy, and especially lying by politicians, public figures, and the media

  3. Great question to ponder. I can't come up with a single answer that is as central to representative democracy as the divine mandate is to monarchy, but I've got a partial analog that applies to a market economy: Faith in unbacked currency.

    With no modern currency (that I am aware of) backed by gold or other precious minerals any more, the very economic fabric of our society is dependent on a shared belief in "made-up shit". I would argue that faith in unbacked currency differs from faith in a divine mandate, in that the former is broadly beneficial to society at large, while the latter is primarily beneficial only to the monarch him/herself.

    But still, if people stopped believing in money, you've got a partial collapse of the social order. And the anti-blasphemy laws have an analog too: The Secret Service does not take kindly to parallel currencies. That shit will get you thrown in federal prison in short order. We allow all kinds of speech about currency, of course, but pretty much any overt action that undermines faith in our currency is quite illegal.

    So there's that...

    I think the reason it's difficult to find a good analog in representative democracy is that the "representative" part of it creates a good insulator against widespread disillusionment. Even if the percentage of eligible voters who regularly vote falls dramatically, while it might degrade the quality of government, it doesn't inexorably lead to an outright collapse. (In contrast, look at how well California is doing with their nigh direct democracy-style government...)

    I think Margaret comes closest with "government secrecy". Although even then, it's a little different because rather than being a belief that needs to be maintained, it's more a condition...