Saturday, March 08, 2008

Blasphemy is, as they say, a victimless crime

Over in the UK, the population may be predominately non-religious, or at least indifferent to religion, in stark opposition to the way Americans can't seem to get enough of the stuff. But it's only been this week that the House of Lords* voted to strike down the nation's laws against blasphemy. Nice of them to recognize it isn't 1437 any more. Unless you've got a fascistic, Talibanoid theocracy going on, having blasphemy laws in a modern enlightened culture is like attaching a carburetor to your pyjamas: pointless and utterly silly.

Of course, some people are upset at learning the Middle Ages ended long ago.

Prominent Christian activist Baroness O’Cathain launched a blistering attack on the amendment, with particular fury aimed at Evan Harris. Lady O’Cathain maintained that abolition of blasphemy would unleash a torrent of abuse towards Christians.

Huh. I thought blasphemy was defined as making insulting or disrespectful remarks critical of gods, not their followers. As far as hate crimes against the religious are concerned, the UK has its Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a piece of legislation that makes it an offense to incite deliberate violence and hatred towards a person or group of people based on their race or creed. (I know it's a law that feels problematic from a free speech standpoint, but the wording of it does try to make it clear that it's only an offense when there's clear intent to incite harm. I imagine it's only a matter of time before it's actually put to the test in the courts. After all, where's the line between saying something like "Somebody ought to do something about those damn [insert minority here]," and "Kill the [minority]!"?)

One gets the impression that Baroness O'Cathain is merely troubled by the idea of anyone's criticizing belief at all. As Tracie pointed out a couple of posts ago, it can be awfully hard for atheists to engage Christians in conversation about belief, simply because the minute you make one statement that's even the tiniest bit snarky (like comparing their god belief to unicorn belief), many of them are so thin-skinned they'll storm off in a huff right there. Not surprisingly, Dawkins and The God Delusion came up quite a bit in the House debates. The simple fact that atheist books exist, and are actually finding an audience, is enough for some Christians to think they're suffering "a torrent of abuse."

Well, let's talk abuse. What about the people in the past who were actually the targets of the blasphemy laws in question? Ol' Wikipedia tells me that the last guy to be prosecuted under the laws was John William Gott in 1921, who was sentenced to nine months' hard labor simply for publishing pamphlets making fun of Christianity and Jesus. So Christians got their knickers in a twist because Gott snarked on their imaginary friend, and he got nine months breaking rocks. Call me crazy, but I consider that pretty damn torrential abuse. "Hey," you might say, "that was 87 years ago." Yeah, but I'm sure it still sucked for him.

Anyway, it was clearly time to get rid of the laws, because they were irrelevant and never used anyway. And as for Christian fears of persecution, again, I never cease to be amazed at these. Check your Yellow Pages and see how many pages it takes to list the churches in your city. Go to any bookstore in the US, and see how many shelves are swallowed up by the Religion category. Only Borders that I know of delineates a section to "Atheism and Agnosticism" within that category, and that section usually only amounts to about two or three shelves, as opposed to the fifty or so shelves devoted to Bibles, apologetics, and the usual twaddle from fundies like LaHaye and Strobel and Colson and their camp. But to many Christians, those two shelves for atheism are two too many, and amount to a horrifying all-out assault on their precious faith.

Cry me a river.

* I had to note my favorite comment about this on Richard Dawkins' site:

Dear Britain, what the hell is a "house of lords"?? Signed, the 21st century.


  1. Please allow me to come to the defence of us Brits. The House of Lords is of course anacronistic, outdated and hardly democratic but somehow it mostly works to hold off overzealous and hurried legislation passed by the elected chamber. The old duffers in the Lords, because they are not elected, are free to vote their conscience/ ideals rather than toe a strictly party line, and they often do. .

    Is this better than a strictly elected chamber? I must admit that democracy is almost always better but there are some advantages to this system. The problem is often the make-up. There are 26 Lords Spiritual, made up of Anglican Bishops and many members who are there by a total accident of birth, their great-great Grandfather happened to be the King's bastard.

    The 20th C should arrive any minute

  2. Rest assured I am a solid Anglophile, Sean! (And frankly, nothing is more enjoyable than watching the House of Commons argue, which often borders on a bar brawl.) I just thought the comment was funny.

  3. It always amazes me to see how dull the proceedings from your Congress seem to be compared to our Mother of Parliaments. Next time look for the line in the carpet, talkers must stand behind this as it ensures they are more than two sword lengths from each other.


    Readers may be interested in the story of William Aitkenhead. A student at my own city's University (Edinburgh, Scotland) who, in 1697 wrote that theology was "a rhapsody of faigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrine of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras". He accused Christ of being a magician who had learned some conjouring tricks whilst in Egypt.

    He was proscecuted under a law which called for the death penalty for anyone who "shall deny, impugn or quarrel, argue or reason, against the being of God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity, or the authority of the Holy Scriptures of the old and new testaments, or the providence of God in the Government of the World".

    He was found guilty on Christmas Eve and after encouragement from the Church of Scotland (still our official state religious body)he was hanged on the 8th Jan 1698. He was the last person to be executed for blasphemy in the UK.

    It was a wierd decade for the Scots. A year later 5 were executed for witchcraft.

    12 years later the Philosopher, sceptic and atheist David Hume was born in the same city. He was, of course, a spearhead in the Elightenment and it was his revulsion of the treatment of Aitkenhead which encouraged the ideas of a seperation of Church and State for Hume and his colleagues. One such colleague was the Principal of Edinburgh University, William Robertson, whose writings were widely read by Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton et al. Indeed Robertson's "History of America" was a required text in American Universities in the 19th Century.

    The death of this one student could perhaps then be seen as a catlyst for the American State and its Enlightened, progressive Constitution.

  4. Thomas Aikenhead (c. 1678 - 8 January 1697)


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