Saturday, March 01, 2008


Vain Names

The British still have an offense of blasphemy but not for long, if some get their way:

"The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities," said a statement backed by activists ranging from the creator of the BBC comedy "The Office" to the retired Archbishop of Canterbury.

"Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law. Far from protecting public order ... it actually damages social cohesion."
In fact:

The last successful prosecution under Britain's blasphemy law was in 1977, when the publisher of the Gay News was fined for printing a love poem from a Roman centurion to Jesus.
I would have thought that the last thing a loving God would need our help in deflecting would be passion.

On an altogether different note, I have attempted, but failed, to resist the temptation of reporting that one of the Law Lords who decided the case in the House of Lords was named Lord Diplock. He voted in favor of the defendants. In another interesting aside, the defendants were represented by John Mortimer QC, the author of the famous "Rumpole" books.

In much more serious case of irony, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, himself a Pakistani from a family with both Christian and Muslim roots, is living under police protection after receiving death threats because of statements he made to the effect that radical forms of Islam have turned parts of England into "no-go zones" in which it is dangerous for non-Muslims, and, in particular, converts to Christianity, to live and work.

Given America's own difficulty keeping church and state disentangled, I hesitate to criticize. But it seems somehow that a system that retains criminal protections for the "good name" of God(s), while the "Earthy ministers" of those Gods cannot openly walk the streets because of threats of sectarian violence, might need a revisit to its priorities.

While the death threats against Nazir-Ali are appalling, I should note that his comments on 'no-go' areas weren't really substantiated. The cynic in me suspects that it was a play to the 'Daily Mail' crowd, and possibly an attempt to get at the present Archbishop of Canterbury.
Obviously, I am not privy to the political nuances of the story. But reasonably credible death threats are funtionally the same as establishing "no go areas." And if certain people feel justified and safe enough to make such threats against a figure like the bishop, it's hardly a stretch that they'd make them against ordinary follks.
If you believe in a creator of the entire Universe like the god of Christianity then, as has already been pointed out, the notion is patently absurd that such all-powerful, all-knowing being could have need of the statutory protection of a law against blasphemy. However, if you have a political structure whose authority and power derives from being the Earthly agent of such a being then the value of a law against blasphemy as a measure for suppressing opposition becomes apparent. Even so, the fact that British governments of past centuries have been so constituted hardly applies today, which should render the whole concept of blasphemy obsolete.

It is to the lasting shame of British governments and most British politicians that, until very recently, they steadfastly denied subjects of the Crown a statutory declaration of those fundamental human rights whose protection US citizens have enjoyed since 1787. This is not to diminish the significance of Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights of 1689 or the common law in any way but there is nonetheless great value in a written constitution that embodies a comprehensive, codified, secular declaration of such rights which is unshaken and unshakeable by normal political and social turbulence.

If such a document asserts both a right to freedom of religious belief - which must also include freedom from adherence to any religious belief - and a right to freedom of expression then I would defy anyone to frame a law against blasphemy which would not be unconstitutional. And even allowing that the above-mentioned freedoms should be circumscribed by the need to protect the rights of others from harm does not mean that there is an actual or implied right for believers not to be offended by the dissenting views of others, however crudely expressed.
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