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Noble Blasphemy
Part III.

– Feb. 18, 2013

Return to Part II.




"I am afraid that we have not got rid of God because we still have faith in grammar."
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols(1)


"The core of blasphemy . . . is religious belief."(2) So writes Leonard B. Levy in his history of blasphemy, Treason Against God.

An obvious statement. Though, a second reading offers a clarification that, ultimately, is the pinion of the matter: the core of blasphemy is religious belief. Yet blasphemy is also and inherently a socio-political concept. Even in fifth-century BCE Greece, where the political state was open to criticism and the gods not, blasphemy - or in their terms impiety - still functioned as the outer-limit of socially acceptable speech. Impiety was understood as "any act or expression contemptuous of the gods or depraving holy matters."(3) Yet, in that the material world was still understood as an mythic reality, the gods still understood as manifest in the workings of Nature, society, however much it was the construct of humanity (and thus open to criticism), was as such still woven from the threads of the divine. To criticize the gods was to criticize the very foundation of Greek identity and social belief. The origin of the cosmos was open to speculation, but the divine nature of natural phenomenon was not. The law against impiety thus served, according to Demosthenes, two purposes: that the individual charged pay the penalty of their own acts, and that others be warned, "and may fear to commit any sin against the gods and against the state."(4)

Contemporary ideas of blasphemy stems, as would be expected, from Christian, biblical sources: specifically the laws of the Israelites as delivered by Moses at Sinai. Even there, the social aspect of blasphemy is overt: "Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people." (5) The relationship between the social and divine does also move in the opposite direction, from the earthly to the celestial. The medieval canonists went to canonical and Roman law texts for confirmation that blasphemy was of the highest offenses. In the Roman texts, the measured of the seriousness of an offense was by the station of the victim: the more elevated was the victim, the greater was the offense. Thus, offense to the divine was of the gravest nature.(6)

To consider the two elements separately, however, over simplifies. In that earlier cultures were predominantly structured with a priestly class that functioned both in the religious and the socio-political, the two ideas can hardly be separated. Blasphemy as a social proscription can not have been sourced extra-socially. But in that it is derived from religious belief rather than the material religious institutions (that is, profanation of material artifacts is an extension of profanation of the believed, immaterial, sacred plane), blasphemy emerges from the meeting point of religious ideology and material society. Though, there too the opposing current is as equally valid - religious and material reality emerge from the black lines of blasphemy. Says Levy,

Because blasphemy is an intolerable profanation of the sacred, it affronts the priestly class, the deep-seated beliefs of worshipers, and the basic values that a community shares. (7)

But the opposite must also be recognized. If blasphemy is direct challenge of the transcendental signified, of the originating definition of the world-structure that makes up understood reality, the blasphemy not only identifies an affront to core community mores but also the establishment of the those mores through the interpretations of dogma by the priestly class.

Though, that priestly class is also the field of mediation between the ideological and the material, and must successfully adapt ideological structures to the pressures upon society or risk putting society in conflict with its own world-narrative. The narrative as nomos is fighting to maintain a definition of reality that is always in some degree of conflict with the cosmos as it is experienced. As such, the crime of blasphemy becomes, primarily, a means of maintaining social stability. Levi continues:

Punishing the blasphemer may serve any one of several social purposes other than setting an example to warn others. Punishment propitiates the offended deities by avenging their honor, thereby diverting wrath: earthquakes, infertility, lost battles, floods, plagues, or crop failures. Public retribution for blasphemy also vindicates the witness of the believers and especially of the priests; it reaffirms communal norms; and it avoids the snares of toleration.(8)

As Neville Cox restates it in his book on Irish blasphemy law, Blasphemy and the Law in Ireland, blasphemy laws exist only for two purposes.(9) On one hand, it is to defend the divine from insult, an act inseparable from the threat of divine retribution: "a common assumption among our ancestors. . . . Blasphemy was a natural cause of famine, pestilence, and earthquake," and there existed "impressive legal authority to that effect."(10) Commentators on canonical law continued to support that view into the 16th and 17th centuries. While you may not find a current legal authority to the point, the idea is still alive at the popular level in the U.S. One need only remember the veracity with which Christian religious leaders declared the AIDS epidemic a direct consequence of the spread of homosexuality, as a plague visited upon the U.S. people.

While the first purpose protects the divine, and the earthly from retributional response, the second purpose of blasphemy laws directly protects society from the defamation of the functioning of the divine within society. That is, as with the Greeks, above, blasphemy law protects what is perceived as the very foundations of society. As Pierre Klossowski described it:

The theoretic hierarchy was reputed to have put an end to the ancient law of the jungle; man created in the image of God cannot exploit man, every man in a servant of God. On the pediment of the theocratic hierarchy is written the proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The king, appointed by God, is his temporal servant; the lord, appointed by the king, is the servant of the king; and every man who recognizes that he is the servant of his lord is a servant of God.(11)

The fear here is not that the divine will act in retribution to the blasphemous act, but that the unchecked challenges of the societal 'wisdom' with erode at the very basis of society, and society will collapse for want of its core truth. Note, the fear is that of devolution, of descent into chaos. The erosion of societal truths is not perceived positively, as a step to positive social restructuring. The foundation of society is also, after all, the foundation of reality itself; and as such, collapse of society is collapse into its opposite: chaos, and, in Christian terms, sodomic states of sin. In a substantial way, they are correct. Though, the 'foundation' which they covetously defend is not that which they perceive as the foundation. The perceived foundation is itself a creation of the nomos. What is actually under threat is that which is not seen: the nomos itself, more specifically, that narrative the nomos has created to give meaning to the world-construct, the narrative that imputes belief that 'this is reality' into the world-building of the nomos.

It is this system of legitimation of the nomos that serves the necessary function of internalization. Legitimation, most simply, is the "socially objectivated 'knowledge' that serves to explain and justify the social order."(12) Where nomos is the believed reality that organizes the experienced world, the legitimation is that system of beliefs - functioning through communal knowledge, just as the nomos - that creates, justifies, and purposes the nomos. The legitimation is the kernel and narrative that defines reality as a whole, explaining what was, what is, and what will be. Note that legitimation functions by providing an exterior source - by providing the transcendental signified - to the individual. Reality is believed not because the individual's own experiences tell them that those experiences, and their interpretations thereof, are real. Rather, reality is believed because of the authority of the transcendental. In projecting the source outside individual experience, the nomos is internalized, and suppresses its own presence in the psyche.

Legitimation functions both objectively and subjectively. Where the internalized nomos functions to create the perceived reality, the legitimation serves as the explanation of the reality the permits the constructed nature of reality to disappear into the unseen. Thus both legitimation and nomos must function as a part of the objective reality and yet be internalized fully within the psychological conception of that reality.(13)

Unsurprisingly, "religion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimization." What religion offers the nomos is a preternatural aspect of reality. By situating the contextualization of reality outside the material religion can function to give narrative order to material reality without the risk of material reality ever impinging upon its tautological oversight. "Religion legitimates social institutions by bestowing upon them an ultimately valid ontological status, that is, by locating them within a sacred and cosmic frame of reverence." (14) A supreme example offered by Berger is the occultic idea that "everything 'here below' has its analogue 'up above'." (15) This very ancient and universal idea legitimates the earthly institutional order by establishing a synonymous relationship with the celestial orders. As such, "by participating in the institutional order men, ipso facto, participate in the divine cosmos." An example of such an analogue within the contemporary U.S. - a legitimation that is currently under attack, and that is demonstrating active defense against such an attack - is that of marriage. The idea of gay/les or other non-traditional marriage is a direct attack upon an institution that has had a long-standing and central function within the legitimating institution of conservative Christianity. To the call the idea of marriage into question is no mere ripple in the nomos. Marriage is tied by way of earthly/celestial analogue - the 'marriage' of Christ to the Church, e.g. - to the very core of Christian (or other religious) legitimation of the nomos. The fundamentality of the threat to the nomos is seen in the societal energies with which the threat to marriage is being combated. The nomos is not simply having to modify the definition of reality to accommodate changing material pressures (as with, say, the slowly increasing importance of ecological conservation within U.S. society), it is the underlying Truth of reality-as-believed that is having to adjust: no small task, culturally speaking.

Considering the history of the West, it should be an obviousness that English - and by extension American - common law origins of blasphemy law is rooted the dual notion of Christianity as the established religion of England and of England being likewise established in Christianity - the latter being necessary consequent to the former. The pivotal case in English common law, the first recorded case where common-law courts took jurisdiction in a case of blasphemy qua blasphemy, is the 1676 Taylor's Case.(16) Taylor's crime was blasphemy of a religious nature - that is, defamation of God and Christ. The substance of the act was his saying aloud and in public that

Christ is a whore-master, and religion is a cheat, and profession is a cloak, and they are both cheats, and all the earth is mine, and I am a king's son, my father sent me hither, and made me a fisherman to take vipers, and I neither fear God, devil, nor man, and I am a younger brother to Christ, an angel of God, and no man fears God but an hypocrite, Christ is a bastard, God damn and confound all your gods, Christ is the whore's master (17)

-- words taken down by the good mayor of Guildford (the site of the crime). Six days in Bedlam gave no hope that the continuous blaspheming could be chalked up to madness, and he was passed up to the high court of England, which claimed jurisdiction - withholding the case from ecclesiastical courts - because the language "tend[ed] immediately to the Destruction of all Religion and Government." As such, Taylor was prosecuted in the King's courts for a high misdemeanor. On conviction, he was sentenced to be pilloried in three places wearing a sign "for blasphemous words, tending to the subversion of all government," and fined 1000 marks. Let me bookend this brief description with the decision of Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale:

such kind of wicked words were not only an offense to God and religion, but a crime against the law, State and Government, and therefore punishable in this Court. For to say, religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby the civil societies are preserved, and that Christianity is parcel of the laws of England; and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.(18)

Taylor's Case established common law jurisdiction over blasphemy, and did it through the readily perceived assumption that English society was founded upon and sustained by Christian belief. Disruption of the fabric of religion would inevitably result in the disruption of the fabric of society. Even more, questioning any aspect of accepted or established Christianity questions also the very foundation of English society. As such, blasphemy is a very real concern of the English state.

Again we see how blasphemy marks the limits of free expression in a society. It shows the limit of what a society's nomos can bear before it must react to protect the internalized nature of its own construction. A blasphemous act by definition calls to question the nomos: it disorders perceived reality. Simply by existing it disassembles the grand narratives that explain and define reality, that make reality understandable and the world safe. And again we see how blasphemy is fundamentally a social crime. Its very purpose is to limit freedom of expression. To view it as an exception within freedom of expression jurisprudence is to misunderstand the nature of the event. Within the nomos expression is not an unlimited field within which blasphemy marks out forbidden regions. Rather, the infinite field is blasphemous, and within it lies the pocket of permissible discourse.

The response to blasphemy gives measure to the size of that pocket. Mosaic law - the law of a small populace wandering homeless in a harsh landscape - demanded, quite frequently, death. In such a society sedition could quickly escalate to broadly damaging consequences, and it needed to be suppressed quickly and efficiently. The medieval canonists, ecclesiastical lawmakers and as such defenders of the sacred, did not consider the death penalty as a legitimate punishment for blasphemy. The normal response in the 16th century was either fines or corporal punishment. Though, the latter could yet be severe by today's standards, including piercing or amputating the tongue.(19) And though the canonists would not consider implementing severe punishments for blasphemy, that did not mean they considered the crime of any less severity. For them, blasphemy was contrary to natural, divine and human law. As a crime it weighed heavier than homicide. (Taylor's fine of 1000 marks was beyond high enough to guarantee he would never be free from imprisonment.) If the canonists did not proscribe sentences of measure equal to the crime it was not because of error in the biblical reading. Rather, it was because of the practical fact that no one would remain alive.(20) Without surprise, then, "the principle complaint of the canonists . . . was not that the canon law of blasphemy wad 'chilled' the free discussion of ideas. Their complaint was quite the reverse: that the law had not proved 'chilling' enough."(21)


Continute to Part IV.


Note numbers link back to text.

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. Judith Norman, (Cambridge: Campbridge University Press, 2005), 170.

2. Leonard B. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 4.

3. The whole of this discussion on Greece from Levy, 7.

4. Quoted by Levy. See 340n13.

5. Exodus 22:28. The verse has served to establish a biblical foundation for lese-majesty. Levy, 15. Though, whether the Old Testament or the Talmud does support the notion that cursing a ruler was actually blasphemous is contested (342n29).

6. R.H. Helmholz, The Spirit of Classical Cannon Law (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 259.

7. Levy, 6

8. Ibid., 6

9. Neville Cox, Blasphemy and the Law in Ireland (Ceredigion: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), 76.

10. Helmholz, 260.

11. Pierre Klossowski. Sade My Neighbor, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 53.

12. Berger, 29.

13. Ibid., 32.

14. Ibid., 33.

15. Ibid., 34.

16. 1 Vent 293, 3 Keble 607 (1676).

17. This description of Taylor's Case in Levy, 312ff.

18. Levy, 313-14.

19. Helmholz. 261-62.

20. Ibid., 262.

21. Ibid., 283.