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Noble Blasphemy
Part IV.

– Feb. 18, 2013

Return to Part III.




"However impeccably the content of an 'other' culture be known . . . it is its location as the closure of grand theories, the demand that, in analytic terms, it be always the good object of knowledge, the docile body of difference, that reproduces a relation of domination . . . ."
– Homi Bhabha, "The Commitment to Theory"(1)


Again: "The core of blasphemy is religious belief." By now, the difficulties of the subject should be becoming apparent. "Belief": as in a religious belief system that serves to legitimate the nomos. "Religious": as a social construct, one fixed upon a point that conceals the chaos of being by being posited outside of being where it can both define all within reality and escape needing to be defined by reality, where it can fix meaning without threat of meaning contradicting its own existence. "Blasphemy": understood within the nomos as offense against the divine, though in fact offense against the nomos itself, or, more specifically, against the surety of the nomos, a surety assumed and unquestioned, so obvious as to be unapparent and unknown. Blasphemy is undeniably felt by the individual, but what the individual is responding to is the threat to the self as it is established within the surety of community identity (that is identity of the self as equated with community). There are no material effects of blasphemy: no ominous clouds darkening the sky, no blood red sun. Its negative result is wholly psychological: the uneasiness of psychological threat to the "victims'" own psychological well being. The sentence is simple but the idea behind it is profound: accepted Reality is being questioned.

In 1841, Anglo-American blasphemy law underwent a profound shift in definition in the case of R. v. Hetherington,(2) in which a Chartist journalist was prosecuted for publishing allegedly blasphemous books. While the court did not break from the line that Christianity was yet the law of the land and thus afforded protections from certain expressions, it did break in saying that the blasphemous element of an utterance could not wholly to be found in the "matter of opinion," but also depended greatly upon "the tone and style and spirit."(3) The shift was firmly affixed in the common law in two 1883 cases, R. v. Bradlaugh(4) and R. v. Ramsay & Foote,(5) both penned by the same justice, Coleridge LCJ. From the latter: "If the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without the attacker being guilty of blasphemous libel . . . [; t]o asperse the truth of Christianity cannot per se be sufficient to sustain a criminal prosecution for blasphemy."(6)

Cox sees Ramsay & Foote as "not a development of the offense of blasphemy" but rather "the creation of a new offense while retaining the existing name of the crime." The crime after Ramsay & Foote no longer serves its original purposes, neither that of defending the deity nor that of defending the underpinnings of society. The shift from content to form carried with it the abandonment of treating any sacrilegious utterance as automatically blasphemous.

What had occurred within English society that created the change in attitude? A shift in the nature of the religious transcendental signified. The truth of reality was no longer the Scholastic notion wherein reality, as an extension of god's being, carried within it the divine truth of god's being. The legitimation of truth in language had moved away from the presence of divinity within truth and toward other sources of legitimation of truth (such as scientific verification). Blasphemous language thus was not per se counter to the divine truth of Creation. As such, blasphemy had come to require more than content: it also needed a malicious act. The more important consequence - especially in that the per se element of blasphemy is not wholly removed from English law - the perceived 'victim' of blasphemy shifted from God and society to the sensibilities of the offended individual.

Cox makes two related points of notice. Firstly, calling these new offenses "blasphemy" sets them in conflict with the nature and purpose of the historical notion of blasphemy. Secondly, and as a consequent, the new form of the law still carries with it many "inappropriate elements of the ancient law."(7) Primary on that list would have to be that blasphemy would still be founded in Christianity as the established religion of England.

The second point is undeniable, and not at all surprising. For the shift in the first point is in the end a difference not in the nature of blasphemy, but only in its appearance. What had changed leading up to Ramsay & Foote was the English nomos. The social history of the Victorian era is defined by that shift. The narratives of natural science, of history, or philosophy and morality could no longer be defined by an all controlling and all defining God. The greater nomos of England could no longer sustain itself through appeals to an offended god. As such, the justification of blasphemy shifted from an assumed deity to something a little more acceptable: the experience of the offended person.

Fundamentally, however, blasphemy is still the same societal event: the maintenance of the nomos and its legitimation. While religion has lost its position as a priestly caste within society, religion is yet a functioning basis of legitimation. All that has really changed as per blasphemy proper is how the event manifests itself: that is, how the nomos identifies the event. It is still a function of legitimation; however, one that fits with religion conceived as a post-Enlightenment concept. Before, where society and religion were overtly and inherently melded, where it was the divine first of all and society secondly that were the victims of blasphemy, that class which stood as the presence of the divine within society acted also as the voice of offense. They were the manifest sign of the beliefs and mores of society, and the tangible assurance of the divine narrative. By the mid-Victorian period the priestly class could no longer serve such a purpose to the degree necessary to the needs of the nomos. So the voice of blasphemous affront moved to the new center of religious experience: the individual.(8)

Note that within this shift in the narrative lies the inherent ability of the nomos to adapt to practical reality. It is not describing a shift from the grammatical to the creative. The narrative has changed, but the primary event is still the same: the reaffirmation of communal norms. Note also that the shift is not yet complete, historically speaking. Levy was speaking of the historical notion of blasphemy when he wrote,

Punishment propitiates the offended deities by avenging their honor, thereby diverting wrath: earthquakes, infertility, lost battles, floods, plagues, or crop failures.(9)

That blasphemy laws still exists on the books of the states in the U.S. is not admittedly demonstrative of much other than that sometimes old laws don't die but simply fade away. As well, the possibility of such a law withstanding a constitutional free speech challenge is essentially nil after Morley ("above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter or its content."(10)) and the theoretically more important R.A.V. ("content-based regulations are presumptively invalid"(11)). Yet, while the political system of the U.S. has successfully excised an constitutive religious legitimation of government, the language, beliefs, and mores of conservative Christianity has not yet followed suit. Blasphemy - a social function couched in religious belief - still exists. It was not long ago that the statement that the AIDS epidemic was a retributional plague visited upon the blasphemous acts of homosexuals was frequently heard in pulpits and in the media. Fundamentalist Christian television (and pulpits) still plies its believers with the language of a retributional deity. The conflict being played out in England where English society is being forced by globalization to face the issues of Christian establishment is also being played out here in the U.S. The primary difference is that in the U.S. religion has been constitutionally removed from functioning in government as a recognized establishment.(12) Nonetheless, the popularity of Christian 'histories' of the U.S. in specific, and the nature of the majority of Christian media in general, if not the greater tenor of how conservative Christianity speaks itself to the nation as demonstrated in the responses to the Cincinnati Mapplethorpe exhibit, or the nationwide picketing at showings of Life of Brian or The Last Temptation of Christ (or, more recently, the response to The Da Vinci Code, or, even and inversely, the response to The Passion of the Christ ), the continuing battle with the growing presence of homosexuality, the continuing so-called 'debate' over evolution and the current rise of creation science, or even the state of utter emasculation of the nation's public school textbooks, gives ample evidence that the older nomos of social/religious union is still quite alive, and struggling to cast U.S. policy in its image.

But this is the visible surface of the phenomenon. This is a group of people who share a common social norm speaking reality as defined by their functioning nomos. The underlying event, that which is the same whether we speak of blasphemy in the U.S., in Ireland, in Egypt or in Pakistan, or in Iran or Chechnya, is that of nomos and legitimation.

Which prompts a question: England, even if behind the U.S. in terms of religious establishment, is being forced to address the issues of the ideological influence of religion on social policy and the law, inevitably because Europe, and beyond that the majority of the world, is but a channel crossing away, what of a U.S. response, when both an isolated geography, an isolationist history, and a far more rural population limits the effect of those pressures?


Continute to Part V.


Note numbers link back to text.

1. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 31.

2. 4 St. Tr. (n.s.) 563.

3. R v. Hetherington at 590-1, as quoted in Cox, 12-13.

4. 15 Cox C.C. 217.

5. 15 Cox C.C. 23.

6. R. v. Ramsay & Foote at 235, as quoted in Cox, 15.

7. Cox, 76-77.

8. Of course, this shift may have culminated in the social upheaval of the nineteenth century, but it began centuries earlier.

9. Levy, 6.

10. Police Department of Chicago v. Morley, 408 U.S. 92, 95-96 (1972).

11. R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 382 (1992).

12. I make this rather generalizing statement recognizing the arguments as to the nature of the First Amendment division of church and state. For my purposes here, the general statement is sufficient, and the various arguments unnecessary to address.