by Austin Dacey
The contemporary discourse of personal blasphemy makes sacrilegious expression a crime, even a violation of human rights. It frames sacrilegious expression or religious insult as a grave failure of equal respect for persons. Although this language has been embraced and exploited by representatives of organized faiths, it is in fact deeply antithetical to many major religious traditions. First, it trivializes the spiritual concern with the sacred. Second, it threatens to close off an important process of spiritual growth wherein impiety can expose idolatry and redirect reverence to the right objects.
The language of personal blasphemy threatens to eclipse other fruitful ways of talking. If we allow the legal idiom of injury to individuals to become the preeminent culturally respectable and authoritative way of talking about sacrilege, we will have impoverished our conversations about what may or may not be sacred, and what it demands of us. Religious, mystical, artistic, and philosophical traditions have in a multitude of different ways attempted to stir our reverence for things outside of the individual human person—Nature, God, Atman, Beauty, other living things.
Tolerating a space in which sacrilegious expression can occur is a safeguard against investing the wrong things with sacredness. In Abrahamic traditions, this is the sin of idolatry. As Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit have explored, communion with the divine is always mediated by some representation of it. Such representations may be mimetic, metonymic, or linguistic. A mimetic representation connects to the divine through a relation of similarity, mirroring, or resemblance—a painting or statue of a divinity; a metonymic representation is a symbol associated with the divine—a token, avatar, relic, or site; a linguistic representation is part of a system of semantics in which certain symbols are used, according to convention, to refer to the divine—“Rock of Israel,” “Son of Mary,” “Most Gracious, Most Merciful.”1
As reverence and worship are directed through a representation, the representation can come to displace the godhead as the object of worship. For the theologians, this is a “substitutive error,” wherein “the idol is regarded as a fetish that slowly and gradually acquires the traits of the thing it is representing. In a certain sense it becomes the body of the god, the residence of its soul, and an independent object of ritual worship. The purpose of prohibitions dictating proper methods of representation is to prevent errors of substitution of the representations for God.”2 One person’s blasphemy is another’s iconoclasm.
The trick with monotheisms is to pick the right One. If God is One and supreme, the danger of idolatry is ever-present, for many can be erected in the place of the One. Competition comes not just from neighboring gods, but even from our own ideas about the One. In religious traditions anxious over spiritual fidelity, a receptivity to blasphemy can prevent straying. The coming of truth is at the same time blasphemy against the “falsehood” supplanted. The history of Abrahamic religion (for many practitioners, not merely history but progress) reveals a series of blasphemies by one teacher or prophet against those who came before.
While the orthodox will be content that their progress beyond their predecessors was complete and never to be surpassed, they would be hard-pressed to show that they are impervious to the sin of idolatry. Therefore, they have an interest in at least listening to the blasphemer. Monotheist or not, everyone is vulnerable to the vice of making the wrong things sacrosanct. Sacrilege is the acid that sears away misplaced sacralization. By exposing ourselves to it, we stand to educate our practices and reorient ourselves towards what matters most. The criminalization of blasphemy insulates us from this exposure.
When the legal contest supplants the moral-spiritual contest, we all lose out.
Austin Dacey is a representative to the United Nations for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He is the author of The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights and The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, and Dissent. In 2010, he created The Impossible Music Sessions, a forum in New York City for artists who cannot perform publicly due to censorship, political intimidation or cultural pressure.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.
1. See Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit, “Idolatry and Representation,” Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 22 (Autumn 1992): 19-32.
2. Halbertal and Margalit, “Idolatry and Representation,” 20.