Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.

The Creation of AdamThe problem isn't religion as such, at least it isn't the preserve of religion. I guess the problem can be summarised as

Political belief in the absence of reason.

Where political means of citizens or the state.

Holding some beliefs which cannot be justified with cold logic is inevitable. There are things about our world and ourselves we don’t know for sure and then there are choices we make where our feelings are as important as anything else; our personal codes about sex, marriage and family relationships, for example, the clothes we wear, the food we eat and so on.

The problems arise when we start interfering with one another. It’s not fair to say that people shouldn’t interfere with one another at all, because we are social animals, we live in society and we have a degree of responsibility for one another. We have to make rules. But these rules have to be established on the base of reason.

God has nothing to do with reason - not because God or any other supernatural force is an unreasonable concept, but because we have no consensus on the issue and no consensus can be achieved through argument. It is a matter of faith. Even if we believed that the Bible (for example) was entirely true, people have to translate and interpret and people have never ever agreed on what exactly it is He wants us to do. For every person who argues that we must do X because it is God's will, there will be a dozen people who feel sure He wants us to do Y.

Fortunately, most people with religion don't need to do this. Most of us are capable of coming up with some ground rules for society without reference to the supernatural, even if the supernatural might underpin why it is all so very important. For the Humanist, the consequence of bad behaviour is human suffering on Earth which is a terrible thing because we each only have one life, one shot, one short period of existence and that makes it very precious. For the Theist, the consequence of bad behaviour is human suffering on Earth which is a terrible thing because it upsets God. I simplify of course, but most of the conversations we have about politics needn't mention our religious beliefs if you and I both agree that human suffering is to be avoided wherever possible. And thus, religious diversity has existed for hundreds of years in the United Kingdom and elsewhere without too many major hitches.

Unfortunately, some people do have political beliefs which are not grounded in reason. Blasphemy must be by far the silliest example which remains on our statute books and is a concept which really, really makes me cross. Honestly folks, blasphemy is complete and utter nonsense and we really ought to have scrapped it by 2007.

God might well be offended by a book, a play, a poem, or some cartoons - he might even be preoccupied by these matters when elsewhere people are busy torturing and killing their neighbours in His name, but how would we know about it? So I recall, following his reaction to that business with the goat, the Semetic God hasn’t actually issued any specific complaint. And anyway, surely claiming to know the mind of God is the biggest blasphemy there is? Surely that would be taking the Lord's name in vain?

But beyond the shakey theological basis for the concept, anybody can claim that anything is blasphemous in the context of their personal belief system. Certainly, there has never been consensus among members of a given religion where some members have cried blasphemy – indeed, the alleged blaspheme is usually a member of said religion (if you don't know that the God or supernatural force you're insulting exists, one wonders whether you can truly insult Them). And there's no reason involved; it's just mere mortals getting cross and supposing that their God is as petty and insecure as they are. Which is a casual dismissal for something which has led and continues to lead to people torturing and killing one another and for some people living in liberal democracies fearing for their lives.

Like I say, it is not exclusive to religion; the expression of descent in totalitarian states is criminalised in a very similar way, using very similar language, since the leader or the ruling party tends to take on divine status. And it's not that I believe in dismissing or insulting people for the sake of it. What I object to is treating one particular set of people special protection from being offended under the law. I also object to the Race and Religious Hatred Bill for similar reasons.

So, did you want to see some blasphemy? I must say I'm always fascinated by controversial works simply because these are pieces of art which have been felt to have extraordinary power. Unfortunately, this awesome power is often wasted on me; I don't usually get it. I can see shocking, but that's not power. If all the Devil needed to do was shock people he'd just need to stop all the zips working in the House of Commons. I'll start with the worst offending item.

The only 'blasphemous' poem I know of in English is The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name by James Kirkup which lead to the successful prosecution of Gay News, when it was first published in 1976 (Mary Whitehouse brought the case as a blasphemous libel). This poem is not to be confused with the 1894 poem, Two Loves by Lord Alfred Douglas, which concludes with the line "I am the love that dares not speak its name." which was quoted and analysed at the trial of Oscar Wilde.

A few years ago, The Love... was read out in public on the steps of St. Martin in the Field by a number of literary figures and activists in a protest specifically against the blasphemy law. No arrests were made, no legal action taken but the law remains. I must admit that I was rather shocked when I got round to reading the text; by its reputation I had kind of imagined something like

Jesus was gay!
Hip hip hooray!
Simon fancied Peter
And James like musical theatre.
And Andrew was a nudist,
Who had a thing for Judas!

and so on and so forth. The actual poem has far more artistic merit than that and as a result is really very shocking and extremely distasteful, if ultimately somewhat silly. One can fully understand why it upset people, so be warned. However, I would still argue that adults should be allowed to find it, read it and judge it for themselves if they want to. So here it is.

The blog Sepia Mutiny shows the paintings of Mugbool Fida Hussein, who was attacked for blasphemy within the Hindu religion; I really don't know enough about Hinduism to put this in any context, but there is a debate in the comments section which provides some insight.

On Wikipedia, you can see Piss Christ, which is... I mean, why? Sister Wendy Beckett refused to see it as blasphemous. Wikipedia also has a low-resolution image of the Jyllands-Posten Muhmmad cartoons, which resulted in much flag-burning and the death of at least 139 people in protests worldwide. I consider them offensive because they play on some of the most inflammatory racist stereotypes you can think of, but they weren't worth anybody's life.

YouTube has various extracts from Jerry Springer the Opera, which met with great controversy when it was screened on BBC television last year. I've not seen the whole thing; it doesn't have much appeal to me but I would argue for the right for others to see it if they wanted.

For other examples of blasphemy, check out your record collection. The current Pope, in his capacity as a cardinal, condemned pretty much every pop song since the Beatles (and yeah, he did mention the Beatles specifically) as being the music of the devil. I think he probably confused the music of the Beatles with some of Paul McCartney's later output.


Anonymous said...

I love Reason. I love fact. It is such a bright light on why so much of past codes with their root in religion, Blasphemy being one, are foolish now.

Mary said...

Ah, well, the Devil does have all the best tunes.

I hadn't read that poem before. I admit I do find it distasteful - more on the basis of the necrophilia business than the Jesus issue. Yick.

BUT, if I was to sit down at my keyboard and think to myself "today I'd really like to upset some Christians" then describing the violation of the corpse of their Messiah would probably be on my brainstorming list. The writer can't get upset that a certain group of people got upset about a poem which does seem designed to upset those people.

Frankly I prefer your version - lighthearted while opening people's minds to possibilities.

The Goldfish said...

Mary, yes, you're right; I don't think the author or the folks who first published it could have had any illusions about the potential reaction; I think they must have been very angry at the time, but still. The point about this particular poem is that it was banned and strictly speaking, I believe it is still, since it was subject to a successful prosecution under our Blasphemy Laws - I'm not sure you can access it in print at all.

I cannot defend it on the grounds that it is a nice poem or say people have nothing to be upset about. It wouldn't, for example, be acceptible to be read out on prime time television. But is that upset alone justification for it to be illegal to publish in any context?

Mary said...

well, context is all - if I access online p0rn by clicking through a series of portals saying "you must be over 18 to enter this site" then that's a very different kettle of fish to finding it linked through the cbeebies website.

Still, I am surprised about it coming under "blasphemy" rather than "indecency" laws. It indicates that they were more bothered about the name of Christ being used than about the description of acts that are abhorrent and illegal in just about every society.

fluttertongue said...

This is a rather difficult one for me. I am religious. Much more than people who 'blaspheme' do I dislike people who assume those who have a faith are less intelligent/worthy or simply naive. I do not believe blasphemy should be a matter for legilation, but rather should be part of a moral code, followed by people who are aware that their respect for other people's faiths is as important as their own beliefs or lack thereof. Just because they are 'literary' does not mean people have a greater right to offend the religious: in fact, this is the crux of it. For decades, people who have been 'enlightened' to the stupidity of faith have found it perfectly acceptable to put forward their views as more rational than those who still follow a faith. Alas, to not believe is as irrational as to believe. Those who believe - globally - are poorer than those who don't. It is thus perhaps just another method of elitism or assumed superiority of those who own more.

The Goldfish said...

Mary, I think we basically agree then.

Fluttertongue, I really don't think that anything I have said here suggests that people who have faith are naive, unintelligent or unreasonable; I strongly hope that didn't come across. In fact part of what inspired this was the kind of thing you describe, because the old chestnut religion is the problem; if we banned all religion we'd have far fewer wars, etc really makes me cross. Religion isn't the problem; very many of the most rational and intelligent people who have ever lived had religion.

However, we do have to come to some consensus on certain issues, and bringing matters of faith into political debate endangers that consensus - since there can be and never was any consensus about divine truth. And indeed, that can cause wars and trouble and indeed, contribute to poverty. People need to be able to exercise political descent in order for debates to take place and progress to be made; this is why theocracy is such a disaster; if God was truly in charge, it would be fantastic, but people, mere mortals have to represent Him and their word - as opposed to His - becomes unquestionable.

When it comes to freedom of expression, I agree it should be matter of personal morals - courtesy even - but the issue here is about the law. Like Voltaire said, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

Although frankly, I'm not sure I'm that commited. ;-)

bint alshamsa said...

I'm pretty religious. Well, I think most people would probably say so, at least. However, the blasphemy stuff never bothers me. I see it as a matter of rudeness, at worst. I just can't picture a person like Jesus (as he is portrayed in most faith traditions) being perturbed by a little jar of pee-tinkle. If anything, I could only picture him saying "You know, you're pretty old to still be playing with your own urine, right?"

Maddy said...

Blasphemy and high treason! Just as well hanging has gone out of fashion huh!

fluttertongue said...

Good heavens no! It's just a bugbear. I think putting the focus on blasphemy blurs the issue.

The Goldfish said...

Bint - thank you very much for using the phrase pee-tinkle - it brightened my day. :-) And yes, I agree.

Mcewen - yes, indeed. ;-)

Fluttertongue - good; I am very nervous of approaching subjects like this in a clumsy manner. But the reason I focussed on blasphemy is that it is a fairly extreme example of how we can get in a mess with this stuff. The fact the law exists in the UK is a bit of an aside - it's wrong, but it's not like it's making a whole lot of difference to anyone.

But the fuss over Salman Rushdie reared its ugly head again recently. And I think I do think it is important to condemn any view that says that an artistic work can provoke violence. Bad art, offensive art; it just isn't anywhere close to an excuse.