Can societies survive without blasphemy laws?

So today I was mulling gloomily over the way hate crime laws seem to have taken seamlessly over the function of blasphemy laws in the UK. I decided to look up when blasphemy was abolished as an offence in the country, thinking it might be sometime in the 1970s. Wrong – blasphemy was abolished as an offence in 2008. The acts governing hate crime (the Crime and Disorder Act and the Criminal Justice Act) were added to the statute book in 1998 and and 2003 respectively.

The CPS’ own website states that

The police and the CPS have agreed the following definition for identifying and flagging hate crimes: “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.”

These laws have been used in recent times for such diverse purposes as fining a man who taught his girlfriend’s dog to make a Nazi salute and arresting a woman for calling a transgender woman a man.

The common feature of both the blasphemy laws of yore and the hate crime laws of today is that both prohibit speech considered harmful to society’s morals. That society’s morals are no longer situated in a common belief system (such as Christianity) but an atomised, individualistic inner space (as expressed by the definition of hate crime as anything which is perceived by an individual as being such) is neither here nor there. Certain tenets cannot be challenged lest doing so harms the fabric of society.

It’s also neither here nor there that some of those moral tenets are unprovable or unfalsifiable in any objective sense: the Resurrection of Christ, say, or the existence of some magical inner ‘gender identity’. Indeed the more outlandish a protected belief the better, because the function of blasphemy laws is to compel moral obedience, and what better sign of moral obedience than to see people dutifully repeating something that is in no sense objectively true (such as that men can become women) on pain of being punished if they don’t comply?

My argument here isn’t that we should abolish hate crime laws as we did their predecessors, the laws of blasphemy. I don’t want to rant, Spiked-style, about the threat from blasphemy and hate crime laws to free speech so much I want to ask: have we ever really had free speech? It seems no sooner did we get rid of one set of rules about what you can’t say than we replaced them with another. There was, perhaps, a couple of decades where blasphemy was effectively defunct despite the statute remaining in existence and before hate crime came to be. But the collapse of controls on speech for religious reasons is nigh-simultaneous with the rise of controls on speech for social justice/equality reasons. The Human Rights Act 1998 forced blasphemy law to be restrained by the right to free speech; the same year, the Crime and Disorder Act made hateful behaviour toward a victim based on membership (or presumed membership) in a racial or religious group an aggravating factor in sentencing. (Insert chin-stroking emoji here.)

This leads me to suspect that human societies cannot, in fact, survive very long without laws of some kind governing speech. I’d love to see a counter-example. But I’ll be astonished if anyone can point me to a state that has abolished religious blasphemy without replacing it with controls on speech for other reasons, whether (under supposedly atheistic Communism) to forbid speaking against the Dictator, or (under supposedly individualistic, pluralistic liberalism) to forbid speaking against individuals’ notional right to self-define without reference to the collective.

Much as every human represses some aspects of their personality in order to function, every society does so too; it is a foolish or short-lived society that makes no effort to clamp down on behaviours or opinions that pose a threat to what that society considers the good or virtuous life. If that’s the case, is there even any value in trying to fight what feels like a rising tide of authoritarian busybodying keen to tell me what I can and can’t say? Or should I just pile in and make my bid to be on the team who’s in charge of deciding what should or shouldn’t be banned?

Right now, the two groups jostling most energetically for that position in the UK are the proponents of ‘intersectionality’ and the radical Islamists. If Nassim Taleb is correct, and social mores are disproportionately set by tiny ideological minorities purely based on the strength of their conviction, then whether we end up punishing those who assert that men cannot become women or those who draw cartoons of Mohammed will be a straight fight between which of those groups is more determined to blow shit up if they don’t get their way.

I don’t really like the way this argument is going. If I’m right, then social mores in a few decades will bear few resemblances to those of today And whether they’re structured with reference to authoritarian liberalism or radical Islam I don’t think I will particularly like their shape. But there’s nothing I can do about it – the moral majority in the country is firmly post-Christian and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a society that can’t be arsed to defend its moral traditions is guaranteed to see them supplanted by ideologies with more committed adherents. And indeed, the kind of Christianity that did once upon a time get out of bed to defend its moral tenets by any means necessary would probably, in practice, be as repugnant to me as either of the likely moral futures toward which our society is heading.

 

On community, communities and identity politics

Today I drove half an hour to a hospital, with my toddler, to visit a dying woman I barely knew personally, just because she is a member of the church I attend. I don’t want a medal or anything; I mention the incident because it left me mulling over the different ways our culture uses the word ‘community’, and what they mean in practice in different contexts.

In the context of a church, ‘community’ means shared values. In that context, people go the extra mile to care for one another in ways that are shaped by the church’s shared value system. Specifically, visiting a dying woman, that might mean reading her a prayer or sharing with her thoughts and prayers sent by other members of the community. It might mean being willing to hold the hand of a near stranger, knowing she is part of my community and that enough of what remained unspoken between us could be taken for granted for her to find my presence comforting, and to allow me to be present.

In the context of identity politics, where nowadays we more often hear the word ‘community’, what does it in fact mean? It means you share your ‘identity’ with other members of your ‘community’, and membership of that community confers some kind of victim points, which can be leveraged for political amplification, or simply to win an argument with someone who possesses fewer protected characteristics than you. It is no guarantor of shared values, obligations, narratives or really anything much. And the more ‘inclusive’ each ‘community’ gets, the less able any community is to argue a coherent political case for anything. The LGB community is a case in point: when it focused on advocacy for people who sometimes or always engage in same-sex relationships it was pretty straightforward, but now it’s supposed to be an umbrella for everyone except the most vanilla heterosexual sex-role-stereotype-embodying people it’s hard to see what it can actually advocate for. (I wrote about how inclusivity kills politics here.)

This postmodern sense of ‘community’ can’t be relied on to come sit by your deathbed, turn up with food when someone else in the community has a baby, visit you when you’re ill or give you a lift to the station if you’re stuck at home. For that, you need shared values. It’s here I think we start to get a clue as to why the revolutionary vanguard of identity politics sounds increasingly religious with every passing day, complete with catechisms (‘trans women are women’), a theodicy (‘privilege’) and an Inquisition (outsourced to Twitter). It’s because, having left a smoking crater where Christianity once sat, the left-liberal vanguard has (unconsciously perhaps) begun to realise how many babies (and dying old people) have been thrown out with the bathwater.

Worried about the spread of Islam in the UK? Don’t go to EDL rallies – go to church

In which I try and piss off Muslims, liberals, Christians, atheists and people who share Britain First memes

The voice of Islam has grown in strength in my lifetime, even as that of Christianity has waned. Far more halal meat is now produced in this country than there are Muslims to eat it. At the same time, people have felt increasingly free to speak derogatorily about Christians and Christian ideas, to the point where Thought For The Day speakers write in the Guardian about the BBC’s ‘sniggering’ attitude to Christianity. In contrast, as criticism of and sniggering about Christianity has become such easy sport, it has become steadily less acceptable to voice criticisms about Islamic ideology.

Ahis shifting balance of power has not gone unnoticed. At the ‘deplorable’ end of social media, one sees a great deal of hostility toward what is experienced as a steady encroachment of Islam. Look up the #islamification hashtag if you want a taster. This example is typical.

The officially sanctioned response to this kind of sentiment is to dismiss it as bigotry and then censure, censor and move on. But consider for a few moments what it is expressing. Fear, hostility, concern about the encroachment of a way of life that is ‘not how we do things’. Is it justified? Well, the actual proportion of Muslims to the general population within the United Kingdom is pretty small (around 5%). So why the perception that there are so many?

In a chapter of Skin In The Game, Nassim Taleb outlines the means by which small but highly intransigent minorities can end up dictating dietary and even moral codes for a more flexible majority.

Roman pagans were initially tolerant of Christians, as the tradition was to share gods with other members of the empire. But they wondered why these Nazarenes didn’t want to give and take gods and offer that Jesus fellow to the Roman pantheon in exchange for some other gods. What, our gods aren’t good enough for them? But Christians were intolerant of Roman paganism. The “persecutions” of the Christians had vastly more to do with the intolerance of the Christians for the pantheon and local gods, than the reverse.

Today, some seventy percent of New Zealand lamb is slaughtered using halal methods, because while non-Muslims will for the most part tolerate halal slaughter, a high proportion of Muslims will not tolerate non-halal. Thus, by simple commercial expedience, the less tolerant minority ends up disproportionately influencing the available food choices for the majority.

One can extend this insight beyond halal slaughter. A recent YouGov poll illustrates this: most Brits think only six of the Ten Commandments are still important. The commandments that have fallen by the wayside are: worshiping false idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, worshiping anything other than God and keeping the Sabbath. In other words, the commandments that relate to active piety specific to religious adherence. The rest deal with theft, murder, adultery and the like; things which are clearly bad whatever you think of God. But edicts against blasphemy and the proliferation of gods, and for loyalty to the faith? Those are the rules that sustain the identity of a religion, and the cohesion of a group that follows it. That these are the edicts we have abandoned, in the UK, tells us everything we need to know about the level of religious intransigence in the general population. The commandments that gatekeep a faith, head off any dalliance with other faiths, in a word keep the faith intolerant enough to be influential have all faded to meaninglessness for the majority of Brits. This is not, in the main, a population willing to dig its heels in for the sake of religious beliefs. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that more than half the UK population do not feel themselves to have a religion.

In the midst of this sea of secular laissez-faire, Muslims are the only faith group present in the UK in any number who take their faith seriously enough to make sacrifices for it. This makes them very visible, and – in a tolerant, pluralistic society – makes Islam disproportionately powerful. British Muslims care about stuff the majority isn’t that bothered about, like saying prayers in slaughterhouses, so their secular fellow countrymen shrug and go along with it because what’s the problem? Those that are bothered, the angry traditionalists tweeting about ‘islamification’, are concerned because they sense, instinctively, the asymmetric influence of an intransigent minority and rightly fear for their own cultural norms.

But the populist reaction – hostility to Muslims and Islam – is misguided. Sharing memes on Twitter decrying the intolerant minority won’t lessen its influence and just makes the meme-sharers look nasty. If those complaining about Islamification are themselves secular, atheist or otherwise indifferent to serious, practising Christianity, they are helping to create the conditions for the Islamification they so detest.

It is no good saying the Muslims should be more tolerant. That’s not how religions work. No: the only force that can counter religious intransigence is religious intransigence. Anyone who is seriously concerned about Islam becoming the dominant religion in the United Kingdom should stop sharing Britain First memes and start going to church. And making sure their family does the same.

I can hear serious Christians protesting that running cultural interference is not a proper reason to attend church and indeed might itself qualify as worshiping graven idols. But is religious oractice not always as much about tribe and belonging and sociocultural norms as a mystical connection with the divine? Meanwhile atheists might protest that their problem is with religions as such, so embracing one imaginary sky fairy in order to see off another imaginary sky fairy is no solution at all. But newsflash, Mr Atheist: your rationalist medicine is weak. People die for religions: no-one would burn at the stake for Richard Dawkins. In the medium to long term, the prognosis does not look good for your freedom to be an atheist unless you pick a sky fairy with a reasonable track record of tolerating dissent. (Spoiler: that’s probably not Islam.)

As for the EDL meme sharers, if you can’t be arsed to educate yourself on your country’s religion, and get yourself out to church once a week, and take it seriously, then you are contributing to a dissolution of your culture that you are unjustly blaming on Muslims, and deserve to see its norms replaced by those of a religion whose adherents can.

Elsewhere I can hear Muslims protesting that this is nasty conspiracy-nutter #islamification clash of civilisations stuff and that I’m a bigot. Joining the chorus, I hear liberal secularists protesting that religion has been responsible for most of the wrongs in human civilisation and having moved mostly away from it in this country it’s barbarous to suggest resiling back into intolerance, especially if one is doing so out of intolerance towards a newer faith. But I am not a bigot. There isn’t a plot to Islamify the UK. There is just Islam, which is a confident faith whose adherents have plenty of intransigence about blasphemy, false gods et cetera, and it is influential because there is nothing substantial in its way. Secularism just doesn’t have the guns to stand against a strongly asserted faith.

In this country we have forgotten the power of faith to move mountains, and thus we do not yet take seriously the potential of a newly arrived faith to move – and replace – the entire post-Christian secular humanist edifice. The greatest error of our secular, pluralistic society has been to assume that the advantages of secular pluralism are both self-evident and historically inevitable (there’s a trace of religiosity right there: it’s all around, if you’re looking). But this is not at all self-evident to me. It seems far more likely to me, considering other civilisations that have gone before, that it is an anomaly and will be succeeded by the advent of a new religious age. We should stop trying to convince ourselves that our much-vaunted secular pluralism is anything but a transitional state for the culture of these islands, and ask ourselves what religion we would like that to be.