Blasphemy gets a bad name. In Northern Ireland I’ve heard children being admonished for blaspheming when they ‘take god’s name in vain’. But, of course, referencing Jesus (as an expletive) loses its impact when most people do it. The more something happens, the less shocking it is.
But blasphemy – when people make a conscious effort to show contempt or irreverence to religion – is not really that common. That’s a pity.
Some Christians get on their high horse when comedians or playwrights choose to poke fun at their religion. They make the point that Christianity is much easier to mock than Islam. But, it would appear, that’s because it’s safer.
It’s not that Muslims are, as a people, more likely to be violent than anyone else – as a rule. However, it does appear that there are some people who feel it’s a sufficient excuse to kill someone else if they are judged to have insulted the prophet…if they have blasphemed. Yesterday’s massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo provided very graphic evidence of this. But even before yesterday most newspaper proprietors had applied a self-imposed censorship. Blaspheming and Islam were not deemed to be appropriate bedfellows. Pardon the metaphor.
Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out that the relative danger represented by various religions waxes or wanes depending on circumstances. The Catholic church is a lot less dangerous than it used to be. Most Catholics are, these days, menu-Catholics. Most New York Jews are probably closet-Atheists. Therefore it’s difficult to get oneself into dangerous bother with a religion when the members of that religion are, themselves, quite fond of making fun of their own faith/community classification.
Religion is intrinsically silly. Try reading the Book of Mormon or even the Old Testament. These texts were written, translated, re-written and revised. The ‘original’ texts are often plagiarized from old wives’ tales or visions. Religion is the stuff of layered nonsense. Its most vociferous literalists are weird. But its fundamentalists are often dangerous. Christian fundamentalists, of course, used to drown women they considered to be witches. Much of the evidence required to prove that women were witches seemed very like the type of evidence required to prove that women were women.
The reason that most religions have been tamed is the same reason that most wars are prevented or most homicides are avoided. The world is, despite appearances in the media, a much better place than it used to be. Violence is much less common than it used to be – and that’s largely because of the march of liberal, secular democracy and better communications that spread messages about secular, liberal decency.
If you feel the need to read a definitive text about how this has happened I recommend The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker. In short, the world is a much better and nicer place – but still has a few nutters.
Yesterday was, of course, an aberration…an outlier. But at another level it wasn’t. Charlie Hebdo was one of the few magazines dedicated to exposing the silliness of religion – including the Islamic religion. Most other satirical magazines stopped short. Charlie was a sitting duck. Even today, while several newspapers in mainland Europe reprinted the front covers from Charlie on their pages, no major UK paper had the guts.
But there is security in numbers. The more publishers that are willing to take the risk the less dangerous it will become. There simply aren’t that many gun-toting fundamentalists to go around seeking retribution. I only hope that, soon, the French authorities will reduce the number by a few more.
So I’d recommend to the following mantra to the UK newspaper proprietors: Nous Sommes Charlie.