The AB of C did a lecture on Tuesday about the blasphemy law, and Dave Walker has a piece on some of the reactions to it. Matt Wardman encouraged me to blog on this, so here goes.
As someone with a full-time job, I don't have the 3 days necessary to grapple with every sentence in the lecture. It is what it is: a lecture, not an article in the Sun. It's all the more disappointing that some of the reports and reactions haven't taken this into account. The Times report gives just as much airtime to Terry Sanderson, the president of the rent-a-quote National Secular Society (membership 7,000), who called the lecture a 'blatant pitch for new legislation to replace the blasphemy laws'. Sorry Mr. S, but the one thing you can't accuse Rowan Williams of being is blatant. Nuanced, dense, impenetrable even (I don't know if this got a laugh at the lecture - he at one stage restates one of his phrases 'in plainer English'), but not blatant.
There seem to me to be two reasons to have a blasphemy law:
a) A society based on a religious worldview, which sees blasphemy as an offence to God, and therefore enshrines it in their law code. In this view, God's existence is taken for granted, and he is seen as a party in moral questions. The UK blasphemy law is premised on Christendom, i.e. that the UK is a Christian society with established church, Christian monarch, and a Christian moral code underpinning it's laws, freedoms and understandings of the person and society. Blasphemy is not offence against religion, but against God himself, and is seen as an evil thing in a 'godly' society
b) A society based on a pluralist worldview, which takes a pragmatic approach, seeing a blasphemy law as a way of protecting religious people from insult and abuse. In this case it is not God who is being 'protected', but the person of faith.
My understanding of the UK is that we originally had a blasphemy law because of a, but in a post-Christian, multi-faith society the ground and justification of the blasphemy law has shifted to b. A law based on 'a' would be a clear statement of the Christian values at the root of our society and constitution, but the abc seems to be arguing on the basis of b, i.e. he has given up on a 'Christendom' justification and is relying on a pragmatic one.
At one level this is fair enough. Rowan Williams recognises that we are in a liberal, not a Christian society now,
I have attempted to go a little below the surface in the discussion about what protection religious believers should enjoy from the law of the land, in order to pinpoint some of the related issues around what is actually desirable and morally defensible in a society that is 'procedurally secular' but genuinely open to the audibility of religious voices in public debate. It is clear that the old blasphemy law is unworkable and that its assumptions are not those of contemporary lawmakers and citizens overall (emphasis mine)
Williams is therefore trying to argue for some kind of defense against the sensibilities of Christians, Muslims etc. on the basis of a liberal worldview, rather than a Christian one. You will read the article in vain for an explicitly Chrisitan theology of law and public morality - at one level I'm disappointed by this, but it's not what Williams is trying to do. He is starting from the assumptions of society at large, and arguing from there. That way, he has to be engaged with, rather than ignored and put into a religious pigeon hole.
This is a tricky issue: we are a post-Christian society, so to hang on to laws and values which date from the time when we were a Christian society can be archaic. However, many of those laws are good, and we have suffered as a society from liberalising them. We are in a transition between two worldviews, and Christians are both fighting to preserve what was good in the old order, whilst trying to engage with the new: abortion, attitudes to family, blasphemy, embryology, euthanasia - it's the issues where liberal secular and Christian values diverge that the plates rub against each other. On other issues: care for the poor, tolerance, environmentalism, justice, there is less friction, because there is more agreement between Christians and secularists.
I'm sure God is big enough not to need our protection, but those of us who believe God is real, and has will purpose and goodness, find it hard to accept a society which throws out blasphemy altogether. We love God, and to hear and see him insulted is as deep an offense to us as racist language is to people who suffer racist abuse. The statement we make by abolishing the blasphemy law is effectively saying to God 'you're on your own mate, we're not rooting for you any more.' As a Christian I think it's sad that we've got to that point, but if we have got to that point then that's the reality, and we have to deal with it. In his own way, that is what Rowan Williams is trying to do.