Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rowan Williams on Blasphemy

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.


  1. Some good points here. I think your analysis of Rowan William's position is correct, if I'm reading his words correctly.

    Otherwise, I think you're talking total hogwash. If there are two worldviews, the one is a largely illogical and enforced Church (not a Christian) worldview and the other is a largely logical worldview.

    A Church worldview argues from the position of strength and We-Know-Best. The logical worldview starts from the position that people believe different stuff (surprise, surprise) so how can we get on as a coherent society with people who believe different things.

    But the reality is not that we've moved away from the Truth as expressed by a retained Church worldview, which incidentally had very little to do with christianity or the bible, but that we are again moving within the reality of a biblical mindset, walking in a world where people believe different things are we have to learn how to get on.

    Blasphemy is a useless concept because who am I to determine what is blasphemous? If God is God then it is up to him to take offence and deal out retribution, not me. It even says as much in the bible.

    Regarding offense, we need to learn to grow thicker skins. Somehow we've got this idea that Jesus was a pasty-faced Christian who got all hot-and-bothered about people's blasphemies. But the bible is clear - what Jesus really was bothered about was the 'righteous' judging others according to their own self-created measure of holiness.

    If anyone in the whole history of Christianity was a blasphemer, it would be Peter. Yet our Lord met and forgave him where he was without even asking for an apology. We'd do well to listen more closely to where the Lord is leading than taking exaggerated offense at things that don't really matter very much.

  2. Joe

    I'm trying to live in the real world - we are not in New Testament times, we're just coming out of many centuries of Christendom thinking and institutions in the UK, and some of those, just some, might be worth preserving. Michael Nazir-Ali argues much more strongly for the preservation of Christendom than I would (see Ruth Gledhills blog today). I'm not actually trying to state a strong position either way here, just clarify the issues.

    What bothers me about the web, and the media, is that so much of the debate about Williams has been of the hurrah-boo variety, with no real attempt to have a loving fight rather than just a fight.

    I agree with you about where Jesus priorities lay, though he was sternest in criticising those who claimed to speak for his Father but didn't. Behind that - surely? - is that Jesus was angered and deeply offended by the way these people had twisted God's word and God's reputation into something it was not.

    I don't believe that trying to use the law to protect Christian sensibilities is viable in the secular liberal society we now have. However I also look at Pakistan and other places and see laws being used against Christians. Some kind of protection under the law might be a good idea.

  3. David, Joe

    There seems to me to be an interesting contrast between:

    David talking about "worldviews" based on *content* - belief / doctrine / assumptions (creeds, if you will).

    Joe talking about what I would call *approach* - i.e., "top-down" ('Church') and "bottom-up" ('logical'/'biblical').

    Matt W

  4. Bishop Nazir-Ali insists that we live in a Christian society, but we have not for a very long time. It is like saying that we live in a Devil Worshipping society because millions of children dress up like witches every year.

    We clearly live in a post-christian society. Most people who are not active members of another faith have no understanding of Christianity at all. To pretend otherwise is just lies and smoke.

    Regarding your other points, there are plenty of places where Christians struggle. It is right to point this out, but if we continue to make such statements as Nazir-Ali seems to enjoy making, without any evidence whatsoever, Pakistanis can argue that being a Christian is UnPakistani taking our lead.

    This is the main difference between the Archbishop and the Bishop of Rochester. Rochester asserts that something is the case and it is impossible to argue with him because he never actually puts forward an argued and evidenced case. Canterbury, being an academic, puts forward a close and argued position which one can then examine and argue.

    If I believed in Bishops, it is fairly obvious who is the more suitable.