Tag Archives: heresy

Treatise on Blasphemy

Recently the Republic of Ireland held a referendum to repeal longstanding blasphemy offenses in its country.  While blasphemy still stands as a finable offense in the Republic under the 2009 Defamation Act, the referendum is still a demonstration that, as far as the Irish people are concerned, charges of blasphemy ought not to be a part of punishable civil law in their nation.

Friends of my adopted homeland here in the United States usually have a conception of Western Europe as being made up of a set of predominantly secular and progressive cultures.  And speaking as someone who spent many years growing up in Western Europe, this conception isn’t wholly unfounded.  As a result, it might astound many Americans to hear that some of these secular, progressive, ultra-liberal, borderline lefty countries still have enforceable blasphemy laws in place.  Granted, the actual enforceability of such laws is largely theoretical in nature, given that they are usually undermined by far more salient laws allowing for the freedom of religious expression and the freedom to believe in accordance to one’s personal conscience.  Thus, blasphemy laws currently exist as a vestigial organ in European law books; without practical purpose or application, but still present nonetheless.

“If these laws are unworkable, than why even bother to fret about them with referendums at all?  Why not just continue to ignore them, and get on with your blaspheming ways?”

This could be a reasonable response, but it misses an important point concerning blasphemy laws.  Putting aside the fact that it makes perfect sense to oppose the criminality of blasphemy on principle alone as unbecoming of any modern democratic nation, there is also the issue of the frailty on which the laxity of these laws currently exist.  To put it more plainly, the reason blasphemy charges are unworkable in most of the European nations that have them is precisely because the current sociopolitical climate is too secular and progressive to enforce them.  However, as any student of history knows, sociopolitical climates are anything but static.  So what happens if the political pendulum swings too far to the right, towards a political faction that views the protection of religious sensibilities as far more important to a nation’s cultural well-being, than the free expression of its citizenry?  Suddenly, these outdated blasphemy laws that have had no real thrust in civil law for almost two centuries, become a very powerful weapon in the hands of reactionaries all too eager to use the existing rule of law to conform society to their line of quasi-pious thinking.  And this is a potential threat both believers and unbelievers alike ought to be concerned about.

Blasphemy isn’t simply the act of professing one’s disbelieve in religious claims, whole cloth.  Blasphemy is the very nature in which all religions profess the very doctrines that make up their faiths.

Whenever polytheistic faiths, like certain sects of Hinduism, profess the existence of multiple gods, they are blaspheming against monotheistic religions which insist that there is only one god, and none other (and vice versa).  Within the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, when Christians profess that Jesus Christ is the foretold messiah, they are blasphemy against the Jewish faiths that claim that the messiah is yet to come (and vice versa).  When Muslims claim that Jesus, though a prophet and a messiah, is not the son of God, they are blaspheming against a central claim of Christianity.  The Catholic Church’s stance on the supremacy of the Roman papacy is blasphemous to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant rejection of Catholic ecclesiastical authority is blasphemous to Catholics.  The Methodists are blasphemers to the Calvinists, and just about every Christian sect considers Mormonism a heresy.

The obvious point here is that to take away the right to blaspheme is to make it impossible for religious pluralism to exist within a society.  Perhaps this is fine as long as your religious opinion is the dominant one in the society you inhabit, but what happens if you find yourself just short of the majority opinion?  What if a population shift occurs, and the very laws that enforced the thin-skinned sensibilities of your religious persuasion becomes the means why which the new dominant line of thought undermines your right to religious expression?

I could stop writing now, and end on this appeal for mutual cordiality between people of all faiths, and how it is in everyone’s self-interest to oppose blasphemy laws, but I fear it would leave things very much against the spirit of healthy discomfort that blasphemy really should elicit in a person when coming across it.  On that note, allow me address the elephant in the room that needs to be brought up when concerns regarding religious offense of any sort, in law or public discourse, rears its head.

Undeniably, religions make bold claims for themselves.  Claims that offer definitive answers on matters concerning life, death, morality, with a wager on possessing a monopoly on Truth with a capital T.  And they are always keen to wrap this all-knowing, all-encompassing bit of absolutist wisdom in a garb of self-proclaimed humility, as if to say, “No, no, don’t mind me…I’m simply professing to know the answers to all of life’s mysteries, ready made with the consequences (read: threat) that will befall you if you don’t follow along with my modest creed.”

In short, religions by their inherit design simply claim to know things they couldn’t possibly know.  But I, in turn, admit that I don’t know.  I don’t know what the answers to life’s mysteries are; nor do I know which of today’s mysteries will remain mysterious forever, and which might become common knowledge for subsequent generations to come.  I don’t know which moral answers yield the most objective good for humanity; nor can I say for sure that such answers are even completely knowable.  The truths I do know come with a lowercase t, held provisionally in accordance to forthcoming evidence and reasoned arguments, and I don’t know if I can do anything other than to reject the grammar of bolder Truth claims when confronted with them.

It is precisely that I don’t know that I am left with little recourse than to examine, question, dismiss, disbelieve, and (when I see fit) deride those who do claim to know, but offer hardly a dearth of evidence for their claim.  It took centuries of debate and bloodshed of previous generations of thinkers for any of us to be able to enjoy this simple — yet powerful — privilege to skepticism.  A privilege I do hold up as my right, and which I will speak up for without hesitation or apology.  What you call blasphemy, I call critical thought.  And if anyone can appeal to traditions as a means to protect religious sensibilities by legal means, I am fully within my right to appeal to the tradition of cultural and intellectual pushback towards religious doctrines and religious authorities that has made it possible for any sort of interfaith (and non-faith) social cohesion to exist in the modern world.  A tradition that includes both the right to the profane and the blasphemous, which cannot be allowed to be abridged in a democratic republic, for as long as one wishes to be part of any nation worthy of the claim.

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Goethe’s Prometheus and the Heretical Legacy of the Enlightenment

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stands as a unique figure in modern intellectual thought.  A polymath in the true sense of the word, it is difficult to ascribe to him one conclusive description without leaving out an array of equally apt titles.  His was an artist, a poet, a politician, an amateur scientist, and (by proxy of the collective legacy of all of the above) a philosopher.  Equally remarkable is the man’s place in history as a thinker heralded by both the materialist strands of the Enlightenment tradition, and the counter-Enlightenment Romantics of the 19th Century.  By all accounts, the fact that Goethe personally embodied the various opposing ideals of his times probably went a long way in fostering such a bemusing repute amongst his admirers.

He was (by 18th Century standards) a religious heretic, meandering between pantheism, Abrahamic estoricism, and a great deal of what would now be called classic humanism.  Yet, although his spiritual beliefs were heterodox, his politically leanings rested largely within the  conservative tradition, always viewing the revolutionary efforts of his days with a high degree of suspicion, and a consistent aloofness.  Regardless of where the man’s personal leanings stood on an issue, it is undeniable that Goethe’s widespread appeal to such varying audiences stems from his foresight in capturing the mood of the era he was living in for the sake of aesthetic posterity, and the intellectual benefit of the generations molded by the developments of said era.

As mentioned, Goethe himself held to rather undefinable religious positions throughout his active life.  Nevertheless, he had no difficulty in identifying the ideological struggle between traditional religious structure and the emergence of various heretical ideals that have come to symbolize the Enlightenment for many modern observers.  Published in 1789 (just as the Bastille was about to fall in France), “Prometheus” stands as a poetic allegory to the spiritual transition/tension sweeping through religious and politically revolutionary circles throughout Europe.

Conspicuously composed as a diatribe by the rebellious deity Prometheus against an uncharacteristically impotent Zeus (i.e. God), the work begins by declaring the sky Creator’s feebleness in comparison to the earth-dwelling Prometheus.

Now you must leave alone
My Earth for Me,
And my hut, which you did not build,
And my hearth,
The glowing whereof
You envy me.

The divergence from Greek mythology here is of no small significance.  Goethe’s Prometheus is not the tortured deity of antiquity, but a stand-in for the Enlightened spirit of mankind.  During this era the intellectual and technological advances were often seen as either moving away from Divine interpretations, or standing in outright opposition to religious orthodoxy (though it should be noted that many of the figures of the time did draw on their firm religious convictions as inspiration for their work, albeit usually more from a spiritually individualistic, rather than a strictly traditionalist perspective).  Like Enlightened man, Prometheus reclaims the title of Creator away from Zeus (“Now you must leave alone My Earth for Me”–note the capitalization of Me, apropos to the Western custom of using He when referencing the Almighty), and affirms his position as the keeper of his house (“my hut, which you did not build…”).  Furthermore, he accuses the God of envy against the dominance he–Prometheus (i.e. mankind)–has secured for himself on Earth, in direct contrast to the traditional Abrahamic position that man is granted dominion on Earth by God.

I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, you Gods!
Your majesty
Is barely nourished
By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations,
And should starve
Were children and beggars not
Fools full of Hope.

Goethe is illustrating the popular sentiment amongst the irreligious sects of his days, comparing the growing turn away from the Divine as a starvation of the gods, except for “children and beggars” still foolish enough to turn to prayer in time of need.  The allusion here is twofold; firstly, it draws on the growing Enlightenment critique that supernatural matters are too childish and superstitious for those with intellectual depth to concern themselves with.  Secondly, it implies how Gods, exhibiting a constant demand for worship and sacrifice from on above, are therefore the more dependent entities in comparison to Prometheus (i.e. man), since their relevance rests on recognition from the earth-dwelling mortals.

Should I honour you? Why?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?
Was I not forged as a Man
By almighty Time
And eternal Fate,
My masters and thine?

The misotheistic aspersions at the start of the quote are a rhetorical framing of the fatalistic powerlessness endemic to existence; in which the concept of omnipotence is rendered incoherent, as gods and men are left equally susceptible to the entropy of time and fate (referred to as masters of both the Divine and the mortal).  However, despite the recognition of cosmic fatalism, the tone of Goethe’s poem elicits a staunch resolve to stand high in defiance to the harsh realities of life:

Do you somehow imagine
That I should hate Life,
Flee to the desert,
Because not every
Flowering dream should bloom?

With these lines, the prose is drawing on the mindset that harsh reality is preferable to wishful thinking, and that one’s life is better spent creating order out of the inevitable destitute amongst us.  This is a reflection of the optimism that surrounded the mood of the Enlightenment, where the leading belief among prominent thinkers was how man had reached the time to cast off the restrictive practices of old, that he can revere himself through investigation of the natural world, and use his knowledge to create a better world in life, rather than praying for one to come hereafter (whether or not in hindsight the terrors of the later French Revolution serve as a testament against this Enlightenment era notion is another matter altogether).

Prometheus finishes his monologue by affirming the greater spirit of man, to not deny his greater and (one would presume) earthly faculties, but above all else to not look towards the heavens on which to bestow one’s reverence.  In short, it proclaims man as the heir to the counter-Divine legacy of Prometheus:

Here I sit, I form humans
After my own image;
A race, to be like me,
To sorrow, to weep,
To enjoy and delight itself,
And to heed you not at all –
Like me!

It ought to be remembered that Goethe is simply putting into prose a dramatized sentiment that captures one facet of the era he lived in, and it would be a mistake to conflate the poet’s personal convictions with those found throughout “Prometheus.”  The Enlightenment was a time of great progress in human understanding, but it also stood as a transitional phase where revolutionary ideals threatened to collide (and, indeed, did collide) with traditional austerity.  Goethe’s role as both a participant, detractor, and historian of the era survives as an invaluable transcription of an intellectual tradition all of us in the modern world have inherited (for better or worse).