Tag Archives: religion and politics

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  Suddenly, these outdated blasphemy laws that have had no real thrust in civil law for almost two centuries, become a very powerful weapon in the hands of reactionaries all too eager to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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Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Political Utility of Religion

Niccolo Machiavelli is one the many writers in history fortunate enough to be extensively quoted by individuals who have little patience to actually read his large body of work.  Most (in)famous of the man’s oft cited prose is his 1513 political tract advising ruling figures on how to govern, simply titled The Prince.  In it he boldly states that when it comes to exercising one’s authority, the ruler needs to adhere to the basic principle that the ends always justify the means; with the ends always being a retention of power, and means being whatever will bring about that desired end.

Although at face value the work is a clear promotion of totalitarianism, there exist several peculiarities with the way Machiavelli formats his dictatorial learner’s manual.  For instance, despite it being address to the ruling classes of society, the book is actually written in the plain Italian of Machiavelli’s day, making its sensitive instructions to rulers available to the very commoners whose exploitation Machiavelli is encouraging.  Granted, literacy wasn’t too high among the lower classes, but for a manuscript aiming to teach governing sovereigns how to be more deceitful, one would think that Machiavelli would at least have bothered to make the message a bit more cryptic to the masses (possibly by writing it in Latin, which was already in disuse outside of aristocratic functions).  Even stranger is the fact that only six years later Machiavelli wrote Discourses on Levi, a political book that enthusiastically taunts the superiority of democratic republicanism over monarchical forms of governance; completely contradicting the authoritarian advise he offers in The Prince.  It’s possible that between 1513 and 1519, Machiavelli changed his preference from despotism to republicanism, but I think it is also very likely the allegations labeling The Prince a clever work of political satire should not be so quickly brushed aside, as it appears to be the most plausible answer to account for the discrepancies mentioned above.  If it is true that The Prince is nothing more but a satirical revelation of the aristocratic mindset, meant to convey to the lowly subjects the true nature of their rulers’ motivations, then Machiavelli deserves to be acknowledged as the greatest writer in all of history for composing a piece of satire that continues to fool people (scholars and laypersons alike) to this day.

Although Machiavelli’s politics might be evasive, his views on religion appear to be fairly consistent throughout his writing career.  In The Prince, Machiavelli refers to religion as a tool of the ruler, to be used as a method by which he can convince the masses of his benignity.  Machiavelli makes it clear that the sincerity of the ruler’s piety is of no importance:

Every one knows how praiseworthy it is in a Prince to keep faith, and to live uprightly and not craftily.  Nevertheless, we see from what has taken place in our own days that Princes who have set little store by their word, but have known how to overreach men by their cunning, have accomplished great things, and in the end got the better of those who trusted to honest dealings (Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince.  Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York) 2004 reprint, p.83).

Machiavelli does not dispute the notion that faithfulness is a popular virtue, but he is arguing that while the Prince (i.e. the ruler) should take care to be seen as ideally faithful by his subjects, his actual actions need not be limited by any pious restraints.  In other words, if left to choose between preserving one’s crown and staying true to one’s religious principle, the competent ruler will always choose the former over the latter, “a prudent Prince neither can nor ought to keep his word when to keep it is hurtful to him and the causes which led him to pledge it are removed” (Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 84).  While Machiavelli’s words sound odious to our most basic sentiments concerning decorum and public honesty, it needs to be remembered that the writer is merely stating a fact that holds true for almost every person living, then and now.  Few of us are unwilling to amend even our most cherished convictions if opportunity demands it of us.  I will even go so far as to say that every single person, functioning in society, has at one point or another been faced with a situation in which s/he has gone against a core principle s/he claims to adhere to.  Of course, when confronted with our obvious hypocrisy we will find some way to rationalize it away as irrelevant, but what Machiavelli is advising is for the Prince to fully embrace his hypocrisy as a necessary part of his position.

On the topic of religion, Machiavelli considers it important for a ruler to exhibit the outwardly qualities that are popularly associated with the practice:

A Prince should therefore be very careful that nothing ever escapes his lips which is not replete with the five qualities above named, so that to see and hear him one would think him the embodiment of mercy, good, faith, integrity, and religion.  And there is no virtue which it is more necessary for him to seem to posses than the last (Machiavelli, The Prince, p.85).

Special attention should be given to Machiavelli’s word choice at the end of the above quote; note he says it is necessary for the Prince to merely seem religious, not to be personally sincere about it.   The reason being that people look for commonality when identifying with other individuals, and religiosity is a widespread system by which a variety of people pledge some base level of identification with one another.  Hence, an open proclamation of religiosity by the ruler is a key way for him (or any public figure for that matter) to retain support from the populace.  But it is inevitable that at some point the ruler will be faced with having to violate some religious decree, and according to Machiavelli this is perfectly acceptable, as long as he gives of the impression of being pious it is enough to convince the masses; actions are meaningless, “Everyone sees what you seem, but few know what you are, and these few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the State to back them” (p. 85).  This is especially true for leaders who gain endorsement from the main religious institution, like the church, since such organizations often hold the final word on what is pious and what is not (religious belief itself is usually a secondary concern in these sort of church-state relations, if it is a concern at all).

It needs to be remembered that Machiavelli’s aim is not to teach how to deceive the common folk; rather what the writer is doing is measuring the worth of a Prince/ruler by the merits of his efficiency, “Wherefore if a Prince succeeds in establishing and maintaining his authority, the means will always be judged honourable and approved by everyone” (p. 86).  People don’t mind being lied to as long as it is a blissful experience.  Nor do they care about the piety of their leaders actions, as long as her/his words align with what they want to hear and their living standard remain comfortable.

I suspect–though I can’t be sure–that Machiavelli’s other aim was to openly document the method by which the lowly masses are kept content by their deceitful figure heads.  Perhaps his intention was to alarm the common man into action, but judging by the way political leaders to this day swoon their constituencies by a never-ending array of appeals to their personal piety (all while being documented adulterers, liars, frauds, cheaters, warmongers and war-propagators, and a whole lot of other “moral” transgressions), I doubt we really want anything else but to be deceived.  Or as Machiavelli himself put it, “”men are so simple, and governed so absolutely by their present needs, that he who wishes to deceive will never fail in finding willing dupes” (p.84).

Bibliography

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince. Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York), 2004 reprint.  Original publication 1513.