On Blasphemy: Mill, Ahern and The Consolidation of Class Power

I can’t recall the time I had last re-read a book, excluding the likes of Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? (which I like a lot) and -for shame- a horrible, garish volume on Tractors and Trucks replete with strokable engine grills and caterpillar tracks, the latter an instance of what happens when you allow a 17-month old boy to exercise his own taste in matters of literature.

But I am doing so at the minute with On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, which I first read earlier this week, I am embarrassed to admit. I have read a fair few books over the last 15 years or so, but not so many in which you constantly experience the sensation of your tiny mind expanding with each sentence.

And Mill has lots of compelling and relevant things to say on the contemporary hot potato of blasphemy and the law. I quote him here at length because I see no benefit or justice in paraphrasing.

First, on the matter of freedom of opinion:

In order more fully to illustrate the mischief of denying a hearing to opinions because we, in our own judgment, have condemned them, it will be desirable to fix down the discussion to a concrete case; and I choose, by preference, the cases which are least favourable to me—in which the argument against freedom of opinion, both on the score of truth and on that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief in a God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality. To fight the battle on such ground, gives a great advantage to an unfair antagonist; since he will be sure to say (and many who have no desire to be unfair will say it internally), Are these the doctrines which you do not deem sufficiently certain to be taken under the protection of law? Is the belief in a God one of the opinions, to feel sure of which, you hold to be assuming infallibility? But I must be permitted to observe, that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less, if put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However positive any one’s persuasion may be, not only of the falsity but of the pernicious consequences—not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of that private judgment, though backed by the public judgment of his country or his cotemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.

Thinking about this with regard to Dermot Ahern’s crime of blasphemy (the one he intends to introduce, not any such crime he may have committed hitherto). Following Mill, it is the implicit assumption of infallibility, in determining that particular expressions of opinion constitute blasphemy, that we should be most worried about. But the crime of blasphemy goes much further: it outsources the assumption of infallibility to the persons who might be inclined to outrage:

Blasphemous matter” is defined as matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

There are renowned cases in history of people found guilty of the crime of blasphemy. Mill picks out two: Socrates, and another individual I mentioned in this context last week when I was still ignorant of Mill’s text.

To pass from this to the only other instance of judicial iniquity, the mention of which, after the condemnation of Socrates, would not be an anti-climax: the event which took place on Calvary rather more than eighteen hundred years ago. The man who left on the memory of those who witnessed his life and conversation, such an impression of his moral grandeur, that eighteen subsequent centuries have done homage to him as the Almighty in person, was ignominiously put to death, as what? As a blasphemer.

Men did not merely mistake their benefactor; they mistook him for the exact contrary of what he was, and treated him as that prodigy of impiety, which they themselves are now held to be, for their treatment of him. The feelings with which mankind now regard these lamentable transactions, especially the later of the two, render them extremely unjust in their judgment of the unhappy actors. These were, to all appearance, not bad men—not worse than men most commonly are, but rather the contrary; men who possessed in a full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral, and patriotic feelings of their time and people: the very kind of men who, in all times, our own included, have every chance of passing through life blameless and respected. The high-priest who rent his garments when the words were pronounced, which, according to all the ideas of his country, constituted the blackest guilt, was in all probability quite as sincere in his horror and indignation, as the generality of respectable and pious men now are in the religious and moral sentiments they profess; and most of those who now shudder at his conduct, if they had lived in his time, and been born Jews, would have acted precisely as he did. Orthodox Christians who are tempted to think that those who stoned to death the first martyrs must have been worse men than they themselves are, ought to remember that one of those persecutors was Saint Paul.

To reinforce the point I am making. To develop his total opposition to the idea that freedom of opinion should be restricted by law, Mill outlines that, in the particular case of blasphemous crime, those who were outraged at Jesus’s speech were not unhinged savages bereft of any powers of reason, but most likely sane, judicious and cultivated men: people whom, if you were living at the time and were forced to accept that a crime such as blasphemy ought to exist and had to choose someone to make the judgement, you would entrust with the responsibility of weighing matters up. But Dermot Ahern -whom not even his most resolute defender would characterise as an eminent authority on anything- thinks it fitting that the crime of blasphemy should be determined by those groups of people most given to outrage.

Mill also deals forcefully with the argument that, since the penalty for committing the crime of blasphemous libel is relatively minor (A €100K fine beats crucifixion in my book, anyway), there is no need to be concerned by its existence in law.

These [referring to cases including that of ‘an unfortunate man, said to be of unexceptionable conduct in all relations of life, was sentenced to twenty-one months’ imprisonment, for uttering, and writing on a gate, some offensive words concerning Christianity], indeed, are but rags and remnants of persecution, and may be thought to be not so much an indication of the wish to persecute, as an example of that very frequent infirmity of English minds, which makes them take a preposterous pleasure in the assertion of a bad principle, when they are no longer bad enough to desire to carry it really into practice. But unhappily there is no security in the state of the public mind, that the suspension of worse forms of legal persecution, which has lasted for about the space of a generation, will continue.

That is, the fact that we live in a more liberal and less persecutory society now by comparison with fifty years ago is no guarantee whatever that we will continue to live in such a society. And obviously, the proposed introduction of a crime of blasphemous libel is of itself evidence of a less liberal and more persecutory society.

There are other changes afoot in Irish society, as this report indicates:

In search of spiritual comfort, Catholics from the U.S. to Ireland are flocking to Mass now that the global economic situation is in crisis.

Catholic leaders around Ireland, north and south, are reporting increases in mass-goers, and many parishes in Ireland have reported up to 30 percent increases in mass attendance in the past few months.

Parish priests are attributing the surge in attendance to the economic recession.

“People are experiencing deep crisis for the first time in their lives,” Bishop Joseph Duffy of Clogher, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland told the Catholic News Service. “The pace of this economic collapse has been so swift, I think it is causing people to stop and search; this naturally finds a home in coming back to church.”

Mill sketches how the public mind might change:

In this age the quiet surface of routine is as often ruffled by attempts to resuscitate past evils, as to introduce new benefits. What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry; and where there is the strong permanent leaven of intolerance in the feelings of a people, which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country, it needs but little to provoke them into actively persecuting those whom they have never ceased to think proper objects of persecution.

I find it extremely difficult to argue against the proposition that we are not witnessing a ‘revival of religion’ at present. To give a couple of apparently inocuous local examples. The Ryan Tubridy morning radio programme on RTE recently featured an interview with three priests, who spoke openly and candidly about their vocation. The presenter continually expressed surprise at the ‘refreshing’ attitude of the priests and their modern outlook, and read out texts from many well-wishers praising the priests for coming on the programme. An excerpt of this interview is now used in regular advertisements for the programme. Yet there was nothing ‘refreshing’ about this: the fascination with the modern, open-minded priest who was just one of the lads has been a feature of Irish broadcasting for at least thirty-five years. A few months back, the Drive Time programme on RTE had an interview with a member of the clergy who was reporting that with the onset of the recession, more people were choosing to get married. The presenter deemed this to be an unqualified instance of good news. More recently, a news item concerning a young man who had been critically injured in Australia but had made a surprising recovery focused on the matter of whether or not his recovery had been a miracle through the intervention of an Australian nun who was a candidate for canonisation, as had been claimed by the young man’s family. No doubt you can add your own examples.

The question to my mind, following Mill, is how many ‘narrow and uncultivated minds’ there are out there to produce a ‘revival of bigotry’, and furthermore, whether the ‘strong permanent leaven of intolerance’ in the minds of the middle class of this country will lead to active persecution.

If the Minister for Justice is to be taken as an example of middle class opinion, the omens are not good. Diarmuid Doyle wrote in the Sunday Tribune:

And it’s not as if he’s hiding his allegiances like some Freemason with a funny handshake. Ahern flouts his intolerance for all to see. As far back as 1993, he listened carefully in the Dáil while Fine Gael’s Brendan McGahon pronounced upon the evils of homosexuality. “I regard homosexuals as being in a sad category,” McGahon said, “but I believe homosexuality to be an abnormality, some type of psycho-sexual problem that has defied explanation over the years … They endure inner torment … Homosexuals are like lefthand drivers driving on the right side of the road.”

Ahern was next to speak and made it clear that he was in full agreement with McGahon. “Will we eventually see the day when … homosexuals will seek the right to adopt children?” he wondered. Ahern is a serial visitor to successive popes and on one occasion at least, has assured the pontiff that Catholic policy on a particular issue would remain the policy of the Irish government. Despite EU support for the funding of human stem cell research, he told Pope Benedict in 2006 no such funding would be allowed in Ireland.

But if we are willing to invest unwisely in the belief that good sense will drive out bad, and that the neanderthal attitudes of  Dermot Ahern and some of his colleagues in government are a quickly disintegrating relic and not a gleaming new chalice for ‘narrow and uncultivated minds’, and that the crime of blasphemous libel itself is a mere formality never to be enforced, Mill has some words:

For it is this—it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom. For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.

So it is not that we should be primarily concerned with the consequences for the individual who performs a Black Mass in drag outside the Cardinal’s residence and is prosecuted, but the fact that the mere existence of the penalty serves to impose boundaries on how people ought to behave in general on account of their opinions. That is, it operates as an instrument of thought control and class domination.

I ought to give a practical example of how this might work in an Ireland in the throes of a ‘religious revival’ in which social welfare is slashed and unemployment spirals upward as its increasingly authoritarian government clings to neo-liberal dogma in its efforts to maintain class power and privilege (witness Brian Cowen’s vision for ‘a society that benefits all of us on this island, irrespective of class, colour or creed‘, i.e. existing class relations must be maintained).

One of the features of the last ten years of relative prosperity in Ireland was the fact that the particulars of religious belief did not matter.  Low unemployment levels meant that people were, more than ever, ‘independent of the good will of other people’ with regard to the ‘means of earning their bread’. But in situation where public expenditures are collapsing as unemployment spirals, all manner of informal alliances proliferate as basic welfare gets positioned as a matter of privilege instead of entitlement, and getting a job becomes more a matter of who you know than what you know.

In a country where the Angelus bells still toll on the national broadcaster, where the constitution acknowledges ‘all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ’, where judges are ‘sustained and directed by God’, where religious orders still exercise huge power in the education system, a person may yet end up attending church once again not to save her soul, but to save her bacon. And prohibitions on blasphemy will make sure she is not inclined to think about raising her voice in protest.

Contrary to what the ‘narrow and uncultivated mind’ at the Department of Justice claims, a referendum on blasphemy would not be ‘a costly and unwarranted diversion’, but a cost-effective means of stopping a headlong dive into poverty, ignorance, and domination by obscurantist authoritarianism.

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