Thursday, June 14, 2012

"The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights"

Austin Dacey, The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights (London: Continuum, 2012)

This is a slim book, but it reinforces the adage not to judge books by their covers, as Dacey delivers a thoughtful, incisive analysis of the concept of blasphemy from the perspective of moral theory.  While touching on aspects of the law and history of blasphemy (and doing so well), this book is primarily concerned with the fundamental question: what is blasphemy, and should it be prohibited?  Dacey establishes several important points early:

"First, the contemporary talk of blasphemy in the international public square is neither a recent invention nor a return of a medieval theological spectre.  Rather, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon in which blasphemy has been reframed within the secular idiom of respect for persons.  Second, this principle of equal respect . . . is all too easily appropriated in the service of illiberal and patriarchal notions of identity, propriety, and 'honor.'  Third, those most vulnerable to the abuse of laws against blasphemy and therefore most vocal in defiance of them are dissidents within the very communities whose 'feelings' the laws are purportedly protecting.  Finally, such dissidents are not just engaging in 'free speech' but manifesting religiously heterodox or secular commitments of conscience that are no less worthy than those they affront."  (p. vi)

Dacey goes on to argue that the concept of respect should not be used as a reason to prohibit blasphemy:  "Holding others accountable for their commitments is a way of respecting their natures as reason-authoring creatures, their equal standing as persons who are no less capable of making up their minds than ourselves.  . . .  [A]n affront to what is held sacred by others can be, paradoxically, a way of affirming their equal membership in moral community.  The susceptibility to criticism by others is a condition of existing in community with them."  (p. 54)

This leads to Dacey formulating three reasons in favor of religiously-offensive statements:  "treating believers as equals in the moral community, exercising the civic virtue of holding public claims accountable in the space of reasons, and defending one's own vision of the sacred."  (p. 62)

I found Dacey's discussion of the nature of the concept of "the sacred" especially helpful, as it ties into a project I'm working on regarding so-called "secular" or "cultural blasphemy.

The Future of Blasphemy is a well-researched, well-written contribution to the field and certainly worth seeking out.

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