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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This higher mischief, 30 Jan 2012
This review is from: The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights (Paperback)
Given Austin Dacey's impeccable atheist humanist credentials, the surprising conclusion of this tremendous and vitally important book is that the future of blasphemy is one of continued transformation, not elimination. The narrow concept of blasphemy as a verbal insult to a divine being has already "been reframed within the secular idiom of respect for persons" - with the lamentable result that we must all defer to "religious feelings" however violently expressed as the last word on any matter. The religious have persuaded themselves and the rest of us that the sacred is their business, and theirs alone, but this privileging of religion is simply a prejudice. The domain of the sacred is wider and deeper than any faith, and should be open to all.

We have some way to go before we reach the promised land of responsible sacrilege, where blasphemy is a human right exercised by those who are serious about the sacred. As things stand today, the "European regimes of personal blasphemy are no longer defensible" and their laws are "liable to manipulation and misuse". Dacey has first-hand experience of this, having sat in on the negotiations surrounding a draft resolution brought before the United Nations by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The resolution stressed the need to "combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular". Dacey notes how "states with deplorable human rights records" hoist "the language of respect and tolerance as a shield". For example, while representatives of Pakistan lecture the West in Geneva, back home Ahmadiyya Muslims (who are in the minority) as well as Christians face death sentences for "defaming the Prophet".

The language of respect often conceals illiberal motives and is intended to confound and not promote open debate. Overlooked is the fundamental distinction between the person who holds the belief and the belief itself: "persons have rights; religions do not". Although it can be hard to recognize someone's equal standing while finding their worldview contemptible, we should try. According to the liberal tradition, a person is "intrinsically, incomparably valuable and inviolable" and "the language of human rights is designed to defend the individual from the arbitrary power of states" - but no one viewpoint is privileged and no one is above criticism. The principle of equality and the liberty of conscience stand alone without the need for supernatural warrant, and freedom of expression guarantees a healthy public discourse. From the perspective of universal human rights, regulation of speech by governments should be "content-neutral".

We cannot construct the future of blasphemy without understanding its past, and Dacey outlines enough history to show how the idea has changed. Leviticus 24 is where the crime of blasphemy gets going in the Western tradition, with the report of a stranger who came among the Israelites and said something really terrible. While we will never know what he said that was so terrible, we do know his fate. The Israelites waited, and God decided, apparently, that the man should be stoned to death.

The ancient conception of blasphemy ("a direct verbal affront to the divine") became to medieval minds "a seditious challenge to the sanctity of law, the public order or common good" and finally developed into the modern notion of blasphemy as "an offence against the sensibilities, rights, or dignity of individual religion believers" (some of whom are delicate souls indeed). "These conceptions of blasphemy correspond roughly to three models of authority: the biblical model with God as the source of normativity, a medieval model of authority in the hands of a divinely sanctioned ecclesiastical or temporal ruler, and the modern model in which the individual person is the ultimate source of normativity."

Ethical language can be hard to follow for those of us without much or any formal training in moral philosophy. Fortunately, Dacey uses examples to keep us on track through some abstract arguments. A recurring and important phrase is "the space of reasons" - not just the logical kind but anything that explains an attitude or action (reasons can therefore include emotions). What matters "is their normative force" - how they guide our behaviour in the world. So, "the difference between the mockery of the mentally disabled and the mockery of corrupt politicians" is that the politician has certain commitments, the kinds of things for which reasons can be requested and given. In a way not true of the biological accidents of our birth, say, our commitments exist in "the space of reasons" and should be open to scrutiny.

The din of religious voices often obscures the fact that there is a difference between morally acceptable sacrilegious speech and hate speech, and it lies in this distinction "between conditions that exist in the space of reasons and those that do not": mocking a politician for claiming unreasonable expenses is fine, mocking a person for receiving disability allowance is not.

Dacey makes a compelling case for the sacred in secular life, and where the sacred leads blasphemy follows. "What we should be talking about is where sacredness can be found. To talk about that, we have to be free to talk about where it cannot be found." It's an argument worth making, especially given the accreted confusions of centuries of religious tradition. Plenty of secularists, humanists and atheists "already accept some things that satisfy the normative criteria for the sacred" - there are few atheist parents, for example, who would consider selling their children into slavery, if only the price were right. Some things are of incomparable value and are simply not tradable, and we don't need supernatural beliefs to tell us this. The book is itself a fine example of the author's commitment to reasoned argument and clarity of thought. It's not always an easy read and there is no easy solution, but in getting us to think about creating a non-supernatural normative theory of the sacred he is doing those of us with a secular conscience a great service.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A major contribution to an important debate, 17 Feb 2012
This review is from: The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights (Paperback)
Check out what Amir Taheri had to say in Aharq Alawsat about The Future of Blasphemy:

Not long ago few people would have known what blasphemy meant, and fewer would have cared.

Today, however, it is the subject of high power conferences, including a few sponsored by the United Nations.

In Nigeria, Muslims who massacre Christians and Christians who massacre Muslims both accuse the other side of blasphemy.

Dacey suggests that in dealing with this neo-blasphemy, we go beyond the question of free speech.

"Respect for citizens requires a public discourse that is open to all viewpoints," he suggests.

Dacey proposes a No Compliance Principle. This means refusal to allow anyone to deny anyone else's freedom of expression in the name of religion.

To Dacey "the practice of violent retaliation" against blasphemy is "analogous to the violence used by terrorists in pursuit of a political goal, or by kidnappers and extortionists in pursuit of personal gain." Dacey continues: "Governments and law enforcement officials universally adopt a public posture of not negotiating with terrorists and hostage-takers." This is because they wish to show that violence is an ineffective means of achieving political and/or personal gains.

The same principle should apply when blasphemy is cited as an excuse for violence. If universally adopted and practised, Dacey's proposed No Compliance Principle would force those offended, or pretending to be offended, by blasphemy to fight back with art, literature and argument rather than bombs and daggers. The No Compliance Principle would make sure that "no lawful expressive acts are prevented by threat of violence."

A well-researched piece of scholarship on a controversial subject, Dacey's book is a major contribution to an important debate.

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