Archbishop's lecture - Religious Hatred and Religious Offence
Tuesday 29th January 2008The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gives the James Callaghan Memorial lecture entitled "Religious Hatred and Religious Offence". In his lecture Dr Williams outlines the problems with the present blasphemy laws, and also looks at the problems that society could face without any protection from religious offence.
He questions the liberal argument of free speech that some writers and artists use to defend their right to portray religion offensively, ignoring the hurt that their actions may cause and their lack of imagination in refusing to see people's belief choices from any other perspective but their own.
"It is one thing to deny a sacred point of reference for one's own moral or social policies; it is another to refuse to entertain – or imagine – what it might be like for someone else to experience the world differently. Spectres of colonialism, 'Orientalism', and, once again, anti-Semitism are roused when this insensibility to the otherness of the religious other goes unquestioned. And behind this is the nagging problem of what happens to a culture in which, systematically, nothing is sacred."
He goes on to explain how this approach deprives society of the ability to have a sense of the value of humanity, beyond the most basic idea of human dignity:
"...the uncomfortable truth is that a desacralised world is not, as some fondly believe, a world without violence, but a world in which there can be no ultimate agreement about the worth of human or other beings. There may be a strong, even practically unbreakable consensus about the wrongness of torturing prisoners or raping children; but there will be no very clear sense of what, if anything, beyond the dignity of an individual is being 'violated' in such cases. This is not to make the facile claim that morality needs religion, only to note that a morality without the sacred is bound to work differently. And a post-religious morality that has simply lost any imaginative understanding of what the sacred once meant is dangerously impoverished."
In looking beyond the blasphemy laws, Dr Williams argues that the key to providing just laws against religious hatred is to look at the context, that the political power and influence of those bringing forward cases should be taken into consideration:
"The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer's freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded. Since the old offence of blasphemy – as we have seen – no longer works effectively to do this, there is no real case for its retention. How adequately the new laws will meet the case remains to be seen; I should only want to suggest that the relative power and political access of a group or person laying charges under this legislation might well be a factor in determining what is rightly actionable."
A transcript follows:
Religious Hatred and Religious Offence
The question of whether and how a society should defend religious belief against attack, 'defamation' or abuse has become more and more current in recent years and even months. The creation of a criminal offence under British law of incitement to religious hatred provoked bitter and sustained controversy; anxiety was expressed on the one hand by committed secularists who feared some kind of limitation on the freedom to criticise or satirise religious belief in general, and on the other by Christians who were apprehensive that the legislation might be used to restrain the preaching of Christianity as unequivocally true and to prohibit any public statement that questioned the validity of other faiths. Both suspected, not without reason, that the main motor of the legislation was a wish to respond to the frequently expressed complaint that existing blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom did not adequately protect all non-Christian faiths. And while this is in fact a debateable reading of the blasphemy laws in the light of what the courts have said in the twentieth century, there was undoubtedly a strong perception that Muslims suffered relative disadvantage and an equally strong political resolve to minimise the sense of exclusion felt by many British Muslims in this regard. But this reinforced the anxieties of those who believed that disproportionate attention was being given to a hyper-sensitive minority: surely – it was argued – those whose beliefs were at odds with those of the majority in a basically liberal society could not claim immunity from public criticism.
The debate revived many of the themes that had been around in 1989 and 1990 in the wake of the tumult over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini against the author. It was further complicated by the publication in Denmark of cartoons that were widely seen as insulting to Islam and by the very different decisions taken by publishers internationally as to whether they should be reproduced. This fierce conflict renewed the unease (to put it no more strongly) about free expression being 'held hostage' by the sensitivities of a particular group in such a way that the basis of liberal society could be compromised. And the application of blasphemy laws in other contexts did nothing to help. A succession of cases in rural Pakistan involving the use of blasphemy laws to intimidate local Christian communities drew international attention a couple of years ago when local tensions overflowed into rioting and violence against Christian minorities; and towards the end of last year, the imprisonment of a British woman in Sudan under local blasphemy laws on what was generally recognised as a preposterous charge provided further ammunition to those who were most concerned about the possibilities of abuse and moral/legal blackmail in laws to do with religious sensitivities. Last week's story from Afghanistan of a death sentence being passed on a journalist deemed to have offended Islam again added fuel to the fire.
The announcement in January of a consultation on the abolition of the offence of blasphemy in English law was a predictable step towards a rationalising of the existing legal position; but it leaves open a number of questions about the nature and the significance of offence to religious belief and the ground for legal restraint – as also the broader and vexing question of what a society might properly expect morally speaking of its citizens in regard to religious belief and practice. In what follows, I shall concentrate on this borderland between the legal and the moral, in the hope of clarifying a little the social meanings of anti-religious language or behaviour. I do so in the consciousness that we have just marked marking Holocaust Memorial Day: there is a sense in which the foundational form of religious hatred and religious offence in our culture has been and remains anti-Semitism. Its history in Europe shows how the slippage can occur from abusive words and images to assumptions about the dangers posed by a community stigmatised as perpetual outsiders to actions designed to remove them for good. The lethal mixture of a Christian tradition of anti-Jewish polemic and routine humiliation – interspersed with murderous outbreaks of popular violence – and a post-Christian, pseudo-scientific philosophy of race illustrates how religious hatred can be generated by both intra-religious and secular forces; one of the most demanding aspects of trying to make sense of this set of problems around religious offence is the clarifying of where the border lies between criticism and contempt and between contempt and violence. The history of anti-Semitism does not suggest that we shall find a comfortingly clear answer.
But to return to the broader issue: as David Nash has pointed out in his recent and comprehensive, if rather disjointed, survey (Blasphemy in the Christian World. A History, esp, pp.25-34), recent discussion has been pulled in sharply contradictory directions. The liberal concern for the rights of minorities has been in tension with the liberal commitment to free speech. Nash quotes David Lawton, who wrote a study of blasphemy in 1993, saying in 2002 that 'laws intended to protect minorities would curtail freedom in the name of multiculturalism' (Nash, p.34). And what has been in evidence recently has been a hardening of attitudes on both sides of the debate, with more and more aggressive statements of the overwhelming claims of universal and non-negotiable liberties and more and more heated and sometimes violent assertions of the right of religious groups not to be publicly insulted or traduced. It is a dramatic instance of the way in which a discourse focused on rights can lead us into unmanageable conflicts if it is isolated from other considerations about the foundations of law; but that is something I shall come back to later. As things stand, the right to religious freedom, that is, to adopt and practice whatever religious system you choose, is axiomatic in all Western conceptions of human rights, and is indeed given a very clearly privileged place in European Human Rights legislation as trumping other considerations in situations of conflicts of right. But the same principle of freedom to believe what you choose dictates the right to hold and express views critical of or hostile to any or every religious system. In legal terms, there is also the tangle of issues around how the law recognises 'group rights', the claims of a community rather than just an individual to sustain its own convictions and practices – a much-controverted area, as it raises questions about how we assess the compatibility of a community's practices with the rights otherwise recognised in all citizens.
Broadening the view still further, we need also to acknowledge that the last couple of decades have witnessed a sharp rise in awareness of the potential seriousness of 'offence' in general. Legislation against racist language and behaviour became a model for identifying varieties of harassment and discrimination in the workplace and in the public arena of comment and discussion; pressure has increased for what might be called an 'isomorphic' approach in law to any act or form of words that could be interpreted as stigmatising others or demeaning their human dignity – hence the 'Single Equality' legislation we have seen developed and debated lately. Conservative Christian activists (along with some other religious voices) have expressed their concern about how this could impact on any public statement of traditional Christian sexual morality or any policy designed to guarantee that such morality should be observed in overtly Christian institutions; and while some of this argument is frankly alarmist, there is understandable concern among those who are responsible for Anglican and Roman Catholic Church schools, for example, about their freedom to require certain standards of candidates for employment. Behind some of the worries over the idea of religious offence lie deeper worries about the 'victim culture' – a sense that we are moving into an atmosphere where every citizen is encouraged to see himself or herself as constantly vulnerable to being undermined by others, where dignity has to be constantly secured by the threat of litigation.
But before exploring this further, we should also note the way in which, in the modern period, legislation about blasphemy or religious offence has been defended from the point of view of public order. This was the position taken by legal authority in declining to prosecute the BBC over the broadcasting of Jerry Springer: the Opera under the blasphemy laws; the criterion of risk to public order was defined as the central issue, and it was determined that such a risk was insufficiently high to justify legal action. As many have pointed out, the English law of blasphemy has its origins in an era where the criticism of religion was tantamount to a criticism of legal order itself. Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice in the late seventeenth century, famously declared in 1675 that an attack on religion constituted a threat to 'dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved' (see G.D. Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, 1928, p.48, Richard Webster, A Brief History of Blasphemy, 1990, p.23, and Nash, op.cit., pp.160ff.). But even when this strong association between religious belief and the very notion of civil obligation had largely disappeared, there remained a clear sense that attack on religious belief could be productive of such a level of public disorder that a prosecution would be justified. Last year's decision of the Administrative Court in R v the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court spelled this out carefully, distinguishing between threats to society in general and perceived offence, however serious, to personal beliefs, and concluded, interestingly, that offence was not as such an infringement the right to believe and practice religious faith.
From all this, it emerges fairly clearly that the existing blasphemy law, in setting the criterion of threat to public disorder very high, makes it impossible to pursue any legal action exclusively on the grounds of perceived offence; and the 2006 legislation which defines the crime of inciting religious hatred attempts to bind offence to criminal intent, the desire to generate active menace towards a group with certain convictions such that their civil liberties might be at risk. In other words, whatever the anxieties of some, religious offence is not being defined simply as anything that a person or group happens to find offensive. The abolition of the common law offence of blasphemy, it seems, would not substantially alter the extent of the protection afforded to religious communities and individuals; nor does the new legislation offer an unlimited charter for the hypersensitive. However, this leaves some serious issues still open. In what way precisely can we fix the point at which offence affects the civil liberties of religious believers? How clearly can we distinguish an intention to refute or belittle religious convictions from an intention to threaten people who hold them? Does the right to free expression of 'offensive' sentiments have the same moral quality as the right to belief itself? Julian Rivers notes in a recent (2007) guest editorial for Religion and Human Rights (2:2007, pp.113-118) that the apparently attractive idea of an offence of 'defamation of religion' is less specifically helpful than might at first appear: defamation is indeed what lies behind any legitimation of discriminatory behaviour, but it proves difficult to see it as in itself a violation of human rights, isolated from practices of discrimination, threat or active hostility. In respect of some of these questions, as far as the law is concerned, we shall have to see how the courts respond; but I shall argue that there are certain considerations, not all that widely discussed, which ought to affect the way the law is seen and, more importantly, ought to pose some questions to too simplistic a liberal approach in this area.
Briefly, my points have to do with two aspects of the question. The first is the way in which discussion of these matters has so often been conducted in complete abstraction from considerations of what is socially desirable or constructive; the second, related to the first in obvious ways, is the isolation of the discussion from the realities of cultural and political power in various contexts in our world.
On the first, Richard Webster, in his immensely intelligent and independent essay on the Rushdie affair, observes that absolute freedom of speech is not in fact either a possible or a desirable state of political affairs. The fact is that 'in the real political world which we all perforce inhabit, words do wound, insults do hurt, and abuse – especially extreme and obscene abuse – does provoke both anger and violence' (Webster, p.129). An abstract discussion of free speech, in which, to quote Webster again, no distinction is made 'between the freedom to impart information and the freedom to insult' (ibid.), is in effect a strategy which isolates the would-be 'blasphemer' from the actual historical and interpersonal constraints which secure a reasonable level of civility in human society (after all, we do restrain freedom of speech by laws about libel and slander). The creation of avoidable resentment, never mind avoidable suffering, does not seem like a positive good for any social unit; and the assertion of an unlimited freedom to create such resentment does little to recommend 'liberal' values and tends rather to strengthen the suspicion that they are a poor basis for social morality and cohesion.
That is not a fair conclusion, but it is equally not a surprising one, given the way the argument has gone (and Webster – who is not a religious believer of any kind – offers some extraordinary examples of 'liberal' aggression and ignorant bigotry in his account of the reactions in 1989 and 1990 to the furore over the fatwa against Rushdie). What this analysis obliges us to think about is some of the things which much of the classical liberal case for freedom to offend takes uncritically for granted. It assumes, for example, that any pain caused by offensive language or behaviour is so superficial as not to be significant; if you feel hurt, wounded, by abuse, it is a mark of undue or even immature sensitivity ('Grow up!' 'Get used to it'). Furthermore, to pick up a regular defence of the admissibility of anti-religious abuse, it is commonly said that since a religious believer chooses to adopt a certain set of beliefs, he or she is responsible for the consequences, which may, as every believer well knows, include strong disagreement or even repugnance from others. But this assimilation of belief to a plain matter of conscious individual choice does not square with the way in which many believers understand or experience their commitments. For some – and this is especially true for believers from outside the European or North Atlantic setting – religious belief and practice is a marker of shared identity, accepted not as a matter of individual choice but as a given to which allegiance is due in virtue of the intrinsic claims of the sacred. We may disagree; but I do not think we have the moral right to assume that this perspective can be simply disregarded. Both the dismissal of the possibility of actual mental suffering and the assimilation of belief to a matter of choice reflect a worryingly narrow set of models for the human psyche – or, in plainer English, a lack of imagination.
Webster hints more than once that such a lack of imagination is an ironic backdrop for the arguments of writers or dramatists defending the right to present religious subjects offensively. But more significantly, he notes that if this sort of argument is taken for granted, it points to a coarsening of general sensibility: in the potent image he takes from some remarks by Anthony Lejeune, we are getting into the habit of 'burning your enemy's flag' – belittling symbols which other human beings have loved and even died for (ibid.,134). We need to be aware of the implicit cruelty and the dehumanising potential of such assumptions. It is one thing to deny a sacred point of reference for one's own moral or social policies; it is another to refuse to entertain – or imagine – what it might be like for someone else to experience the world differently. Spectres of colonialism, 'Orientalism', and, once again, anti-Semitism are roused when this insensibility to the otherness of the religious other goes unquestioned. And behind this is the nagging problem of what happens to a culture in which, systematically, nothing is sacred. We may have moved on from the confidence of Chief Justice Hale in claiming that civil loyalty of any kind had to be built on religious foundations; but the uncomfortable truth is that a desacralised world is not, as some fondly believe, a world without violence, but a world in which there can be no ultimate agreement about the worth of human or other beings. There may be a strong, even practically unbreakable consensus about the wrongness of torturing prisoners or raping children; but there will be no very clear sense of what, if anything, beyond the dignity of an individual is being 'violated' in such cases. This is not to make the facile claim that morality needs religion, only to note that a morality without the sacred is bound to work differently. And a post-religious morality that has simply lost any imaginative understanding of what the sacred once meant is dangerously impoverished. Many years ago, I recall a British novelist – again a committedly non-religious person – saying that while she had no belief in God she needed something like a concept of blasphemy to express her sense of a violated order when confronted by gross military extravagance or environmental exploitation.
The liberal apologist might reasonably come back at this point to object that, while the point may be well taken about coarsened sensibility or even about the inappropriateness of a simplistic choice model for religious allegiance, the issue about 'hurt' needs very careful handling. No doubt there were profound and genuine feelings of hurt among white Americans in the South during the Civil Rights campaigns of the sixties: not everyone who accepted the appalling conventions of the day was personally wicked, deserving, so to speak, to have their feelings disregarded; yet without the shock of the campaign, with its cost in terms of personal upset, change would not have occurred. The same arguments are – painfully close to home – often at work in debates in the Church about the ministry of women or the acceptance of homosexual people. In arguments about what is true or what is good, the feelings of the other can't determine what is said. And if I believe that religion in general or some religion in particular is actually deplorable or destructive, I must insist upon my liberty to say so, whether or not it causes pain. It is, ironically, precisely the argument that many religious people would themselves use in claiming the liberty to state, for example, that abortion or euthanasia is morally unacceptable, even though realising that such a statement would cause real pain to some; it is a liberty not, for some reason, readily acknowledged by some vocal advocates of other kinds of free speech.
The appeal to the moral imperatives of truthtelling for the sake of justice is a fair point so far as it goes, but there are still questions being begged; and to see what those questions are will take us on to the issue of power in this context. The simplest response to the defence in term of the requirements of abstract justice is to recall the difference between critique and abuse: it is one thing to say that someone may be deeply and dangerously wrong, even to say it with anger, and another to say or imply that if someone is wrong it is because they are infantile, wilfully blind or perverse. A polemical strategy that refuses from the start to accept that anyone could have reasons for thinking differently is a poor basis for civil disagreement (in both the wider and narrower sense of the adjective); it is a way of denying the other a hearing.
And this at last brings us to how power is at work in all this. The classical free speech arguments were largely formulated against a background of resistance to a dominant culture administered by non-accountable authorities: blasphemy functioned as one form of protest against tyranny, and the hagiography of militant anti-religious prophets presents, fairly enough, a picture of brave individuals or small groups standing up to the consolidated power of one or another kind of religious establishment (Nash's book gives ample illustration of this). The emotional colouring of anti-religious polemic is still rather Voltairean – certainly part of the tribal memory of a courageous and persecuted minority.
And that is why the instinctive reaction of most bien-pensant commentators, of the right as much as the left these days, when issues of religious offence are being discussed, is to revert to the tribal memory: religion is a powerful and mostly malign presence, at the very least a presence unwelcome in the public sphere, which needs to be kept in its place so that the hard-won triumphs of Enlightenment are not jeopardised. But what is harder to cope with is a situation in which this kind of folkloric, David-and-Goliath pattern is not really applicable. Yet again, we should remember some of the history of anti-Semitism. Some of the passionate polemic against Jewish people in the New Testament reflects a situation in which Christian groups were still small and vulnerable over against an entrenched religio-political establishment; but the language is repeated and intensified when the Church is no longer a minority and when Jews have become more vulnerable than ever. It is part of the pathology of anti-Semitism (as of other irrational group prejudices) that it needs to work with a myth of an apparent minority which is in fact secretly powerful and omnipresent. It is the pattern we see in the workings of the Spanish Inquisition, searching everywhere for Jewish converts who might be backsliding; it is the myth of the Elders of Zion and comparable fantasies of plots for world domination; it is the indiscriminate attribution (not only by certain Muslims) of all the evils of the Western world to an indeterminate 'Zionism'. A rhetoric shaped by particular circumstances has become so embedded that the actualities of power relations in the real world cannot touch it. There are many instances where the habit of imagining oneself in terms of victimhood has become so entrenched that even one's own power, felt and exercised, does not alter the mythology.
Something of this kind is often going on in discussion about anti-religious polemic in the modern Western world. Many religious believers will respond with wry amusement to the survival of an eighteenth or nineteenth century rhetoric about the malign influence of religion in the state; even a state like ours with a religious establishment is not exactly a theocratic prison house, if the trend of recent legislation is any sign. But the issue is rather sharper where the religion in question is not the historic religion of the nation. In recent years – even more than at the time of the Rushdie controversy – many commentators have fallen into the classic 'anti-Semitic' trap: Islam is perceived worldwide as an organised, coherent and omnipresent danger, and Islam as a local reality in the United Kingdom is seen exclusively through that prism. If that is the world you inhabit, then something like The Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons becomes a brave assertion of the right to attack the symbols of an oppressive global hegemony.
But the local reality is different. Webster points out how in 1989/90 Muslim groups in the UK took to a relatively militant response to Rushdie as and when it became clear that the literary and political establishment had nothing to say to their sense that their faith had been publicly and damagingly misrepresented and their sensibilities shaken. For groups like those in West Yorkshire who were at the forefront of militant reaction in Britain, the overwhelming feeling that animated their protests was that they, as a disadvantaged minority with the most limited access to any sort of public voice, were being left at the mercy of a powerful elite determined to tell them what their faith really amounted to and to remind them that they had to get used to being seen – never mind the realities of their social and economic position here – as essentially the representatives of a foreign and threatening power. The same is true of the furore over the Danish cartoons: the Muslim community in Denmark is neither large nor militant, yet the cartoon issue was framed as if these products were a sign of courageous defiance towards a hegemonic power.
Now I recognise the qualifications that have to be entered at once. Some anti-Muslim images or words (foolish or insulting as they may be) may well exhibit courage in a world where terrorist violence reaches across every national boundary and intimidation is more and more common; no-one will forget in a hurry the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands. Likewise we can't overlook the ways in which offence can be deliberately exaggerated for the purposes of fomenting greater violence (as was the case with the Danish cartoons, where some extremist groups circulated far more offensive images than those that had actually been published). But what if we exercise a little imagination again? What Webster describes as the insensitivity of an elite means that those who lack access to the subtleties of the English language, to the means of expressing their opinions in a public forum or to any living sense of being participants in their society know only that one of their most overpoweringly significant sources of identity is being held up to public scorn. This feeling may be the result of misunderstanding or misinformation, it may even be in some cases linked to a failure or reluctance to take the opportunities that exist to move into a more visible role in the nation's life, but it is real enough and part of a general conviction of being marginal and silenced. It is not a good situation for a democratic society to be in. The belief becomes entrenched among minorities that the majority in this society have decided to understand you and your faith exclusively in their terms. In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power. The British Muslim legal theorist, Maleiha Malik, invariably a voice of sanity and perception in these matters, has written of the way in which tendentious or positively misleading presentations of religion affect both 'insiders' and 'outsiders': 'Reflecting back to an individual a distorted or demeaning image of themselves will influence not only the perception of outsiders, it also impacts on the self-understanding of "insiders"'('Faith and the State of Jurisprudence', pp. 129-49 in Faith in Law. Essays in Legal Theory, ed. Peter Oliver, Sionaidh Douglas Scott and Victor Tadros, 2000, p.137).
Abuse as something that can result in internalising a poor self-perception is a familiar matter, not to be taken lightly. When we read some of the literature of earlier centuries, we are likely to be taken aback by the casual way in which the disabled are mocked and belittled; some of Shakespeare's scenes remind us that a blind or mentally disturbed person could be seen – even by the most humanly sensitive of all artists – as an occasion for cheap laughs. We have on the whole come to recognise that insults directed at people with disabilities are unacceptable, because the people involved are at a disadvantage, may be liable to internalise what is said, and are likely to lack access to at least some of the more obvious means of articulating and defending a position that would be enjoyed by those likely to be making the dismissive or offensive comments. Similarly, we have left behind the era when it was unproblematic to make fun of other races or nationalities. Most would now acknowledge that offensive and belittling ways of talking about individuals or groups or classes of people presuppose that the object of such talk is absent. And if they are absent, they have no voice. They may in some way or another have a chance to react but not, within the same conversation, to interact and set out in that context who they actually are. So that the moral question raised by some kinds of claim to unbridled free speech is how far it can license the sort of language that assumes the absence or powerlessness of the other. It is abundantly true, unfortunately, that Christianity, like some other religious traditions, has itself at times in its history been scandalously bad about this, and has established models of abusive and demeaning talk about 'the other' (Jewish, Muslim, heretical, unbelieving) that are as bad as anything that any contemporary Christian might complain about in the mouth of a militant atheist. But the moral question remains.
And that is where I want to place the emphasis of this reflection. The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer's freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded. Since the old offence of blasphemy – as we have seen – no longer works effectively to do this, there is no real case for its retention. How adequately the new laws will meet the case remains to be seen; I should only want to suggest that the relative power and political access of a group or person laying charges under this legislation might well be a factor in determining what is rightly actionable.
But beyond this is the larger issue of what is actively desirable for a liberal society. We regularly treat discussion about the law as discussion about what we can get away with, in all sorts of contexts, as if the law existed to define a 'lowest common' content for social morality. But – as most of us equally recognise in some part of our consciences – what is legally permissible is not necessarily thereby made desirable, acceptable or, simply, good. We may decide, as on the whole we have decided, that religion should not be protected by law over and above the ways we have just been summarising; but that does not close the moral question of what are the appropriate canons for the public discussion of belief. I have suggested two points to ponder here. The first is to do with the far more general issue of civility in controversy: a coarsening of the style of public debate and a lack of imagination about the experience and self-perception of others, especially those from diverse ethnic and cultural contexts, the arrogant assumption of the absolute 'naturalness' of one's own position – none of this makes for an intelligent public discourse or for anything like actual debate, as opposed to plain assertion. I've sometimes used the term 'argumentative democracy' to capture what a genuinely plural social discourse might be. The law cannot and should not prohibit argument, which involves criticism, and even, as I noted earlier, angry criticism at times; but it can in some settings send a signal about what is generally proper in a viable society by stigmatising and punishing extreme behaviours that have the effect of silencing argument. Rather than assuming that it is therefore only a few designated kinds of extreme behaviour that are unacceptable and that everything else is fair game, the legal provision should keep before our eyes the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and (even if unintentionally) cruel styles of speaking and acting.
But the second point is to do with what can sometimes underlie the thoughtlessness or cruelty. The assumption of the naturalness of one's own position is regularly associated with an experience of untroubled or uninterrupted access to the dominant discourse and means of communication in one's society. If I can say what I like, that is because I have the power and status to do so. But that ought to impose the clear duty of considering, when I engage in any kind of debate, the relative position of my opponent or target in terms of their access to this dominant means and style of communication – the duty which the history of anti-Semitism so clearly shows European Christians neglecting over the centuries. I have intimated that I think the law could and should take this into consideration where 'incitement to hatred' is concerned; but it is again primarily a moral question, the requirement in a just society that all should have the same means to speak for themselves. It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.
In this lecture, I have attempted to go a little below the surface in the discussion about what protection religious believers should enjoy from the law of the land, in order to pinpoint some of the related issues around what is actually desirable and morally defensible in a society that is 'procedurally secular' but genuinely open to the audibility of religious voices in public debate. It is clear that the old blasphemy law is unworkable and that its assumptions are not those of contemporary lawmakers and citizens overall. But as we think about the adequacy of what is coming to replace it, we should not, I believe, miss the opportunity of asking the larger questions about what is just and good for individuals and groups in our society who hold religious beliefs. As a believer, I think, of course, that what is just and good for such persons is also crucial to the justice and goodness, indeed the sustainability, of the whole society, in a very strong sense. But I also think that even the unbeliever or agnostic might reasonably ask how authentic are the claims of our society to proper democratic pluralism if we cannot do justice to this particular kind of variety in our public life and conversation.
© Rowan Williams