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book review

Austin Dacey, author of “The Future of Blasphemy”

Near the end of this bracingly provocative and forcefully argued book, Austin Dacey quotes a dictum of Nietzsche's: "And ever again the human race will from time to time decree: 'There is something one is absolutely forbidden henceforth to laugh at.'" Reading this, I couldn't help thinking of Monty Python's Life of Brian, the 1979 film comedy. Featuring a young Jewish man who is mistaken for the Messiah, the film was condemned by a variety of religious groups and banned from being shown in a number of British cities. Though some attacked it as blasphemous, the film actually belongs in a genre of iconoclastic satire. But there can be no doubt that it offended the sensitivities of many believers, and for that reason alone it would be practically impossible to make anything like it today.

In a twist that illustrates how religion continues to be at the heart of public debate, what was once punished as blasphemy is now being condemned as a violation of human rights. As Dacey writes succinctly, "Blasphemy has been reframed within the secular idiom of respect for persons." Understood in the past as disrespect for the Deity, blasphemy has been turned into a lack of respect for human beings. The European Court of Human Rights has asserted a universal "right to respect for religious feelings," while the United Nations has condemned anything that could be categorized as "advocacy of religious hatred." We have reached a state of affairs in which acts that used to be defined as sacrilege against God are being criminalized as disrespect for humanity.

A representative to the UN of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Dacey supports a secular public culture in which contending beliefs and ideas of the good life are given full expression. But one needn't be a secularist or a humanist to find the trend that he describes disturbing. It is not only free expression that is in danger. Prohibiting offence to religious feelings is an assault on freedom of religion, since it prevents believers attacking idolatry as much as it limits the freedom of unbelievers.

As Dacey writes, "An openness to sacrilege is a safeguard against investing the wrong things with sacredness." Like secularism itself – the origins of which in Europe and America were in dissenting religion more than unbelief – the objection to laws forbidding blasphemy is that they inhibit the exercise of conscience and stand in the way of authentic faith. If anything, the faithful have stronger reason for opposing such laws than many unbelievers, who might reject them simply because they curb free expression.

In showing that blasphemy should be protected as part of the practice of religion, Dacey has made an important advance on standard liberal arguments. But he also wants to defend blasphemy as a human right: "Blasphemy must be legally protected," he writes, "as a matter of equal treatment before the law and as an exercise of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience."

Here Dacey shows himself to be tethered to the rights-based liberalism that has become orthodoxy among philosophers over the past 30 years. But this isn't the only variety of liberal philosophy, and it may not be the one best suited to dealing with the threats to freedom we face at the present time. Briefly discussing John Stuart Mill, Dacey finds Mill's defence of freedom wanting because, he says, "it would make freedom a matter of good or interest rather than a matter of right or principle." But it may be this very point that makes Mill's liberalism superior to the more legalistic philosophies that prevail today.

Instead of appealing to fundamental rights, Mill suggested that freedom – including the freedom to be offensive to others – was in everybody's interest. A society that makes offending others a criminal offence will not only be unfree, it will also be claustrophobic, timorous and stagnant.

Mill's argument isn't watertight, and certainly won't persuade fundamentalists and fanatics. But it has a better chance of being generally accepted than the highly disputable theories of rights that are dreamed up by philosophers today.

Like many who write on religion and the public realm these days, Dacey says little about tolerance, the old-fashioned habit of putting up with people and ideas you hate and despise. Currently in disrepute because it doesn't sit easily with fashionable notions of respect, the word fails even to appear in the book's index.

Tolerance has limits; if outlawing Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer could have held back the Nazi tide, I'd be happy to have had the vile rag banned. Dacey recognizes that these are intractably problematic issues. "Many of these questions do not admit of easy or happy answers," he writes. But it was tolerance that for a time put an end to wars of religion, and it is probably only by reviving the practice that we can hope to avoid similar conflicts in future.

John Gray's most recent book, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, is out in paperback.