Page 5, 29th August 1997

29th August 1997
Page 5
Page 5, 29th August 1997 — SHOULD THERE be a law

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to protect religious beliefs?

It is an issue that was hotly debated during the Satanic Verses controversy, and has been revived with Home Secretary Jack Straw's proposal to extend legal protection against blasphemy to other religions. As it stands, the law protects the established Church; other varieties of Christianity receive protection only in so far as they share doctrines in common with Anglicanism.

The common law offence of blasphemy dates back to the case of John Taylor in 1676. Taylor was heard to say loudly in public: "Christ is a whore-master, and religion is a cheat."

Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale's judgment is the classic statement of the prevailing view of blasphemy: that Taylor's words not only offended God and religion but that they were subversive of the civil order. "That to say religion is a cheat is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved," said Lord Chief Justice Hale, "and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law." Blasphemy was, therefore, inextricably linked with sedition.

But as the religious passions of the 17th century subsided, a different conception of blasphemy emerged. In an 1883 case, Lord Chief Justice Coleridge ruled that "if the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without the writer being guilty of blasphemy". He added that the offence consisted in the shock or insult to Christianity or to the opinions of the majority of Christians. But despite this judgment there has remained an ambiguity at the heart of the debate about blasphemy: is the law protecting religious beliefs or does it seek simply to

protect the feelings of religious believers from insult? Between 1921 and 1977 the blasphemy law was not enforced. Although parliamentary attempts at annulment failed, to many of its opponents it seemed to be a dead letter, a relic of a Christian past. Mary Whitehouse disabused them of this notion when she mounted a successful private prosecution against the poet James Kirkup, following the publication in Gay News of his poem The love that dares to speak its name. The poem, which describes a Roman centurion's homosexual fantasy about the dying Jesus, was held to be an assault on Christian sensibilities. Following the Coleridge judgment, the Appeal Court judge, Lord Scarman, suggested that the idea of homosexuality and the love of Jesus could have been considered if the poem had been sober and respectable.

In his judgment, Lord Scarman pointed to the deficiencies in the current blasphemy law and recommended a wider, more comprehensive, blasphemy law to protect the "religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians".

BUT IT WAS the controversy sparked by the

publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses that brought the issue to a head. To Muslims the book was an attempt to vilify and slander the Prophet Muhammad. The question was raised: why, in a society which claimed to accord equal treatment to its citizens, was there no law to protect Islamic sensibilities?

The proposed recasting of the blasphemy law may go some way to healing the wounds opened by the Satanic Verses, and will perhaps assist in improving relations between Muslims and the wider society. Furthermore, the proposed changes apparently put an end to the situation in which the beliefs and feelings of one reli gious group are protected over others. Yet for the non-believer nothing short of the abolition of the blasphemy law is likely to satisfy. Why, the argument usually runs, are religious beliefs and feelings considered so special that people who have no concept of a God who can be blasphemed should have their freedom of expression curbed?

It seems to the non-believer a case of "Hush, hush, whisper who dares! Christopher Robin is saying his prayers". Who are these people who would have our society resemble more closely a theocracy than a modem liberal secular state? A liberal society, it is argued, should protect individuals, not beliefs.

So what is so special about religious beliefs? The main character in Piers Paul Read's novel Monk Dawson, contemplating his religion, says: "No one could decide to forsake what they had inexorably become. No one could deny his own identity... God entered

into everything we did. No aspect of our life was without its good or bad, its right or wrong. Faith became as automatic as the habits of hygiene... and we thought as little of being Catholics as brushing our teeth". Although I suspect that this has been overstated for literary effect, there are many religious people who feel the same way. Their identity is largely determined by their membership of a religion; their beliefs are not merely opinions. To Dr Shabbir Akhtar, member of the Bradford Council of Mosques, "Religion is... as much a part of their essential self-definition as race or gender".

Of course this is difficult for the non-believer to understand. Fay Weldon, in her pamphlet Sacred Cows, wrote that "being white, middle class and prosperous, nothing deeply hurts me." I would suggest that most Christians in England today are closer to Fay Weldon than to Shabbir Akhtar. But does the fact that religious beliefs are deeply held justify placing limits on the free speech of others?

In a democratic society, not only should the State be neutral among the religions, it should be neutral towards religion. Preferential treatment of the religious over the nonreligious could be considered discriminatory. Religious liberty surely involves the freedom to reject religion.The usual way of circumventing these objections is by appealing to something like the principle enunciated in Lord Chief Justice Coleridge's judgment. This does not ask for a cordon to be placed around religious beliefs, but requests that these beliefs should not be abused or insulted. It is the manner in which the criticism is made and not the religious subject matter that is at issue.

But there are problems with this distinction. There may be occasions, and this is especially true in "closed" societies, where the only way to criticise religious subject matter is by provocative satire. And satire is usually the only weapon at hand for the dissident and the marginalised individual.

IT IS SURELY one of the purposes of art to challenge and upset orthodoxy and authority. There may be no non-offensive, non-abusive ways of performing this vital function. But art that simply upholds the status quo is empty. Salman Rushdie put it well in his apologia: "The creative process is not unlike the processes of free societies, which are by their nature divided, plural, even quarrelsome, they are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom's presence."

Throughout history the blasphemy laws have been invoked to stifle the expression of unorthodox views. We should remember that it was devout Christians whose beliefs conflicted with authority who were caught up in blasphemy trials, not the downright wicked.

Any attempt to reinforce this anachronistic and illiberal law, however well-intentioned the motives, must be viewed with suspicion.

THERE HAS been a terrible middleclass row about the proposed shake-up of BBC Radio 4's morning programme. It is a fuss which affects journalists, who rely heavily for information on the Today programme, and the unemployed, newspaper reading classes. It had been my ambition not to worry about the matter at all, on the grounds that Radio 4 is an absurd, chattering classes preoccupation. But one aspect of the proposed changes does rather upset me.

It is the decision to put back to an earlier hour, the prayer slot on Radio 4. Called Prayer for Today, it features Scripture readings, sometimes from non-Christian traditions, and relates them to the events of the day. It's an unexciting, rather soothing interlude of five minutes. But what it does is bring up air time just before the start of the news, when thrusting young professionals are brushing their teeth. In its earnest way, it reminds a secular society that there are other values besides the anodyne ones embodied by the Today programme. There are hardly any areas where the mass of the middle classes are touched by contact with organised religion; this was one of them. Now this will be gone, except for the sort of freaks who get up at half five in the morning.

It's hard to express properly this unease about the way religion has retreated from the mainstream. I had the same peculiar feeling that Christianity had moved backstage in the theatre of English life when that once grand and now rather ordinary bookshop in Piccadilly, Hatchards, changed its layout a few years ago. It sounds a small matter; it is a small matter. But when I tell you that religious books were moved from their inyour-face position at the back of the store on the ground floor to the floor above, where they are now tucked obscurely beside books on the philosophy of evolution, you see what I

mean. The physical space inhabited by religion is manifest in all sorts of subtle ways. What is increasingly clear is that the space is being gradually eroded.

Physically, it is of course difficult to evade religion in a once Christian country. The infrastructure of the past is still with us: there are churches at the geographic heart of every town, many the relics of self-confident Victorian Christianity. But when the structure is undermined, when the churches are actually used as residential apartments, that physical witness of buildings to Christianity is rendered meaningless.

It's hard to know what to do about all this. And it's not just in England. When I was small, Corpus Christi processions made their way around the streets of my home town. Now there is a modest service of Benediction in the grounds of what was once the convent. There is only one concrete thing I can think to do, to restore a sense that Christianity is a social affair, not simply a matter for consenting adults in private. That is, to maintain the old-fashioned habit of saluting the Blessed Sacrament by blessing myself whenever I pass a church. Admittedly, I do it in a furtive sort of way, but in a modest fashion, it is a witness to Christ in a public space which has grown ever more secular.

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