(This was originally going to be part 4, but since today is Blasphemy Day, I figured I’d bump it up.)
Blasphemy and Heresy
If you think about it, the very notions of blasphemy and heresy are bizare.
Heresy means saying things that aren’t true, according to church authorities. Depending on which sect is in power, this might mean asserting that Jesus is divine, denying that Jesus is divine, asserting or denying that Jesus is his own father, claiming that the Bible/Koran/Vedas was/wasn’t divinely inspired, whether there’s an imam hiding at the bottom of a well, and thousands of others.
And blasphemy means saying bad things about, or denying the existence of the god(s), prophets, saints, etc. of the sect in question.
Wars have been waged over such issues. Many societies have had, or still have, prohibitions against heresy and blasphemy. Even in the US, a lot of them are still on the books, even though they’ve been struck down by the courts.
And yet, no society has a law against saying that air is heavier than lead, or that the sky is green. So what is it about blasphemous or heretical ideas that they must be kept down by force of law or arms?
The closest secular analog to blasphemy that I can think of is the law in various societies against criticizing the king. Or, these days, the dictator (of course, in more enlightened modern dictatorships, there’s no actual law against criticizing El Jefe, it’s just that everyone knows you shouldn’t do it if you don’t feel like being disappeared one night. But the effect is the same). In France, it was (and possibly still is) illegal to insult a policeman.
The obvious secular analog to heresy is holocaust denial, which is illegal in a number of countries.
It seems to me that in order to be banned by law, an idea has to be a) detrimental, and b) plausible. Note that an idea doesn’t have to be true to be banned; nor does it have to be false. It just has to be plausible. And these conditions are necessary but not sufficient: an idea like “vaccines kill more people than they save” is both detrimental and, apparently, plausible. But it isn’t banned anywhere that I know of.
Detrimental to whom? To the powers that be, of course. Whoever has influence over which laws get enacted. Laws against lèse-majesté are detrimental to kings, and kings pass them. If a king needs the church’s support for political reasons, he might pass laws against harming the church. Religious organizations create their own rules, to protect themselves and the religious leaders.
Part of the genius of the American experiment is the first amendment, which guarantees the right to express one’s opinion. The courts have interpreted this rather broadly, covering such things as pornography and non-verbal expression. Certainly no one would dream of forbidding criticism of the government. The punditocracy would be up in arms!
And this is a sign of strength: it sends the message that we’re not afraid of criticism. That you’re free to say that the US shouldn’t exist, or that Obama is the worst president ever, and we’re confident that the free marketplace of ideas will quickly dispose of such notions without there having to be any laws against them.
The existence of heresy and blasphemy, by contrast, imply weakness. If you have to forbid people from saying “there are no gods” or “you don’t need religion to live a full satisfying life”, you’re saying that you can’t rely on the marketplace of ideas to get rid of them, the way you can for “grass is red”.
I think you can see where I’m going with all this: the very notions of blasphemy and heresy exist not because the gods are harmed by being insulted, and not for the benefit of the population at large. They exist because if people were free to examine the evidence for and against gods and other supernatural propositions, they would realize that the emperor has no clothes, and that their tithe doesn’t help God, it helps the priest.
I’m not saying that this is the result of cynical manipulation by religious leaders, though in many cases it doubtless is. Rather, it’s more likely to be natural selection among memes: a group of ideas that is protected against criticism is more likely to survive and be passed on.
That’s what makes blasphemy a meta-argument against gods: if any gods existed, and were anywhere near as good and powerful as they’re supposed to be, it wouldn’t be necessary to forbid denying their existence.
(Update: fixed an obvious grammatical problem pointed out by alert reader Fez, who will burn in the fires of hell for having the insolence to criticize me.)