Monday, May 04, 2015

U.K. Christian Theologian Keith Ward on Laws Prohibiting Blasphemy

Leonard Levy, in his book Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie, quotes Keith Ward as a person who, in the wake of the persecution of Salman Rushdie, changed his opinion from support of the United Kingdom's blasphemy laws to their rejection. I acquired the source document to understand Ward's views in more depth.
It is a chapter in Law, Blasphemy and the Multi-Faith, Society: Report of a seminar organised by the Commission for Racial Equality and the Inter Faith Network of the United Kingdom, September 1989.

Here are some quotes:
One becomes aware also of how biting, satirical and even savage and wounding criticism has helped the Church to become truer to its own nature, as a community of love and service. (p. 31)
The religious sentiment to which, as a theologian, I am strongly attracted, is.that it is profoundly irreligious to take offence when offence is offered. (p. 34) [italics in original]
That is to say, a law prohibiting attacks on religious belief might help to imbue the population in general with a sense of religious reverence, and in particular, with reverence for the strongly held, sincere beliefs of others. ... The issue is whether the law in our situation is going to be able to increase a sense of  reverence in the population, or at least not undermine it. I personally now think that the law is probably not an effective instrument for this. ... The law is a very blunt instrument indeed, and it might be much better to find alternative ways of increasing 'religious reverence'. The most obvious way is to make it apparent that your religious faith is in fact admirable and estimable and is contributing peace and reconciliation to the world. This is better than having a law which says, 'we are not going to let you insult us'. Religious believers would do better (at least I can say that the Church of England would do better) to recommend the.positive than to debar the negative. That is to say, the sincerity of a person's belief should not be judged by the number of things he is prepared to prohibit, but by the quality of the life which is led. On that view the law is not going to be of much help. I do not think the law can preserve ideals. The law can prevent gross abuses, but it is never going to get you to ideals. In that sense I think that the onus has to come back to the religious communities themselves. The law is not going to help here. If it is a matter of ideals then the religious communities need to discuss them much more and to examine how far they are attaining them. (p. 35)
The real defence of free speech is that it is for the sake of truth that we are prepared to put up with the abuses of it, because truth is so important that it is worth a few abuses in the hope of getting to it. That requires the belief that your own beliefs are not obviously true. There have been Christians, of course, who have said that anybody who is not a Christian is so obviously wrong that they must either be insane or evil. I think what inter faith conversation can do here is to show that we can all say that with equal plausibility; namely, 'if you do not hold my beliefs you are either insane or deluded or evil', and that we simply cannot all say that. That is ruled out. Once you make the move to saying we can be sane, rational, moral, sincere seekers for truth and yet for one reason or another have diametrically opposed beliefs, then you have to say, 'we all stand in need of criticism'. What criticism will do, Mill argues, and I agree, is to show what we omit from our own perspective on the universe, to show what we overlook in our own self deceptions, and to show the ways in which we can use our beliefs to impose ways of life on others who do not really want to share them. (p. 38)