Blasphemy for Atheists? Why Bother?

God damn it

Blasphemy Ancient and Modern by Nicholas Walter.
Reviewed by Gwydion M. Williams.

Blasphemy is a challenge to the religious rules on which societies are usually run. In a society like Britain, where the rules are secular not religious, blasphemy has become an anachronism. Any and all values may be mocked, because their real strengths lies in the opinions of ordinary people. Secular blasphemies are few – in the modem British context, only such things as admiration for Adolph Hitler or being in favour of sex between adults and small children are treated as unacceptable. Things that used to be unacceptable, such as homosexuality or heterosexual adultery, are these days more or less accepted. People who are rude about God are left for God to deal with, always assuming that there is a God.

The best way to understand religion is leave out God, who may or may not have had something to do with their origins. Religions at a social level exist for the benefit of believers – although this interest is often modified or distorted by priests and the religious hierarchy.

The weakness of the Rationalist Movement, shared by this book about blasphemy, is that it treats religions as foolish and protests about blasphemy as mere narrow-mindedness. Toleration for blasphemy can be seen as a measure of the way in which British society developed itself from something held together by the Church of England, into a fully secular society in which the survival or otherwise of the C of E is of no great importance to most people.

Having said this, Blasphemy Ancient and Modern is an excellent guide to the history and progress of blasphemy. It is worth reminding people that such things as the Doctrine of the Trinity used to be protected by law, so people like John Milton and John Locke dared not express their disbelief in it. (Page 28). It is also interesting to learn that the author of The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, the poem that Gay News got convicted of blasphemy for, had the following reaction to the Primitive Methodist variety of conventional Christianity:

“I heard the grisly, gory details of the Crucifixion for the first time … at the age of five. I was so overcome by revulsion and fright that I fainted with the shock of those gruesome, violent images … I could never take part in Holy Communion, for the very thought of eating bits of Christ’s dead flesh and drinking cups of his blood made me sick.”

My own religious instruction was of a more moderate sort, that took allowance of the fact that very large parts of the Bible are in no way suitable for children. For this reason I retain a fairly friendly attitude to the Christian faith. But it is a bit shocking that the law will allow or even encourage small children to be terrified by sacred horrors, and then punish them for trying to express the complexity of those feelings in later life.

The past few months have seen a great deal of publicity about alleged satanic abuse of children. It may very well exist, but not one proven case has yet been found. It has certainly been whipped up by the same sort of Christian extremists who terrify small children in the name of teaching them religion. People who seem to be fairly decent followers of some rather nutty pagan cults have been picked on and deemed guilty without evidence or impartial judgment. And it’s not as if child abuse were unknown among people who profess to be devout Christians. This applies particularly where all sexuality is seen as sinful. If everything is forbidden, then it’s only a small step to saying that nothing is forbidden.

Various books have been blamed for encouraging acts of violence. But there have been far more murderers who took their ideas from the Bible than from any other book. All sorts of atrocities are described in the Old Testament, many of them apparently carried out with divine approval, even on direct divine instructions.

A sensible attitude to the Bible is only possible where there is freedom of criticism. It is long past time to abolish the law against blasphemy.

[For a more developed view, see Religions as Imperfect Human Understanding.  This makes the point that lack of religion is also open to many evils.]

This article appeared in January 1991, in Issue 21 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at