A Theory of Ethical Blasphemy

Detail from “The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas Over the Heretics,” fresco, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


This is the eighth in a series of posts on the history and future of blasphemy. The previous post explored the value of impiety within religious traditions.

by Austin Dacey

In this series of articles I have come to argue that the claims of the believer and the claims of the blasphemer, so-called, are symmetrical. By this I do not mean that both are always equally legitimate, rational, reasonable, advisable, noble, beautiful, or true. I mean that each can be analyzed as a claim of conscience about what is and what is not sacred. The value motivating us to protect the believer’s beliefs from desecration is the very same value manifested by the desecrator: freedom of conscience.

All of the major world faiths recognize a category of things that demand a special kind of reverence. If we are to encompass the experience of the mainstream world faiths, not just western monotheisms, we need to understand a phenomenon of reverence that is not reserved for divine persons as such. As I argue in The Future of Blasphemy, that domain is a special kind of reverence for a special sort of value. The expressive denigration of such values amounts to what I call ethical blasphemy.

Whatever it may be, the sacred is more than just a matter of fact; it is supposed to be something reason-giving. It presents us with reasons, considerations that count in favor of or against actions and attitudes. It underwrites judgments of praise for responding properly and blame for failing to do so. A desecrator acts contrary to powerful reasons and is therefore the appropriate object of a special kind of shock, horror, outrage and condemnation.

The reasons of the sacred, if they exist, are supposed to be significant. They are not to be ignored. They could be seen as the most central nodes in a network of reasons, a web whose strands are lines of justification, warrant, and meaning. Remove a central node, and the fabric frays and disintegrates. The sacred is vital: it has a part in supporting many of our ordinary reasons in a way that our ordinary reasons do not have a part in supporting it.

Moreover, sacred things are held to be inviolable in a special way. They are “set apart” and not to be sacrificed, traded, or compromised for other values. They trigger in us cognitive frameworks of purity, pollution, and disgust that the evolutionary psychologists tell us are probably ancient adaptations of the social mind. The misuse of 1 percent of an agricultural plot impacts 1 percent of its economic value. Were the plot holy ground, however, the misuse of 1 percent would somehow be a diminishment of the whole.

One explanation of why a sacred object presents itself as inviolable is that its value is incommensurable with others—it is not the case that they are of equal value and it is not the case that one is better than the other. They are incomparable. If there is something repugnant about wrongfully taking a life and then offering money to loved ones as compensation, it is not just the amount of money. It is the very idea of converting the value of the person into another currency of value. To grasp the worth of the person is to render thoughts of trade-offs unthinkable or at the very least problematic.

This normative theory of the sacred is non-supernatural, not in the sense that it precludes supernatural things from being sacred, but in that it locates the distinctive value of sacred things in features other than their supernatural features. They demand special reverence not because they are transcendent as such but because they are vital, inviolable, and incommensurable.

While this is merely a sketch, I think that a theoretical model of ethical blasphemy holds a number of advantages over both theological and personal models. Unlike theological models, it can offer a vocabulary that is not tied to any one religious tradition. Unlike personal models, it can accommodate talk of objects of reverence outside of the individual human person. It is not guilty of reducing the sacred to the subjective. Finally, and most importantly, an ethical model of blasphemy is consistent with equal treatment of claims of conscience under the law.

Insofar as blasphemy is coherent as a moral wrong at all, it is too important to be left to the traditionally religious. It belongs to minority, heterodox, non-doctrinal faiths and it belongs to secular people of conscience. It belongs to all of us. Precisely because each of us can lay claim to the ethical wrong of blasphemy, none of us should be able to lay claim to the legal wrong of blasphemy.


Austin Dacey is a representative to the United Nations for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He is the author of The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights and The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. His writings have appeared in the New York TimesUSA Today, and Dissent. In 2010, he created The Impossible Music Sessions, a forum in New York City for artists who cannot perform publicly due to censorship, political intimidation or cultural pressure.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.


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