Through fire to faith? To many Muslims, the charred remnants of a Quran pose a threat. Photo: Joe Penney/Reuters
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Rowan Williams: Blasphemy can provoke violence – and be a progressive force within religion

The former Archbishop of Canterbury on how blasphamy can be a means to deeper religious understanding.

For most of human history – and for rather a lot of the world today – blasphemy is the cardinal case of saying the unsayable. What could be more transgressive than mocking or abusing the all-powerful creator of the universe? But what is interesting in the history of religions is that this isn’t always about attacking or rejecting faith itself.

One regular and significant theme in legends, religious texts and historical anecdotes is that “blasphemous” language, ­language attacking, condemning or mocking God, can be forced out of people who are so ravaged and humiliated by their ­suffering that they turn on God in fury. Ajax in classical myth, Job in biblical narrative – these are figures who say, in effect, “I haven’t deserved this and I didn’t expect this. What claim can God have to be called good or just? And if my sufferings are ­supposed to remind me that life is mysterious and God is stronger than I am and so I ought to submit humbly, I can always refuse to accept these terms. I won’t be threatened into silence. How much worse can it get, anyway? At least I can die with my self-respect intact.”

This is a fierce protest against religion, but it can also be a step towards the affirmation of belief at a new level. Job does submit in silence at the enigmatic ending of the book; but only after God has said that Job has “spoken well” of Him. Job’s brutal challenging of God’s wisdom and benevolence has been part of the process of testing the limits of what a religious tradition can make sense of. The Anglican poet and novelist Charles Williams put it succinctly in saying that God demands from us that we demand explanations from him. And the language of accusing God, holding God to account, reproaching God with neglect or abuse, has long been part of the repertoire of Jewish and Christian usage. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s play God on Trial dramatised this tradition very powerfully, retelling the – possibly apocryphal but still haunting – story from Auschwitz of the group of Jews who tried God in a rabbinical court and found Him guilty of murderous neglect and breach of promise. The play ends with all of them ­filing into the gas chambers, covering their heads for prayer.

All this represents a complex mixture of emotions and convictions. If God is real, then presumably God can cope with anything we choose to throw at Him. If God is not real, the experience of rejecting what we think we know of God is a way of discovering whether the notion of God actually matters to us. If, worst of all, God is incompetent, sadistic or indifferent, the language of protest at least allows us to die with some integrity and dignity; we have – as Ajax and Job have obviously concluded – nothing to lose.

If God is real, these “thought experiments” are all to do with testing what we really believe. The violent rejection of a God who has failed to save or protect may open up a new picture of a God who isn’t there to save or protect but just is what He is, the silent centre of a moral world: the tormented French philosopher Simone Weil argued that any picture of God that survived genocide would be almost unrecognisably different from any earlier one. “Blaspheming” against the God who fails – attacking your own religious comfort zone – can be a moment of maturing faith.

Or not, of course. Blasphemy of this kind is risky because there may indeed turn out to be nothing left on the far side. You test the limits of your faith and discover that when you have rejected the God of infantile satisfactions and securities, what remains is not the transformed and elusive God of a ­Simone Weil, but just nothing. Which is why religious institutions don’t exactly encourage these transgressive experiments, why they are so often suppressed with passionate severity and violence.

But this is where we come up against the main catch-22 of the whole thing. If you are forbidden to voice the hard questions, this might suggest that faith survives only by never being challenged. The person who actually expresses their fury or disgust or disillusion can, at least sometimes, be ­demonstrating faith of a sort, confidence that, if God is real, it is possible, even necessary, to say what you feel about Him – and that, unless you can say this, the God you started with is not worth believing in. This underpins many of the Jewish Psalms or the poems of George Herbert or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Blasphemy resists the conspiracy of silence about the agonising difficulties of belief, resists the stifling of a real and honest response to an unjust world.

It is in the light of all this that, for many religious people, legislating against blasphemy is a deeply ironic thing. The project of punishing blasphemy with the fullest rigour of the law can imply a God anxious about His safety, whose power is uncomfortably like any arbitrary human power – insecure and needing to be held in place by violence. Legislating against blasphemy is always in danger of suggesting that God needs human protection and that faith is so frail that it cannot survive exposure to honest human emotion or intelligence.

In practice, such legislation has a deeply unimpressive history. Blasphemy laws can be and have been used to ruin reputations, to settle private scores, to reinforce a regime’s unchallengeable authority. The ongoing issues with blasphemy legislation in a country such as Pakistan are not only about freedom of speech but about the blackmail and intimidation and official collusion with mob hysteria that have repeatedly cost the lives of members of religious minorities, especially Christians. They also represent a menace for Muslims themselves, vulnerable to the irrational and unaccountable workings of this legislation.

It often looks as though Muslims have more of a problem than some other religious groups about blasphemy. But this is a slightly misleading judgement. Apart from the fact that Christians past and present have sometimes been as sensitive as any Muslim, we need to keep two things in mind. One is that the whole of Islam is based on a fiercely consistent refusal of idolatry – confusing God with things in the world. If a narrative or a picture is thought to be doing this, it will arouse maximal resistance, even from those who turn in disgust from violence and bloodshed. It strikes at something central. The other is that, while Judaism and Christianity often talk about God in terms of paradox and irony, Islam would regard this as a self-indulgence: the language of the Quran is believed to come directly from God, so that the idea of a God who speaks through irony or indirection seems to Muslims like an evasion of plain truth or the rejection of a generous and straightforward gift.

And it should be clear that the ­blasphemy we have been discussing is something a bit different from the casually irreverent phrase, the mocking caricature of belief, the “offensive” image or narrative such as Scorsese’s Last Temptation, or Jerry Springer: the Opera, or even Life of Brian. These are “transgressive” only in a rather thin sense. For most contemporary western commentators, these things offend people who are not “us” – not privileged and semi-detached heirs of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. They don’t touch real issues of conflict, power or change within the “modern” belief system. Most of us find it hard to imagine that religious language and imagery could matter in such a way that it would be ­urgent and imperative either to protest or to suppress the protest. When we encounter those for whom it matters intensely and who have no scruple in defending their God with the utmost violence (as in the Charlie Hebdo killings or the more recent ­murders in Bangladesh), we are repelled and bewildered.

So there is something of a paradox here, too. If we want to understand why casual blasphemy causes such homicidal frenzy, we badly need to understand and imagine better why and how faith matters. But one of the things that tells us most about this, from the imaginative point of view, is the way the blasphemy of angry protest, bitter satire and disillusioned rejection works within religious traditions. Herbert, Job and some of the Psalms remind us that sometimes the seriousness of faith is most effectively explored precisely in the risky business of testing the limits. And without such testing, such forcefully expressed doubt, you may never know the real strength or weakness of what you claim to believe. The secularist needs to understand some of the internal critique that faith is always struggling with; and the believer needs to recognise that blasphemy isn’t necessarily a matter for panic, let alone violence. It may even be a gateway into a larger and more durable commitment. 

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable