OP-ED on CRS Masterclass on Blasphemy, 2 June 2021

June 29, 2021

The Two Faces of Blasphemy

By Hadje C. Sadje, Ph.D. Candidate (University of Hamburg)

On June 2, 2021, I attended the Central European University’s (CEU) Center for Religious Studies (CRS) virtual Doctoral Masterclass entitled “Whither Blasphemy On Resilience of an Idea, Past and Present”. This one-day event, held on Zoom due to COVID-19 and international travel restrictions, brought together two prominent scholars, University Professor Aziz Al-Azmeh (CEU, Department of History) and David Nash (Oxford Brookes, School of History, Philosophy and Culture) to engage in discussion with Ph.D. students from various European universities and working in different disciplines, but all with a dedicated interest in the subject of blasphemy as well as an eagerness to reflect on the scholarly works of Al-Azmeh and Nash that address it. 

As one of the selected panelists, I was assigned to engage with Nash’s groundbreaking contributions to blasphemy, particularly the two articles he wrote entitled: “Blasphemy’s History and the Denial of Neutrality” (2021) and “Analyzing the History of Religious Crime. Models of "Passive" and "Active" Blasphemy since the Medieval Period” (2007), volumes that continue to inspire scholars up to this day. One of the most important works of Nash, however, was his early book entitled, Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History (2007) which is an essential and indispensable source for any serious student of history, sociology, religious studies, legal studies, and philosophy. I believe this could be his most prominent and accomplished work on blasphemy. The book has obvious relevance to contemporary contexts and that is well promoted. However, I believe Nash’s critical and interdisciplinary investigation, most often concerned with the historical, semantic, and contextual analysis of blasphemy, including the whats, hows, and whys of blasphemy, have been taken for granted by many. Nash sees blasphemy as constantly reconfiguring around new issues and shifting coalitions. In fact, Nash opens the book with the strong assertion that “Blasphemy— the attacking, wounding, and damaging of religious belief—has in so short a space of time suddenly returned to become an extremely combustible part of modern life” (pg.1). His careful scholarship sheds light on Christian Medieval crimes (for example, the English Acts 1698; commonly known as the Blasphemy Act of 1698), which have reappeared to become a distinctly modern presence, most notably in the West (pp.12-41). With that, Nash shows how the concept of blasphemy is wielded by people or groups by way of ‘episodic’ or ‘sovereign’ acts of domination or coercion (pp.147-183). In short, as Nash shows, blasphemy is also a major source of social discipline and conformity: it ‘solidifies’, it ‘civilizes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘conceals’ (pp.184-207).

What did I learn most of all from engaging with Nash’s interesting, intriguing, and provocative takes on blasphemy? Let me share four points that I have learned from his works:

First of all, after reading Nash’s unique and important contributions on the subject, I believe that blasphemy matters now more than ever. His texts were both operose and rewarding, leaving me to appreciate not only the nuances of the concept of blasphemy – in historical, legal, religious, and contemporary perspectives, but also the process of scholarly growth and experimentation. Today, I observed that blasphemy became a more popular academic subject, a burgeoning field, encapsulating a wider range of interests across the academic world. His book entitled, Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History (2007) many well serve as a prime case study in my future work. I would recommend this book to any student of world religions, law and legal institutions, and global politics.

Secondly, it is extremely important to trace back the origin and development (chronological) of blasphemy. The reason is that the issues Nash is concerned with --- blasphemers and freedom of expression, punishment and tolerance, sacred and profane, religious and secular, and so on --- remain pressing issues today. Nash’s investigation of these issues, and especially the historical, legal, religious, and social analysis, suggests that his scholarly works on blasphemy continue to be regular referenced.

Thirdly, without claiming to be exhaustive in my argumentation, I am personally persuaded that blasphemy is extremely dangerous if left unaddressed today, especially regarding the emergence of various forms of religious nationalism in post-secular society; for example, to mention a few, the American Christian Right, the Zionist colonial movement, the Islamic revivalist movement/Wahabbism, the Hindutva movement in India, and Animism (in Thailand and Japan). Nash’s scholarly works present a powerful view that Western civilization, especially in the Christian Medieval era, has defined blasphemy to suit its own terms and agendas, and that these outdated definitions are profoundly problematic when used to conceptualize today’s global conflicts. Combining insights from interdisciplinary perspectives on blasphemy, Nash demonstrates the concept of blasphemy is deeply culturally and socially embedded. Moreover, he shows it becomes vital to develop new ways of thinking about this ever-present phenomenon in global conflict.

Lastly, I realized that the notion of blasphemy has an aporetic characteristic. Aporetic because the historical background and evolution of the word blasphemy makes it a double-edged sword; it can either promote respect or threaten freedom of expression, tolerance or intolerance, unification or polarization amongst nations, and above all, blasphemy can be a civilizing and criminalizing force. Therefore, I am fully convinced that this remains a fascinating or promising area of study, especially in the field of theology and religious studies. As a matter of fact, Nash’s critical scholarship on blasphemy led me to explore this theme by considering the Filipino Pentecostal/Charismatic worldview in relation to the religious/theological justification of Duterte’s bloodiest policy – his war on drugs – in defense of which Duterte has made controversial remarks against the God of the Christian faith (for example, calling God ‘stupid’).

In conclusion, I am deeply honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to converse with prominent scholar like David Nash and his critical work on blasphemy. Through the initiative of the Center for Religious Studies at Central European University, I was able to directly engage with the scholarly works of Nash and Al-Azmeh, as well as other emerging scholars and experts related to this field of study. By fostering this kind of academic exchange and collaboration, the CRS proves once again their dedication to multidisciplinary research, education, and provided here another excellent avenue for reconsideration of the whole question of religion and public sphere.