We may not be able to prove George Bernard Shaw's claim that all great truths begin as blasphemies. Still, it's closer to accuracy than the opposite, which would be something like: When in doubt, consult the authorities.
As we know too well, the authorities often get it wrong. History demonstrates the priceless value of blasphemy. That's one reason why anyone now trying to revive anti-blasphemy laws should be seen as an enemy of progress as well as an enemy of freedom.
In 1633 Galileo was tried for heresy by the Roman Catholic Church and forced to repudiate his claim that the Earth moves around the Sun; 359 years later, in 1992, a Vatican commission decided that, on second thought, Galileo had it right. Everyone agreed that was very nice of the Vatican, admitting they were wrong and all. In the middle of the 19th century Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection looked clearly blasphemous to many Christians; it still does, to some.
But then, Christianity began as blasphemy. In the Gospel (Mark, 14:61) the high priest asks Jesus, "Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" and Jesus answers Yes. The high priest claims that's proof enough – "Ye have heard his blasphemy"; crucifixion follows.
Blasphemy, or something like it, stands near the centre of modern culture. The first page of Joyce's Ulysses, the greatest 20th-century novel, plunges us into what any Catholic will recognize as a parody of the Eucharist, with an appropriate Latin quote to underline the point. Denunciations of religious practice in Strindberg's early stories drew a costly, complicated but finally unsuccessful suit for blasphemy. (Strindberg was often said to have a persecution complex, but he was, after all, persecuted.)
The major figures in modern cinema, from Luis Bunuel to Martin Scorsese, assume that religion can be treated with the same abrasive imagination they bring to other subjects. In Viridiana, the film that created Bunuel's mature reputation 45 years ago, a gang of drunken, slobbering beggars play a record of Handel's Messiah in a rich man's house while they enact their own Last Supper, following Leonardo's seating plan. Scorsese (a Roman Catholic by heritage, like Joyce and Bunuel), moved deep into blasphemy with The Last Temptation of Christ, which he made 18 years ago from the famous/notorious Nikos Kazantzakis novel. People like the Monty Python gang in England correctly consider it their right to parody religious belief, as in their Life of Brian.
Many countries have anti-blasphemy laws, which long ago fell into disuse. Today many Muslims, and some non-Muslims, want to make it a crime, once more, to deny the existence of God, scoff at scripture or otherwise offend the faithful, any faithful. A Muslim lawyer in Norway said the other day that his adopted country needs anti-blasphemy regulations to protect minorities against derisive and hateful expression.
"The point," he said, "is not to restrict freedom of speech." (A good rule: anyone who says that is in the process of doing just that.) We are heading toward the creation of a new human right, the right not to be offended. But surely we all know that to live is to be offended. As a humanist I'm offended by a rule forcing women to cover their faces.
The proposal to punish blasphemy implies that we should avoid showing disrespect for any religion. But what (to put the question in a way that many Muslims will instantly understand) if a religion doesn't deserve respect? What if it deserves to be treated as, for example, Christianity is treated in Pakistan? That's one place that won't need any new rules in this field, Pakistani law being already more than adequate.
In 2003 a court in the Punjab city of Faisalabad sentenced Ranjha Masih, an illiterate 52-year-old Roman Catholic floor-sweeper, to life in prison because he may have thrown stones at a wall on which were written Koranic verses mentioning Mohammed – and, just to prove they were serious, the police tore down his house as well, leaving his wife and five children homeless. He had been arrested five years earlier, during a memorial procession honouring Bishop John Joseph, who committed suicide to protest Pakistan's treatment of Christians.
This should make Muslim propagandists hesitate to seek legal remedies: The more we discuss the subject, the more we will learn about religious laws in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other centres of bigotry. As for the West, it can maintain its integrity only if it insists that freedom of religion includes the freedom to blaspheme.