Saturday, August 12, 2006

Is this 1706 or 2006?

(Expanded 8/13/06)

Recently, while researching unrelated stuff in the Mass. General Laws, I came across something that made me realize some of the religious wingnuts' ideas aren't that far from reality's surface (in a very scary sense). Here, in the state that legalized gay marriage and prides itself on being one of the most liberal in the nation, a book like Christopher Moore's comic novel Lamb, anything atheist, and anything challenging biblical accuracy are technically illegal.

Chapter 272: Section 36. Blasphemy

Section 36. Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying,cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

There are obviously all kinds of things wrong with this statute. One of them is this: how do you determine, as a matter of law, whether something is done "contumeliously"? I might have heard that word once before, but still had to look it up to be sure it means what I suspected it meant:

adv : without respect; in a disdainful manner. [syn: contemptuously, disdainfully, scornfully, showing contempt]

In other words, the law is redundant as well as religiously biased. Without doubt, such laws are worthy of contumelious reproach in large quantities, especially if the phrase "his government" was intended to mean the human officials governing us. Any law suggesting that government is divinely sanctioned, even if it's a good government, is dangerous to democracy and free thought.

Even by standards of other existing blasphemy laws, the Mass. law is a little extreme (although not nearly as extreme as Pakistan's, which calls for death if convicted). Wikipedia has a good, brief summary which notes that the last person jailed for violating such a law in the US (specifically, the Mass. law) was Abner Kneeland in 1838.

According to AJ Rivers, a pro-Christian writer in the UK, British law reads:

Every publication is said to be blasphemous which contains any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England, as by law established. It is not blasphemous to speak of or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language. The test to be applied is as to the manner in which the doctrines are advocated and not as to the substance of the doctrines themselves.

Note the distinct difference in bold... although fundies tend to not consider ANY statements opposing them to be "decent and temperate."

Rivers, who supports having a blasphemy law on the grounds that Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice from 1671-76, claimed Christianity is part of English law in 1676, reasonably notes that people need to comprehend a law for it to be valid, and the fact that most Britons are secular means such laws are essentially unfair to them. He also notes that "the sincere heretic is not automatically a blasphemer."

Mass. law, as we've already seen, says otherwise, and Biblical "literalists" have no interest in being fair or considering the views of others. They'd rather enforce laws in much the same way God does in Exodus 32:10, when God threatens to slaughter the Israelites down in the valley for creating a golden calf despite the fact they do in to praise him and have not yet received his new law saying it's wrong.

Rivers writes, "For 'blasphemy' is inextricably linked to exclusive truth-claims." That's exactly the problem. Laws like this criminalize speech based solely on ONE side's definition of what is "truth," as opposed to what can be documented as fact for both sides.

"For the sceptic, religion is essentially a matter of uncontrolled, and thus arbitrary, choice," he writes. "But from within a religion, the commitment stems from a recognition of the truth. Unbelievers are blind, not mistaken. One's own faith cannot simply be changed at will."

The fact that millions of people convert between religions or give up religion entirely every year disproves Rivers' statements here. The only sense in which religion is NOT a choice is that in which children are taught its tenets from an age that's too young to question them; without the ability to seek alternatives, they naturally accept anything they're told as fact. When they eventually do develop the ability to think for themselves and the stockpile of experience and knowledge to ask good questions (if they're allowed to), the doctrine has a firm hold on their subconscious that is extremely hard to untangle. Religions would not survive without such ready-made believers.

We unbelievers are not blind; we just see where real world fact contradicts religious "truth" in ways that make religion not useful to us. To us, there's no point in allowing the Bible, Qu'ran, or other doctrine guide our daily lives any more than we'd want Tolkien, Heinlein, or Darwin to do so. If a source is accurate, it's worth borrowing from; if it's out of date or simply documentably wrong (in a factual, not moral sense), it needs to be corrected.

That concept is blasphemy to many serious religionists, who cannot accept the fact that their sacred books were written by humans, for humans. Often, those books do contain some ideas that reflect common human experience and make evolutionary sense -- they wouldn't stand the test of time if they didn't. But most such ideas do not need to be written down to be passed down the generations; ideas such as the Golden Rule are practiced by illiterate cultures as effectively as by literate ones. The existence of books only made it easier for specific codices of ideas and experiences to be disseminated more effectively than others ... and thereby expose both their strengths and their weaknesses more broadly.

Most of the latter come from the fact religions evolved within a specific cultural and historical period; those who founded them did not actually target all of humanity for all time, and would have thought doing so an impossible if not ridiculous task. They were concerned mostly with their own people -- often, literally, their biological kin, or at least kin groups descended from some shared ancestor, real or imagined. Religion evolved as law for societies in which most people were related and illiterate, but the times have changed significantly and religion needs to catch up, just as secular law should.

In that vein, I sent the Massachusetts blasphemy law to my state rep with the following note:

I came across this outdated law while doing some other research. Since it clearly dates back to colonial times and clearly expresses favoritism of one religion over any others in violation of the U.S. Constitution, I'm asking you to propose a bill to repeal it: [Text of law here cut for space].

I realize it probably hasn't been invoked in a century or more, but that's beside the point. As long as archaic and discriminatory laws like this exist, they can and eventually will be used by those who seek to repress free thought.

His response:

You make an excellent point regarding out of date laws. I am happy to file this on your behalf if you would like for the upcoming session, which will start in January of 2007. Let me know if this has your approval.

Obviously, I approved.# He's a Republican, but around here, most GOPs are pretty sane; they'd be Democrats in most other states. Most likely, this bill will pass with few objections.

But I bet that wouldn't be so in some of the "Red" states, and that's the whole point -- Puritanism is far from dead, and anyone who cares about freedom needs to find this kind of law and push for its repeal before it can be used to bludgeon us back into the Dark Ages.


# It was not lost on me, though, that he can only be sure of this b/c he has no opposition this November. Nor does my state senator or US rep., and my US senator's token opposition has no chance of winning. Although I love the fact that Mass. is very liberal, I would like to see more interesting elections.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike you, I believe that God exists. However, I don't think that religious texts must be or are even meant to be taken literally (except perhaps for the laws), and thus it does not matter whether they seem to contradict "fact" when taken literally. Religious texts are spiritual teachings, not books of history. If one wants history, one should get a history book. The Bible is a good moral and spiritual education, as is the Qur'an, the Bhagavad-Gita and other religious texts, but they aren't so good as history books. For example Genesis is NOT a literal account of history! But of course some insist that it is. I think that the best way then to approach religious texts is to be open-minded to the possibility of divinity, but to also temper one's understanding with reason. I don't think that God would give us a rational faculty that would decieve us!

1/20/2007 8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I basically agree with you, although the religious texts WERE originally intended very much to be histories in many respects. And, in an era when people didn't know much better, learning history from them (and learning how to read at all) was often better than not doing so ... but today we have VASTLY more information available and shouldn't be basing our morality on documents that are so obviously outdated.

Come to think of it, I guess I disagree with you in one major respect: I DON'T consider the Bible (or most of the others) to be a very good source of morality, largely because the tales contained within those texts all too frequently feature the given diety's chosen people getting away with (and even benefiting from) doing completely heinous things to other people.

I DO, however, agree that if there were a deity capable of creating everything, s/he/it/they would not "give us a rational faculty that would deceive us." The catch, however, is whether we create cultures that encourage us to USE that faculty well, and, all too often, religiously-based cultures act in ways that seriously restrict the free exercise of that faculty.

2/01/2007 8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is a rather late response, but I just discovered the blog today...

Anyway, I think (Which is to say with great certinty) that it is incredibly moronic to base laws on any principle other than basic ethics, created simply to keep society running as smoothly as possible. Religious Idiologly should not be the basis for what is right and wrong.For those who believe in God(s), it should simply be enough for them to accept that their god(s) will deal with the "Heathens" at some point or another. The problems of religious laws are evident in any place with religiously contrived laws, and it would be a little unfair to point out a couple when there are so many.

Whether, the bible, quran, gita or even dianetics, (For the record Dianetics IS NOT an intelegent basis for anything other than recycling waisted paper) have good ideas is irelivant when it comes to society. Religious law is for the individual to follow and if they choose to, enforce upon THEMSELVES, not even other members of their faith. Real laws should be about protecting people from each other, not about chastity, respect,sanctity or holiness.
God can sort that out if he/she/it/they so choose.

6/29/2007 4:55 AM  

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