Only God, argues Alexis de Tocqueville, can be almighty without constituting a danger. How could we challenge such an almighty power, or even harm Him, through blasphemy? The short answer: it isn’t possible. No lesser authority than the Bible itself tells us this. According to the second psalm, “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: The Lord shall have them in derision.” The destructive thrust of blasphemy – which is certainly present – isn’t directed against God, but against our communities.
Blasphemy doesn’t harm God, to whom we are unable to proclaim face-to-face our dissatisfaction with his managerial skills. Instead it harms the faithful brethren, who are reduced in their humanity when the atheist claims to have seen through the stupidity and charlantry of religion with an air of know-it-all arrogance. It’s a different story (but interesting nonetheless) that it is often the allegedly enlightened atheists who drag St. Mary through the mud at the dinner table and then venture out to the next bookstore to stock up on esoteric literature, surround their beds with magic stones and maunder about karma and the plight of distant butterflies.
Blasphemy hurts those who believe in God. Provocation fuels discord, and discord can result in pandemonium. Pandemonium suspends public order. That’s why our laws prohibit activities that are likely to breach the peace. Aggressive driving belongs to that list, as do exhibitionism and blasphemy.
Today, in Russia, the members of the band Pussy Riot are awaiting their court sentencing. They are charged with fueling religious hatred. Russian Christians, the prosecution argues, perceived Pussy Riot’s dancing and punk performance in Moscow’s orthodox cathedral as blasphemy. The artists have responded that their gig was meant as a protest against President Putin. Videos that circulate online show groups of disturbed, irritated, hurt (and often elderly) Russian women who are attempting to prevent the punk band and their videographers from abusing and desecrating the altar room.
A few years ago, Germany faced a similar scandal when a couple undressed in Cologne’s cathedral and attempted to have intercourse on the altar. In that case, too, we saw a deliberate public nuisance and an act that was likely to constitute a “breach of the peace,” as the law has it. It qualified as a criminally punishable offense. But blasphemy law has de facto ceased to be used in Germany. No German or Russian court can determine whether God was insulted because judges cannot provide legal proof of God’s existence (or lack thereof).
Now, the German author Martin Mosebach has demanded that the state ought to punish blasphemy more harshly, or at least dissuade blasphemy through the threat of severe punishment. He is wrong. Worldly jurisprudence has nothing in common with the hypothetical divine judge. Our courts are not responsible for ensuring the salvation of our citizens. Modernity, the Enlightenment, and the rule of law have done away with the religious infusion of the law.
It should thus surprise us even more that the Russian state has charged Pussy Riot with the fueling of religious hatred (or, in colloquial terms, with blasphemy). It’s a sure sign that the rule of law is retreating in Russia. A court is unlikely to become a henchman for the church but could quite possibly be coerced into playing henchman for the Kremlin. Putin, it turns out, is using the church to consolidate his power. The Russian Orthodox Church has been revitalized and re-popularized, complete with ornate decorations and a decidedly anti-modern mindset. It has flourished in the years since 1990. Whenever I visited Moscow over the past few years, journalistic observers would all tell me a similar story: the Russian church has become corrupted and has sided with those in power.
I needn’t discuss here why they have chosen the wrong side. At least some Russian Christians have protested against the harsh and un-Christian attitude of the clerical leadership. It remains a mystery why the Pope in Rome continues to court his bearded brothers in the East. Maybe it’s because Roman-Catholic and Russian-Orthodox priests share a similarly bad taste in ornate robes. In terms of intellectual and Enlightenment heritage, the Latin-derived peoples of Western Europe form a tighter union across denominational lines than Rome and Moscow.
God, the Bible tells us on countless occasions, sides with the downtrodden. He sits inside the prison walls with the group of female artists and not in the lavish rooms of the Kremlin. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted the humble,” Luke writes (1:52). Only those who don’t really believe in God’s existence can take such a sentence lightly. Maybe Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kyrill are the true blasphemers in this story?
If you know Martin Mosebach, you will know that he does not want to cater to such obscure figures. He should rethink his argument.
Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: Splendid desperation