‘In the beginning was the Word…’
The Gospel of John 1:1, The King James New Testament (1604-11)
What a brilliant piece of linguistic chicanery that is. In the beginning was the Word. Word one, and the New Testament theocracy has already claimed ownership of all language. Next, before you know it – OK, quite a bit after ‘in the beginning’ but still roughly a third of a millennium before the authorised King James’ version cometh – came the word ‘blaspheme’ which begat ‘blasphemer’ and ‘blasphemy’. Having borrowed it on permanent loan from Middle French, the medieval church in Britain adopted the words into the English canon. This word, these words were the answer to an honest churchman’s prayers, the perfect answer to any doubt and dissent. To be on the safe side another loan word of mass adherence, ‘sacrilege’, was also acquired for the lexicon from la langue française médiévale at around the same time. And, yea, the organised religious establishment grew richer and ever more powerful.
Don’t worry..! That rattling introductory paragraph is no more than scene-setting. The lexical concern here is neither with unpleasant histories nor theology. And, rest assured that this is not an attack on faith, any faith; faith is whatever it is, whatever you believe it to be; if you have it you have it, so be it. This is intended as no more than a brief consideration of the word ‘blasphemy’.
OMG! ‘Blasphemy’ has been weaponising vocabularies since the 13th century. This is a word that gets people killed.
This blog has evolved from a ‘what if’ dinner party conversation. In the beginning was the soup and wine had most certainly been taken.
“What if … if you could, no, if you had to, like, ban one word, remove it from the dictionary, erase it entirely, what would that word be?”
It was only a slight diversion and we, the dinner guests, were expected to conform. “Pick a word, any word…”. It’s right up there with “What is your favourite kid’s telly programme?” in the vexed questions section of first world problems. Obviously, whatever was said at the table wasn’t going to change the world. No need to take it seriously. I didn’t have to mean a word I said. But who am I kidding? Words matter. Playing the game I plucked a word from the air, almost at random, one that I could well have noticed in something I had read earlier that day.
“Blasphemy,” I said irreverently, lightly enough for it not to sound like a criticism.
Mere moments earlier my dining-neighbour’s ‘yoghurt’ (with an ‘h’) had passed into our Room 101 almost without comment. I wasn’t to get away so lightly. My fault, I know. Words are what I do. On reflection, I shouldn’t have dunked so serious a word into the ludic fondue.
For a thousand years, give or take, ‘blasphemy’ helped keep Britain on an all-purpose Christian straight and narrow: thus was society structured and the human conditioned. Convinced by the righteousness of faith, with ‘God’ on their side, the hierarchy committed acts of violence and execution with a will to persuade those less pious to the prevailing point of view. And the church had a ready-made one-word case for the prosecution: ‘blasphemy’. In a time and a place when there is no choice but to be a part of a ‘one true faith’ any variance can only come from within, and that is blasphemy. It’s an in-house crime. ‘Blasphemy’ (how can we know it exists?) can only be the deviation of believers. Yet, as history passed, the ‘one true church’ and its faithful schismed, split and non-conformed into nuanced faiths and royally political affiliations. Each new path was adopted with religious fervour. This was the ‘one true’ etc. which effectively made blaspheming non-believers of us all, one way or another, depending on your point of view. No matter whose ‘House’ you found yourself in.
The word ‘blasphemy’, deriving from βλασϕημία, the ancient Greek word for ‘slander’, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘profane speaking of God or sacred things; impious irreverence’. Well, no neutral definition there. That cap G is a bit of a giveaway. This is a word that is used to render logical or reasoned dissent impossible. An emotive word used for the worst reasons, to reinforce a theocracy.
Faith is a choice. We know that. Religion is a notion. However many people share a vague belief or structured belief system it is still nothing more than intellectual or emotional investment in an idea. Religion is, demonstrably, an optional allegiance, a matter of personal conviction. To an outsider its substance may be nothing more than a fellowship with a lot of real estate and Establishment influence. The one eternal truth is that you don’t have to buy into any particular religion, and there are numberless notions for you to follow, or any religion at all. To be fair, faith may have been foisted upon you; parents want their best for you, and cultures are like that too. You may feel in some part defined by your faith, by your choice to believe. Or you can choose not to.
I confess that I may lack the imagination to imagine an imaginary being in whom to believe. But I reason that those who are confident in their belief should have sufficient imagination and, in the case of some religions, enough well-advertised compassion, to understand my point of view. Not that reason always has a lot to do with it…
Sorry. I digress. Digression, whilst it is not a social transgression, is an almost irresistible conversational temptation.
Religion is in the top three topics best avoided at dinner parties. All the best meal-based communions agree that religion is a non-starter. Conventional wisdom has it that the other subjects to swerve are politics and sex. So, good news for philologists: lexical matters make ideal small talk so long as you take care to avoid the big three. So, perhaps it would be as well for me to take a step back and deal with the word in hand.
‘Blasphemy’. In the beginning was a grunt. At best. An ill-formed ‘ouch!’ as flint hammered down on primitive thumb. What else could it be? And lo! language was shaped, word by word, man by man. And the evolution of the Word was on the face of the earth and it was a good and evil thing. ‘Blasphemy’ is just one of those words; a manmade, unjust word; a weasel word.
For me, alas, the OED definition falls short. The ‘God’ of those august pages does not allow for the manifold gods or prophets, still actively protected and aggressively promoted by blasphemy laws and regulations worldwide. In truth, it is the rights and properties of religious hierarchies that are protected… but, forgive me, we are trembling again on the familiar edge of another digression.
There is a further presumption in the OED definition: a belief in ‘God’ is taken for granted. No room for nuance, not even in ‘impious irreverence’. For me to say that your god, however you understand that being to be, and whom I do not revere, does not exist is not a blasphemous act. Not in my book. Not in my blog. How in hell can I profane a god that does not exist in my understanding of the universe? – and if I don’t believe in a god or the (very) selective teachings and translations of priests and prophets, of organisations and theocracies, then there can be no logical basis for blasphemy by those outside of a faith, either deliberate or accidental. If you wake up one morning and you no longer believe you should be free to express that conviction. But that way lies freedom of expression.
In March 2016 a special U.N. investigator on freedom of religion or belief called for the universal repeal of blasphemy laws, saying that they restrict freedom of expression and promote hatred of and intolerance toward minority religions.
‘Blasphemy’ then is the ‘what if’ word I would remove. An overworked word that has been cultivated in corruption and lies. A word which, despite pretensions to the moral high ground, allows and facilitates the removal of opposition without the need for coherent thought. It is a Christian word, a Muslim word, a Sikh word. It’s not in the Buddhist vocabulary but they too have felt the dull weight of its charge.
Back at the dinner table the ‘what if’ game was abandoned and, in other words, conversation moved on.
Since then though, I have noticed ‘blasphemy’, ‘blasphemous’, ‘blasphemer’, ‘blasphemed’ et cetera almost every time I open a newspaper or magazine. Or so it seems. It may well be that the word is in the world news far too often (which it is) but there’s another word-thing going on here: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is in effect.
In West Germany, in 1970, a militant, revolutionary left wing group was formed. Identified as the Baader-Meinhof Gang (later known as the Red Army Faction) after Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof two members of the group. Convinced by the righteousness of their cause they committed acts of violence and murder to persuade non-believers to the RAF‘s improving point of view. Baader and Meinhof died in prison in an apparent suicide pact in 1977. Their influence on language could not have been suspected. At least not in this form.
The ‘Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon’ is the name given to that occasional effect when you become aware of something and then see it time and time again. Also now called a ‘frequency illusion’, the effect has been around for more years than anyone alive can remember, but, apparently, not given a proper name until 1995. Quite why it was assigned a terrorist ID as classification can only be guessed at. It seems likely to have been coined by someone who had recently noticed a random reference to the double-barrelled ‘Baader-Meinhof’ and, by the time of coinage, kept spotting it all over the place. It’s as good an etymological theory as many.
Now I wonder if my newly discredited blasphemy will also leap out at you from haphazard pages and screens. And, if it does, will your mind connect, unbidden, to the Baader-Meinhof.
Finally, let me assure you, sincerely, that any link herein between ‘blasphemy’ and terrorism is purely incidental. Isn’t it?