June is Blasphemy Month at the Freethinker. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines blasphemy as ‘profane talk of something supposed to be sacred; impious irreverence.’
While ‘blasphemy’ in a strict sense might be confined to words spoken or written in violation of religious shibboleths, it can also be used more broadly of criticism, satire, mockery, ridicule or insult of any deeply-held belief. As such, it can be a weapon of the dissentient individual against the dominant ideologies and received opinions of the day.
‘In our times,’ J.S. Mill wrote in On Liberty, ‘every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship.’ In making the case for the importance of ‘diversity of opinion’ to intellectual progress, he observed that no one person or faction is likely to have a monopoly on truth in any subject, especially on moral questions.
Rather, he argued, ‘truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness … if either of the two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in a minority.’
In our polarised era, perhaps unusually, there are two (or more) sets of dominant opinions and accompanying taboos, depending on which newspaper you read or which political party you listen to. All such taboos, however, are anathema to the culturally liberal, open-minded and freethinking sort of person, whose attitude, rather than any specific opinions, this publication hopes to defend.
What with the unparalleled opportunities for self-expression afforded by social media, no one could say that strong opinions on controversial topics were in short supply. What is less common is the ability to entertain, discuss and criticise different views, and even laugh at them, without suffering the consequences from those who disagree. You might even receive a visit from the police for committing a ‘non-crime hate incident’ and be told to ‘check your thinking’.
This month, we will be construing ‘blasphemy’ in its widest sense and using our freedom of speech, both serious and satirical, to dissect sacred cows of many breeds. Under English law at least, and whatever the Merseyside Police might say, being offensive is not an offence – not yet.