Many in the West have spent the week and a half since the shootings in the offices of Charlie Hebdo rehearsing the same conversations about Islam and the concept of blasphemy that have been cropping up regularly since 14 February 1989. One theme that appears with regularity in these conversations is that the elite culture of the West has been generating a continual flow of extreme blasphemy, mostly directed at Christianity and its symbols, for over two centuries.
I think this is true, but I haven’t recently seen what I think is the obvious conclusion to draw from this fact. As a result of all the anti-religious talk and imagery that has been booming out since the Enlightenment, the educated classes in Western countries are divided into two large categories: nonbelievers, for whom “blasphemy” is a word that cannot have any meaning; and believers whose faith has survived so much mockery and insult that they cannot seriously suppose that any further blasphemy will pose an urgent threat to anything that needs preserving. Neither category can sympathize with the demand for prohibition of blasphemy that emanates from the Muslim world, as embodied for example in the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s tireless advocacy of an International Convention Against Blasphemy, much less with the extreme violence that marginal figures like the gunmen in Paris employ to penalize blasphemy.
If freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate,” and we in the West, believers and unbelievers alike, do not in fact hate blasphemy (though believers certainly dislike it, and nonbelievers can often see harm in it,) then it is no wonder that phrases like “free speech” and “freedom of expression” have come to sound like dirty words to many who live in societies which have not experienced hundreds of years of irreligion.