Near the end of this bracingly provocative and forcefully argued book, Austin Dacey quotes a dictum of Nietzsche’s: “And ever again the human race will from time to time decree: ‘There is something one is absolutely forbidden henceforth to laugh at.’” Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the 1979 film comedy. Featuring a young Jewish man who is mistaken for the Messiah, the film was condemned by a variety of religious groups and banned from being shown in a number of British cities. Though some attacked it as blasphemous, the film actually belongs in a genre of iconoclastic satire. But there can be no doubt that it offended the sensitivities of many believers, and for that reason alone it would be practically impossible to make anything like it today.
In a twist that illustrates how religion continues to be at the heart of public debate, what was once punished as blasphemy is now being condemned as a violation of human rights. As Dacey writes succinctly, “Blasphemy has been reframed within the secular idiom of respect for persons.” Understood in the past as disrespect for the Deity, blasphemy has been turned into a lack of respect for human beings. The European Court of Human Rights has asserted a universal “right to respect for religious feelings,” while the United Nations has condemned anything that could be categorized as “advocacy of religious hatred.” We have reached a state of affairs in which acts that used to be defined as sacrilege against God are being criminalized as disrespect for humanity.