After the tragic events in Paris on the 7th of January, the director of a major weekly magazine declared that democracy gives the right to blasphemy. Such a radical statement of freedom of speech may seem shocking, but is a long-standing practice within the French culture going back to the Enlightenment, Voltaire being the emblematic figure. Tolerated under the Ancien Regime, it was adopted as a principle in the Declaration of human rights and became effective with the abolition of the blasphemy law in 1830; it was confirmed in 1905 in the legislation on the separation of Church and State.
Of course we are all in favour of freedom of conscience (thus freedom of religion) and of speech, whether in words or caricatures. Minorities in France such as Jews and Protestants have paid a very heavy tribute because of its absence. Though double-edged, satire even with regards to religious matters can be healthy and thought-provoking! But ‘one cannot scoff at everything and deride what is left’ without measuring the consequences of one’s action. Contempt, scorn and disrespect towards someone and their belief or world and life view is to be regarded as irresponsible behaviour and reveals a total lack of consideration for one’s neighbour. This of course doesn’t imply that we should avoid challenging one another nor should we shy away from a healthy debate. Ideas matter and are of paramount importance. We are what we think. But the principle of the love and respect of one’s neighbour implies that we consider carefully both the content and the form of our speech and caricature.
In fact, French law establishes limits to freedom of speech. One can for example be sued for abuse and slander, for discrimination and racism as well as anti-Semitism and revisionism. Why then such complacency in French culture and legislation towards offences against religious belief? Since the Enlightenment, divine transcendence has gradually been excluded from the public sphere. A contemporary thinker recently said that one of the major differences between the American and French Revolutions was that the latter lacked any reference to God. Conceived on a purely horizontal level, it was an expression of humanism. As a consequence, religious belief is incompatible with a man-centred world and life view and its present resurgence creates perplexity and hostility among many of our contemporaries. Since the sense of sacredness is considered as unreal at best, as a speech event and as fiction it should have disappeared from the cultural and social environment by now! Apparently humanism doesn’t account for an essential aspect of reality, the invisible world with God as its apex. The freedom of blasphemy can thus be seen as an illusory attempt to negate and even to eradicate it!
That’s why beyond the question of freedom of conscience and of speech (however important they may be) the real issue at hand is related to what constitutes the foundation of a civilization. As André Malraux said prophetically many years ago: ‘The nature of a civilization is made up of the sum of what is brought together by a religion. Our civilization is unable to build either temple or tomb. It has the obligation to find an ultimate value or to decline and fall into decadence.’ If we are to meet the challenge of the Islamic religious world and life view and its drifts towards violence and terror, humanism with its rejection of the supernatural reality, so well illustrated in the ideology underlying CHARLIE HEBDO, will not suffice. It is thus of paramount importance for the French and European cultures to rediscover their Judeo-Christian roots and to place the infinite and personal God who has not kept silent at the centre of its value system, including the key notion of the separation of religious communities and State.
Professor Emeritus, Faculté Jean Calvin
Chair of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians