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Blasphemy is dead. Long live blasphemy
The "marketplace of ideas" was nice while it lasted
The European court has overturned the prison sentence handed down to a feminist who interrupted a Catholic Mass at the Madeleine church in Paris, topless, and simulated “aborting” Jesus before urinating on the steps of the altar.
Hurrah for free speech and the marketplace of ideas? For some decades now, those most committed to the “marketplace of ideas” have celebrated the idea that we can enjoy a free speech right to say offensive things about religious faiths.
In truth, though, the only reason the Western liberal order managed a relatively free ‘marketplace of ideas’ was that it was still underwritten by what Matthew Arnold called the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of shared Christian faith. For as I argued a little while back at UnHerd, it’s not possible to have a functioning society without restrictions on speech and actions that violate that society’s sacred values. For without some sacred values, you don’t have a society, just chaos and conflict. This is still understood by those Muslim believers who react with anger (and sometimes worse) when nonbelievers insult the Prophet.
So when you try to order a society along pure liberal lines, which is to say without sacred values, the result is disintegration. So now the Christian the‘Sea of Faith’ has withdrawn to the point it’s little more than a muted murmur, new contenders are jockeying for the opportunity to install their theological order in the rubble left behind.
Much is made in this light (especially on the Right) of the ‘threat’ of ‘radical Islam’. But it’s not the only religious game in town - and to my eye, it’s not the one that will win. This is, after all, a society committed to self-actualisation, that employs technology so advanced it might as well be magic, in order to escape our collective limits. It’s a people collectively conditioned to worship ‘The Science’ as spiritual dogma. And Islam is every bit as averse to (and theologically at odds with) this spiritual landscape as the Christian faith. In this context, a putative Islamic theocracy will face an uphill battle in the West.
To go with the flow of where people are today, you’d need a faith dedicated to radical individualism and self-actualisation. One that celebrates the free play of individual desire, that spiritualises the individualistic war on limits, and centres and celebrates the use of technology to win that war - in our bodies as well as the world. And indeed, something very like that is now clambering out of the phenomenon previously known as the gay rights movement.
You may scoff. But if something looks a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And when a movement with an instantly recognisable symbol, a distinctive metaphysics (identity precedes biology, all desire must be celebrated) and a calendar of feast days celebrated by governments, corporations, universities and public bodies acquires the ability to punish those who deface its symbols, the only possible thing you can call it is an emerging faith - one with a tightening grip on institutional power across the West.
For while European courts will uphold a protester’s right to piss on a Christian altar, there have been numerous cases of British police visiting individuals who express gender-critical views. Graffiti on a Bristol rainbow crossing prompted a hate crime investigation. In America, meanwhile, Atlanta police felt so strongly about the defacing of a rainbow-painted street intersection they sent a SWAT team to arrest the man they suspected of defacing it.
Of course it remains to be seen whether this faith will prevail, or be replaced by something still newer and stranger. The point is: forget the marketplace of ideas. Forget the secular interregnum. It’s over: even if you personally are still among the number mumbling about civil debate and tolerance, you’re surrounded by a growing array of factions who don’t play by those rules.
Sacred values become institutionalised as sacred, when true believers pull out all the stops to make that happen. And we’re back in an age of true believers. The phrase ‘post-liberal’ usually refers to an amiable, tweedy, vaguely Catholic-adjacent longing for a future of greater civic cohesion, underwritten by soft social conservatism; but the real post-liberal age is already here. And it’s not the tweedy vision. It’s a new era of schismatic, dogmatic, heretic-punishing religious war.
In actually existing post-liberalism, your worldview will be granted as much space as you’re willing to fight for, and no more. Blasphemy is dead; long live blasphemy. Plan accordingly.