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defence of Williams for blasphemy in 1797, who insulted the law, and the foundations of the law, by giving the prosecutors. before the trial a notice to produce—what do you suppose ? — “the book described in the indictment to be the Holy Bible !" Much of the interest in the future progress of the “History of Civilisation ” must have disappeared, now that the real literary and intellectual character of its author has become known !
Has, then, the law a right to restrain offensive attacks on religion ?
“No!” says the lover of liberty; “OR,” he says, “IF you interdict the use of such weapons, interdict them equally on both sides. Restrain the employment of invective, sarcasm, contumely, and other intemperate means against irreligious opinions, if you forbid their use in opposition to the prevailing, that is, the Christian opinion.” This ground is taken by Mr. Mill and others. Mr. Mill says, “If it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity than on religion. It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either.” So, it is asked by an anonymous writer, as to “ those who would punish blasphemy because it is offensive to believers, will they similarly punish believers for language offensive to those of other creeds, with equal virulence and wilfulness?"
Now, it would be mere disingenuousness, a. mere evasion, were I to profess myself satisfied with the alternative offered of an equality of treatment to be extended to the defamers of Christianity, and the supposed defamers of unbelief. I shall not shelter myself under any such compromise. Part of my argument, indeed, will be, that there is nothing in unbelief to defame. It is plausible, but utterly false (as I shall hope to show), to assume that there is room, or material, here for any bargain. The man who rejects religion has nothing to offer which can entitle him to put the Christian under terms. There is no subject-matter for an exchange! The offence (supposing the fact of an offence to be established) is all on one side. How can any one defame infidelity, which, in its
very nature, abjures all claim to veneration, and which says, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die!” Its own description of itself confesses that there is no sacredness in it to desecrate. It may be arguable theoretically whether Christianity is or is not true, and the unbeliever is not sought to be precluded from denying its truth; but if I establish, as I hope to do, that Christianity may, for certain limited purposes, be
, treated by the State as it would be were it certainly known to be true, then we must take its own description of itself, and, according to that description, it offers sanctions with which disbelief has nothing to compare,-against which it has nothing to set-off ; sanctions which are of such a nature that an attack upon thein may be indecent-may be profane ; sanctions, moreover, which being profaned, there is no longer even equality (as I shall show) for Christian opinion (that equality which the unbeliever himself insists on), but a gross inequality, to the unfair hindrance and disparagement of those opinions.
The arguments which establish, as I conceive, the right to visit blasphemy with legal penalties, are of two kinds. One class of arguments is derived from the essential nature of Christian doctrine, and the intrinsic difference between their sanctions and those of infidelity (if the latter can be said to claim any sanctions). In other words, from the very nature and character of Christian opinions, they occupy, in regard to protection from the State, a preferable position to disbelief. The other line of argument is either historical, or bases itself on existing facts. *
Before submitting to you the arguments that have occurred to me, there are certain admissions which may be most readily
* I need hardly say that in using the term “infidel,” or “infidelity," I adopt the term merely as a convenient form of expression, without the slightest intention of inflaming prejudices, or affixing any stigma. I use the term "infidel” in the merely negative sense of “ Non-Christian,” except where the context shows that the stricter import of a disbeliever in God and a future state is intended. For the practical purposes of the argument it is sufficient to say, that in this country the persons who claim a right to blaspheme belong only to the latter class. The writer has therefore not thought it worth while (in this following Mr. Mill) to encumber the paper with allusions to the exceptional cases of Deists, Jews, and Mahomedans.
and unhesitatingly made, and which will assist in clearing the ground of the controversy.
Thus, I need hardly say, I admit that a human being is not accountable to others for his religious belief. I admit that, as between man and man, or between man and society, each individual for himself is entitled to “ absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.” I admit that this complete liberty belongs to all, whether Christians or not. I admit that
only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.”
The right which the law asserts, therefore, is not a right to persecute any opinion. Beyond even this, it is not right to enforce any opinion. It is not right to prohibit any opinion. It is not even right to prohibit the publication of any opinion, as an opinion, provided there be decorum and respect. It should, therefore, be clearly understood that it is altogether inappropriate to adduce in the present argument such examples as that of the Mussulman not permitting pork to be eaten, or the Hindoo beef; Spain prohibiting Protestant worship or a married clergy; the Persians forbidding temples ; the Puritans denying worldly amusements; or the Socialists disallowing the appropriation of more than a rateable or sufficient portion of wealth.
The line of argument which I first venture to submit, is derived, as I before said, from the very nature and character of Christian opinions. The essence of the Christian's faithmay I be permitted to say?-is God, a future state, a revelation, sin, redemption, and a final judgment. Now, I admit that, in so far as we claim a right to punish the ridicule of Christian tenets, on the ground of their Divine character, we deny Mr. Mill's theory of the perfect equality of opinion in the just view of liberty, and assert or insist on the soundness, or the right to assume the soundness, of our own as against those of the infidel, though we claim no right to persecute or be intolerant. If the law cannot take cognizance of the fact that Christian opinions have, or claim, Divine sanction, it cannot, on the mere ground of their alleged orthodoxy, deem the irreverent
aspersion of those opinions a crime; or supposing that the law could so treat it, then, upon the hypothesis I have mentioned, it must equally punish any contumely of the opinions of the infidel.
This, then, is the position of the argument:-There is no attempt to proscribe freedom of opinion, as such ; and, for the purpose of the enjoyment of that freedom, it is agreed to be assumed, that the opinions commonly deemed orthodox may prove wrong, and those of the unbeliever sound. But, when the greater licence of derision and reproach is claimed, those who refuse to concede it rely, though not exclusively, on the assumption that there is something in the protected creed which the State is at liberty to take notice of, as entitling it to that protection, and that in this respect the creed of the infidel cannot be treated as on a level with it. Undoubtedly, then, I am concerned to show that the sanctions of Christianity are matters which the State, i.e., the nation at large, may, for some purposes of police, inform itself of, without unduly infringing on what all allow to be the just liberty of opinion, and, therefore, of infidelity.
I shall desire to consider this question in a manner and on grounds strictly logical, without calling in aid matters of feeling and sentiment, which, however legitimate, and even necessary in a Christian view, opponents could not be expected to share in.
Now, one thing, at all events, it may be expected the objector to our laws against blasphemy will concede :—The questions involved in religion may be of eternal moment.
His own proposition is, that we can never be sure of our opinion being a sound opinion, or another's a false one. He says, that we cannot call any proposition certain, because we are not the judges of certainty. He says that creeds fluctuate, and that we find an improvement in the character of successive creeds. Now, this being his own view of opinions generally, he will admit that the Christian may be right, when he declares that religion is of eternal moment, and that Christianity furnishes the means of knowing what are the obligations, what the perils, and what the rewards of religion.
It is, therefore, a fact, which no licence of opinion can dissemble, that a most serious, indeed an awful choice, is presented when the rival opinions are Christianity on the one hand, and infidelity on the other. To say that this is a case merely of opinion against opinion is deceptive. Granted, for the purpose of argument, that either may be true, yet there is this difference—the one offers nothing, entails nothing, involves no risk of losing any thing; it is a simple negation, and presents a mere blank : the other warns, promises, and holds out consequences of never-ending importance to every one to whom the choice is tendered.
Now, does it not flow from this, that the treatment which the mass of opinion ought to receive, must be such as is suitable to the more complicated, as well as to the simplest, of the two sets of opinions ? in other words, ought to be measured by the conditions of that opinion which involves responsibilitywhich professes to involve loss, deprivation, perdition; and not merely of that which claims to produce no sanctions, and entail no consequences.
The two sets of opinions, in other words, exist under altogether different conditions. There is an atmosphere in which the one set of opinions could not live, even as opinions, which, nevertheless, would be quite compatible with the vitality of the other set of opinions. Reverence is essential to the one, but it is altogether indifferent to the other. What, then, does the very liberty of opinion itself require, on which the objector prides himself ? It requires that these several rival opinions should be allowed to exist under conditions suitable to each. It is not equality, not liberty, to deny to the more complicated opinion any other range of existence or of action than that which suffices for the balder one. This being so, the State, rightly enough, is called upon
to take notice of each of these rival sentiments, and to allow them due play. It learns, therefore, the nature of each opinion, and the sanctions which it claims for itself. It is called upon to take care not to interfere unnecessarily with the propagation or action of either set of opinions. It agrees to do this. It sees the tremendous seriousness in particular of the Christian