Archbishop: Scrap Blasphemy Law, Protect the Sacred

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said he supports repealing the current blasphemy laws in Britain but insisted that new legislation must replace it to protect the religious.

Just as many have called the current law outdated, Williams agreed and said it was "unworkable." Although he gave no objection to scrap the blasphemy laws, the Anglican leader said "extreme behaviors" should be punished.

And recently introduced laws banning incitement to religious hatred may not be adequate if the blasphemy laws are scrapped, Williams indicated.

"The law cannot and should not prohibit argument, which involves criticism, and even angry criticism at times," said Williams on Tuesday during a lecture entitled "Religious Hatred and Religious Offense."

"But it can in some settings send a signal about what is generally proper in a viable society by stigmatizing and punishing extreme behaviors that have the effect of silencing argument," he added.

Williams' lecture comes after the Government announced plans to abolish Britain's ancient blasphemy laws, which were originally passed to protect Christianity. Before doing so, officials urged consultation with the churches, particularly the Church of England of which Williams is the head.

Senior Baptist theologians and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, have already expressed their support to end blasphemy laws.

Some have called the law unjust in a religiously plural society, considering that the provisions of the ancient law were designed to prevent giving offense to members of the state Church only.

While supportive of repealing the law, Dr. Nigel Wright, principal of Spurgeon's College, gave caution.

"We also need to learn as a culture how to engage in intelligent and civil debate. It would be a pity if tidying up a piece of outmoded legislation led to the idea that nothing is sacred," Wright said, according to Baptist Times.

Challenging the liberal argument that free speech must always prevail, Williams raised the question of what society would be like if insensibility to the religious or to those of other faiths goes unquestioned.

"It is one thing to deny a sacred point of reference for one's own moral or social policies; it is another to refuse to entertain – or imagine – what it might be for someone else to experience the world differently," he said.

"And behind this is the nagging problem of what happens to a culture in which, systematically, nothing is sacred," he said.

"The uncomfortable truth is that a desacralized world is not, as some fondly believe, a world without violence, but a world in which there can be no ultimate agreement about the worth of human or other beings."

As Britain looks to repeal the old law, Williams suggested that they not miss the opportunity of asking the larger questions about "what is just and good for individuals and groups in our society who hold religious beliefs."