This column is the first (and probably the last) occasion I’ll have for using the word “contumelious.” I came across it while reading old blasphemy statutes. The one passed in 1697 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony reads, “Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, His creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.” The word is used the same way in the Maine statute.
Contumelious is closely related to the more commonly used “contumacious”; they both spring in part from the Latin word for swelling (as does “tumor”) and by extension pride, but contumacious, which now means “stubbornly resistant to authority, or rebellious,” has lost its explicit component of pride. Not so contumelious. It, too, relates to a flouting of authority, but in a brazen and insolent way. After all, it takes chutzpah to abuse the sacred. That is, if one believes in the sacred.
Some of our states still have blasphemy laws on their books, although it’s unlikely they would withstand judicial review. And a quarter of the world’s nations outlaw blasphemy. The percentage is highest among Muslim countries: 70 percent of countries in the Middle East and North Africa do, as well as Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan. But so do Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Italy and Greece, although one doesn’t hear of enforcement in Europe.
Historically, in human societies the distinction between the sacred and the profane was one of the reality-organizing dichotomies, along with clean and unclean and ours and alien. “Profane” didn’t mean obscene but ordinary (the word literally means “in front of the temple”). To profane was to treat the sacred with no more respect than the ordinary. In U.S. legal practice, profanity gradually got detached from blasphemy, but it entered our law that way.
Leonard W. Levy, who ended his academic career as Distinguished Scholar in Residence at SOU, wrote extensively on blasphemy and constitutional law. His most comprehensive work is “Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie” (1993). When he treats blasphemy in the context of law, he opposes prosecutions not only on the grounds of freedom of speech and church-state separation, but also for their tendency to confuse blasphemy with other issues, like heresy, obscenity, and breach of the peace.
Most of us, I think, would agree with Levy. Respect for others should urge us to be tactful, but their capacity for outrage shouldn’t establish the legal limits of our expression. And if a personal divinity does exist, surely being divine means that he/she doesn’t require our defense. But apart from the law and theology, one can regret a cultural inability to distinguish the sacred from the profane, “Silent Night” from “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” And to those who say that the distinction is fundamentally self-delusional, one might reply that it’s fundamentally contumelious to assert that what transcends our comprehension cannot exist.
Religion is an unreliable check on human arrogance because it’s a human construct. But in the presence of the sacred, we know that not everything is permitted.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.