In an article entitled ‘Beleidigung Gottes oder der Gläubigen?’ (‘Offence Against God or the Faithful?’), published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on July 25th, 2012,1 the German ‘philosopher’ – in my view rather a philosophaster – Robert Spaemann avers that ‘something is wrong’ (‘Irgendetwas stimmt nicht’), because German law allowed that which is most sacred to the religious citizen to be publicly mocked, ridiculed, and dragged through the mud (‘mit Schmutzkübeln ügergossen’) with impunity. He considers it an affront that according to German law, this is only (!) punishable, if it endangers public peace.
He then proceeds to compare Christianity with Islam. Only the latter now enjoyed, writes Spaemann, protection by law, since Islam, in contrast to Christianity, reacted violently to offence. Christians, on the other hand, confined themselves to peaceful protest, so that offence against their religion would not be construed as an endangerment of public peace. Christians had always accepted the state’s monopoly upon the use of violence. Even though the Roman authorities had forced Christians to worship the Emperors’ statues and killed the ‘confessors’, they had never allowed themselves the degree of infamy, as it were commonplace today, as to that which were most sacred to the Christians and which they died for.
Hereupon, he asks three questions to be answered:
(1) Ought offence against religion to be punishable, and if so, why?
(2) What, exactly, are the relevant elements of the offence?
(3) Ought penalties for offence against religion to be draconian or mainly symbolic? Whose honour is the law supposed to protect: God’s honour or the faithful’s?
As we did not live in a theocracy, Spaemann concludes that God need not be protected, but those humans to whom God mattered. They needed to be protected, since they were offended more severely by offence against their religion than against themselves.
A state could not expect its citizens to feel as a part of its community, unless it protected that which be most sacred to them.
After this, Spaemann makes two specific and outstanding statements:
(i) Those to whom the offence against religion be so important that they are willing to pay the price of having a criminal record, ought to pay it.
(ii) The penalty for offence against religion ought to be twice as much as for offence against a human.
He admits that there need be some scope for judicial discretion, since otherwise absurd sensitivity would be rewarded.
The next paragraph outlines an example what, according to Spaemann, would be an objectively justified offence taken. He asks the reader to imagine that somewhere a picture of a gas chamber with the title ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work Brings Freedom’) would surface in which there would be countless half-dead frogs. No one, Spaemann alleges, would deny that the offence taken by people would be objectively justified. He equates this to mocking the victims of the Holocaust.
Finally, he maintains that since Christianity belonged to the most important routes of our civilization, it needed special, effective protection by law. He also mentions that the Grundgesetz (an improvised constitution written when the Bundesrepublik Deutschland [German Republic] was founded, and originally to be replaced by a full constitution later; Germany still has no constitution to this day) placed itself in an affirmative relation to faith in God, when speaking of the founding fathers’ responsibility before God. The constitution of North Rhine-Westphalia defined ‘Ehrfurcht vor Gott’ (‘reverence for God’) as an obligatory target of school education. Notwithstanding, legislation with respect to religion confined itself to the protection of the faithful’s feelings, not the object of these.
The last paragraph deals with Spaemann’s own perception of a sign he saw at the entrance of Notre Dame in the seventies. It read, ‘Respect for the feelings of those who deem this cathedral a holy place’. As the cathedral were the property of the Church, Spaemann thinks this ‘a scandalous declaration’ and ‘a too extreme expression of French secularism’. The sign had been replaced by a more appropriate one.
He ends his article by stating that the state need not ignore its unwritten preconditions, and could not garantee them, either, but that it could treat them with care, which were its duty. This, in turn, entailed effective protection by law.
I shall not restrain myself to false politeness. Spaemann’s article is the epitome of delusion and paranoia. Even though Germany is one of today’s most secular nations in the world, the state regularly and systematically violates the principle of neutrality in favour of Christianity, in particular the Catholic and the Protestant Churches. Huge amounts of taxpayers’ money are given to them every year in addition to church tax. Religious education – Catholic or Protestant – is a compulsary school subject the main goal of which is proselytization, and the schedule of which is made by the Churches alone. The Churches are exempted from general industrial law, and are allowed their own law, resulting in extremely poor working conditions for their employees, although the Churches pay only tiny amounts of the costs of their own institutions. Many jobs in the public sector are officially Catholic or Protestant and require employees to convert to the respective Church. Angela Merkel publicly announced that we needed God as a moral compass.
The more important point is, though, that in a state neutral in regard to worldviews, there can be no place for privileges for any specific worldview. Nothing can be exempted from either criticism or ridicule. Whatsoever people may deem holy, it will only be holy from their perspective. According to the principle of equality, if any view be exempted from criticism or ridicule merely because it is proclaimed holy by someone, all views proclaimed as such would have to be exempted from criticism and ridicule. This is a classical reductio ad absurdum.
Furthermore, as Muriel Silberstreif points out correctly in his article, it is impossible to offend religion. Spaemann appears to be only slightly aware of the difference, or at least distinguishes between them only now and then, between religion, construed as a specific faith, and people’s relation to it as an object. ‘Truth’, ‘reality’, ‘meaning’, and so forth are abstract objects, concepts, which are indifferent in the sense that they have, indeed cannot have, any feelings.
As regards public peace, I must sincerely ask what, exactly, endangers public peace: offence given by atheists, agnostics, or whomsoever else, or rather offence taken by the faithful? If someone says that they disagree with me, or insult me, it is up to me how to react. I can take offence, shout, insult them in return, perhaps sue them, or even use violence against them. That something be special and precious to me, however, does not justify or even allow me to attempt to silence them, just because they disagree with me upon my views. You can criticize and ridicule my views (and character traits) all you want: my mixture of humanism and misanthropy, my philosophic-scientific naturalism, my post-revolutionary democratic communism, my individualist feminism, my extreme sensitivity, my sarcastic-cynical humour, my taste in music, and so on. The right to disagree with and to point out mistakes in other people’s views is essential for an open society. If something appear ridiculous to you, you may laugh at it.
And, needless to say, few things could be further from being true than the contention that Christians had always granted the state the monopoly as to the use of violence. Throughout Christianity’s history, Christians have used and abused the authority of the state for their own purposes. Instead of respecting the state as the highest authority, they have insisted upon their own authorities to be accepted as such.
Moreover, Spaemann’s statement (i) can be easily reversed: those to whom their religion is so important that they are willing to pay the price of taking offence ought to pay it. And statement (ii) specifies the adequate severity of punishment arbitrarily. How, that is to say, by what measures, does Spaemann determine what is an appropriate penalty? He gives no argument whatsoever.
Besides, Spaemann’s following example of what would doubtless be an objectively justifiedly taken offence is not even remotely as clear as he deems it to be. Such a picture could, for instance, be used so as to demonstrate what humans do, day by day, to other species. We make them work for us, we make them suffer, and we kill them for all kinds of reasons which only relate to ourselves: because we want to get rid of them, because we want to eat their meat, because we want to make all sorts of things of them, or just for our own sadistic pleasure. Myriads of animals are systematically tortured and killed every day by humans. Why? Because we can. We do this even to those animals which (or should I say: who?) most resemble us, sensitive and intelligent beings. Only those who, in spite of all available evidence, still consider humans special in the sense of better than other living beings could take offence of such a picture or comparison.
Also, just because, from an historical point of view, Christianity has shaped our culture to a great extent, it does not deserve any special treatment. Rape has also shaped our culture, and so have aggression and violence, humanism, atheism, agnosticism, medicine. Do they need or even deserve special protection or privileges? Certainly not. That the Grundgesetz as well as the constitution of North Rhine-Westphalia affirm faith in God is an historical accident; you cannot always argue that because something be the case, it ought to be (and stay) thus.2 That religious education is a compulsory school subject is simply a violation of the principle of neutrality.
I am not sure what Spaemann wants to tell us by his anecdote as to the sign at the entrance of Notre Dame. There is no such thing as a too extreme secularism. Indeed, ‘secularism’ simply denotes the separation of government and religion, which belongs to the essential fundamentals of an open society. Therefore, it is not the state’s duty to protect certain views from criticism and ridicule, but, on the contrary, to protect the whole of society from those who aspire to impose their own views upon everyone else without having to face any opposition.
1. Spaemann, Robert: ‘Beleidigung Gottes oder der Gläubigen?’; published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on July 25th, 2012; http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/robert-spaemann-zur-blasphemie-debatte-beleidigung-gottes-oder-der-glaeubigen-11831612.html.
I first came to know of this article via Muriel Silberstreif’s article ‘Die doppelte Strafe ist angemessen’: https://ueberschaubarerelevanz.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/die-doppelte-strafe-ist-angemessen/.
2. The so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’ only partly applies, to be sure. Of course, what ought to be follows from what is, but in a different sense than the concept of the naturalistic fallacy has it. For instance, it can only be ethically obligatory not to inflict pain upon others, if there be others, pain, and the view that the latter, from an inner perspective, be something undesirable.