A man, protesting because a cinema screened a film he objected to on religious grounds, claimed, “I have a right not to be offended”. On every possible ground, that’s a piece of egregious nonsense.
From a legal standpoint, in the UK, no such right exists. This was made clear in 1979 when protestors against the film, “The Life of Brian”, managed to secure 39 local authority bans. Their ‘success’, however, contributed to the film’s becoming, that same year, among the highest grossing films in the UK and the USA. I think that’s what’s called a “Pyrrhic victory”. That someone feels “offence” does not entail that any crime has been committed against them.
From a moral standpoint, no such right exists. “Offence” is a subjective emotion which is not objectively ‘caused’ by anything other than personal choice. Sensible people will choose not to get trapped into the bondage of ‘offence’, but instead will get on with the necessary practicalities of their lives. Sticks and stones, (or guns and bombs), may break people’s bones but films, as such, can never harm them.
From a philosophical standpoint, any such ‘right’ would open the door to absurdity. One person’s being “offended” by a film could lead to another person, a fan of that film, choosing to be “offended” by such “offence”. If both people have a “right not to be offended”, and if ‘being offended’ can itself lead to others ‘being offended’, what kind of a logistical quagmire does that leave us floundering in? We couldn’t even decide to stop saying anything to anyone, in case our silence might itself cause “offence”! God deliver us from all such asininity.
The last person in the UK to be hanged for “blasphemy” which gave ‘offence’, was a twenty-year old Scottish divinity student, Thomas Aikenhead, who, like many a student before and since, in discussions with his peers, gave vent to views calculated to ‘stir the pot’. Someone reported him. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to death, even though the statute called for execution only for a third offence. On appeal, it was decided he could be reprieved only if the Church of Scotland, then meeting in General Assembly, interceded for him. On the contrary, it advocated “vigorous execution” to set an example to “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”. Well, that certainly set an example, but neither one of justice and mercy, nor of compassion and common sense.
Blasphemy ceased to be a criminal offence in England and Wales in 2008, and in Scotland in 2021. Northern Ireland remains the odd one out. Apart from language clearly designed to incite hatred or violence, no political or religious party, church or person ought ever be protected against the same degree of scrutiny and criticism which can be applied elsewhere. There should be no ‘special cases’.
Disagreement ought to be dealt with, not by attacking people, but by setting out the evidence, and debating the issues. Religious people should take note of God’s own invitation to any and all gainsayers – “Come now, let us debate your case” (Isaiah 1:18), and “Present your case. Bring the best arguments you have!” (Isaiah 41:21) Socrates was surely right in saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Similarly, it is surely also the case that the unexamined belief is not worth keeping. Descartes might add, ‘If in doubt, chuck it out”. And Julie Andrews might well suggest, “Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start”. Back to square one can often have a lot going for it.