“God save the King !”. Every Saturday afternoon when we were kids, we went to the “pictures”, the double-feature movies plus cartoons and the indispensable “serial”. Like everyone else in Sydney’s cinemas, I had to stand and sing this prayer – for it is a prayer – before the show could begin. A thing now of the past. But in the U.S., just a few years ago, I was astounded to have to do the same thing in a theater before “The Pirates of Penzance” could get under way. (I was, I think, the only one among all those Americans who knew the words.) The Gilbert and Sullivan ritual has been preserved in the rebel colony up to this day.
God and monarchs have had a long association. From time immemorial, the King, if not considered and worshipped himself as divine, was next in importance to the deity, and often His High Priest. Naturally enough, God was seen as a King, in fact the King of Kings (Catholicism’s “Christ the King” is faithful to this tradition) and was revered, and feared, because of His regal power and authority. Subjects of the monarch knelt before him. Catholics still genuflect in church. They and other Christians may stand but often kneel to pray; Muslims go so far as to prostrate themselves entirely. No one today, I understand, kisses the Pope’s slipper, but the to-be-knighted still kneel before the sovereign. God and royalty demand, if they do not always deserve, respect.
Understandably, both the celestial monarch and the terrestrial could not tolerate disobedience or even disrespect. Royalty is in your blood, if you happened – as God is not – to be equipped with veins. Human monarchs do not get elected to the throne. It is theirs by heredity, if not Divine Right. As a King, you may be accessible, affable, generous and just – like Solomon – but even if you exceed your authority by adultery and murder – like David – you can always count on God’s, if not your subjects’, forgiveness. But Heaven help those who commit lèse-majesté. Might has always been right for Kings and Queens. The Kingdom could crumble if you don’t keep your house in order, people in their place, and taxes coming in. Ipse dixit (“He hath spoken”) : it is enough for a monarch to decree; there is no need to debate or negotiate, except, of course, with fellow-royalty (most of whom are your cousins anyhow). Insubordination, let alone revolt not to say revolution, sire, are to be put down, whatever the cost, and severely punished. God sends people to Hell. A King has no qualms sending people to the gallows. Which is why the people, during revolutions, sometimes paid him in kind.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. Nor dare defame or denigrate royalty. There is, however, a huge difference between blasphemy or atheistic satire, and disrespect for, or mocking of, the man or woman on the throne. The latter is real, the former a figment of imagination. It makes a certain amount of political sense not to tolerate lèse-majesté, although today as a product of hard-won people-power and democracy, caricaturists, cartoonists, stand-up comedians and sit-down journalists who dare to criticize royalty, are no longer sent to the Tower or the Conciergerie, hanged, drawn and quartered, or, more mercifully, guillotined. But it makes no sense at all to refuse to accept, to reprimand or to punish “blasphemy”.
A monarch may not, as we have said, deserve respect and allegiance, and only the brave would, and did – in days gone by at least – dare to rebel. But how can a non-existent deity deserve either respect or allegiance ? In some religious societies today it is still dangerous to profess atheism, or even to practise non-conformity to supposed divine legislation. The minimum punishment in some religions today is ostracization or excommunication; in others it is torture, imprisonment, amputation or lapidation.
Insulting a living person, failing to respect anyone, whether a simple citizen or an elected official, chief of state or reigning monarch, is reprehensible. But what could possibly be wrong with ridiculing a product of human imagination ? An outrageously funny French film become a cult-movie regularly re-run on television, is entitled “Le Père Noël est une Ordure” (“Santa is a Scumbag”). Like you, I used to believe in Father Christmas. But now we know he’s a fabrication of modern marketing, what can be wrong with sending him up ?
I can imagine only one answer : to protect the child-believers from the truth, as long as possible. Why destroy such a lovely myth ? By what right would anyone dare to show such indifference, such cruelty towards innocent, naïve children who believe in Santa ? “Primum non nocere” (“First, do no harm”).
Must we respect their belief ? Most of us do, knowing that it will be short-lived anyhow. But must atheists respect the belief of believers ? Are there limits to the respect we owe them, and to our right to proclaim that their God is a Santa in another suit ?
I have said in other Reflections that some atheist-authors not only refuse to proselytize but to say anything that would offend the respect which belief in God, and more important, believers in God, they say, deserve.
I beg to differ. My brief is that people deserve to be liberated from illusions. The world is not flat. The Sun does not revolve around the Earth. You should not build your family budget on winning the Lottery. You should not believe everything car salesmen, politicians and priests tell you. You deserve my respect to the point that I would like you to at least question why you believe in Heaven and Hell, prayer and Purgatory, divine creation and pie in the sky when you quit this mortal coil.
I once heard an atheist say to another : “See you at the stake !”. We have no monopoly on intolerance.