The Importance of Blasphemy

September 23, 2009

There are many historical myths with which we like to comfort ourselves. One myth that appeals to Americans is that ever since the founding of our country we have been strong supporters of individual rights and fundamental freedoms. After all, shortly after we adopted the Constitution we also adopted the Bill of Rights, which prohibits government interference with speech and government establishment of religion.

But in 1801 the ink was not even dry on the Bill of Rights when Congress adopted a law for the District of Columbia that prohibited blasphemy. The first offense was punished by the boring of the tongue of the offender, the second offense by branding of the forehead, and the third offense by death. Blasphemy, by the way, encompassed not only any denial of God, but any denial of Jesus as "the Son of God" or the denial of "the Godhead of any of the three persons" of the Trinity. Remember this the next time you watch some uplifting documentary about the Founders.

But so what? Even though blasphemy was prohibited by most of the states throughout the19th century, and blasphemy laws remain on the books in about six states, for the last fifty years or so these laws have been considered unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Two points. Although blasphemy may not, at present, be legally prohibited in the United States, many still hold the view that criticizing religion is socially unacceptable. Religion is considered a taboo subject.

I disagree. Placing religion off limits in social discourse is just another, gentler way of prohibiting examination and criticism of religion. In my view, all subjects of human interest should be open to examination and criticism by humans.

Is nothing sacred? Yes, nothing is sacred, not even atheism. (Please go ahead and decry atheism; we can take it.)

Second, as many of you may know already, blasphemy remains very much a live legal issue in many countries --and therefore, remains a live issue for anyone concerned about human rights. Call a Teddy Bear "Muhammad" in some Islamic countries and your risk losing your head. Moreover, there have been repeated efforts --successful efforts I might add --to have various United Nations bodies condemn so-called "defamation of religion." This is a prohibition of blasphemy by another name. ( CFI published an informative paper by Colin Koproske and Austin Dacey on this issue in 2008 and it remains highly relevant.) The resolutions passed so far have not been binding on member states, but our understanding is that another resolution on "defamation of religion" will be introduced in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly this fall. (This committee addresses social and cultural issues.) We don't know its exact working yet, but there may be an effort to have this resolution binding as a matter of international law. One would hope that the United States and other Western democracies would block this resolution by some means, but who knows? In an era where people are so concerned about "offending" others, shielding believers from comments that might trouble them may be valued more highly than free speech.

Protecting the right to "blaspheme" is important because we can't consider ourselves truly free unless we are free to express our views on any subject.


#1 Edwardson on Thursday September 24, 2009 at 7:39pm

Any of the Four Horsemen’s works could end up being pissed upon, torn up, and burned and my only concern would be the waste of paper. Needless to say I don’t find any atheist’s work sacred or beyond critique. There are no sacred truths. Only the search is sacred. Buddhism seems to be the only major religion to understand this: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!”

“Blasphemy” shouldn’t even exist. There are no supernatural beings that have taken offence. (There are? Really now. Show me.) Instead blasphemy translates to “You’ve trampled on my beliefs, my ego is too frail, I think too highly of my worldview, I can’t let you get away with and so I’m going to rip your heart out!” The Abrahamic traditions would do well to sit before the Buddha and learn about humility, turning the other cheek, and hacking the ego.

#2 Evan (Guest) on Monday September 28, 2009 at 8:22pm

Yah right, God is so mad at you for using his name in vain, even though he created you knowing full well you would do it
And what kind of all powerful entity can get its feelings hurt? By a mere mortal even!

#3 Believer (Guest) on Thursday October 01, 2009 at 3:20am

The thing about blasphemy is no laws are needed to protect God’s Name!
The offence is against God and He protects His Name - he doesn’t need human assistance!
I would remind you that ultimately your fight/cause is with God (whom you don’t believe in) and not man!
So the outcome of your cause will be ultimately settled between you and the Maker!
I would only advise you to depart from your present cause, but whether or not you do is ultimately between you and God!

There is a Truth that stands regardless of whether you believe in it or not - can prove it or not!

But if you are willing to gamble on your own intellect in light of the awesome reality that is the earth, the solar system, the milky way and beyond, then so be it!

#4 mhdmhd on Friday October 23, 2009 at 10:19am

your understanding of religion as another interests to humans is wrong in the first place. Every single thing someone created it or make it ,in case of humans (among all other things had been created), GOD created them ,he makes them he, knows how they work so he makes some kind of manual to know how they can live.If you are a “tv set” wouldn’t your manual be the most important thing in your   existent .Does not mean that someone tampered with this manual to suit their needs ,to make people do things they are not supposed to do that this manual/religion is corrupted and in your case all religions. so someone supposedly searched every religion for truth and all he got people who lies who wants to manipulate him to their own benefits then he starts to hate all religions and then starts to attack other religions believers and cover it with “individual rights and fundamental freedoms”,If someone cursed someone he will be angry and sometimes will be more angry if he cursed his father or someone he loves so what do you expect ,what he should have done is search more for the truth not to take the easy way out ,that would let him know better who is saying the truth and who in not.
You are searching for mistakes in every religion and forgot to search for your own religion , your own way of living how do you expect the right to criticize religion when you do not have one.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.