Friday, November 17, 2017
Minimize
 

Blasphemy

Class 33 Syllabus (Text Below)

The blasphemy lecture will discuss the concept of blasphemy, its definition, its relationship to the concept of heresy

Blasphemy’s history in ancient civilizations, classical Greece and Rome, Early and Later Christianity, Great Britain and America, and the contemporary situation in the Mideast and Europe.

Blasphemy prosecutions are on the rise all over the world.

Blasphemy prosecutions rise when religion encroaches on government.

Definitions of blasphemy, heresy.

Blasphemy in the ancient world difficult to ascertain.  Monotheism did not have a monopoly on blasphemy beliefs- Egypt, Assyria, Code of Hammurabi, Epic of Gilgamesh

Reasons for punishing blasphemy, related to community values, order

Western Christian law on crime of blasphemy derived from Old Testament

Judaic view of blasphemy- very serious, horrific crime

Leviticus 24: 10-23  Moses’ decision to stone blasphemers, those who curse or disparage god

The expansion of the definition of blasphemy, but it remained a god centered crime

Classical Athens-

Athens prided itself on freedom of expression and thought

Impiety a strong term in Greece, the word for blasphemy was strong- meaning a terrible crime. Mockery or disrespect for the gods taboo.  Death, exile, or a fine was often the punishment

During Peloponnesian War, Phidias, Aspasia, Euripides, Aeschylus all charged with impiety.  Such accusations were often political

Alcibiades accused of mutilating Hermes’ statues in Athens, mocking the Eleusinian mysteries. Found guilty while at war

The famous trial of Socrates, charged with impiety

Skepticism and free thought blamed for Athens’ decline by many citizens

Rome and Blasphemy-

Roman law more concerned with prohibitions against magic.  Death penalty for magic

Late empire legal treatises seem to prohibit blasphemy

Criminal code often left to magistrates- persecutions of Christians

Controversial theories concerning the blasphemy trial of Jesus

Christianity became powerful religion and persecuted dissenters, minority religions

Council of Nicea 325 ACE- before the council, blasphemy was a serious crime

Took “impiety” phrase from Judaism, the meaning of the word and its sinful connotations

Eastern Orthodox Church very severe about blasphemy

The belief that the Jews were blasphemous and their persecution  Fourth Lateran Council of 1213 stripped them of rights

British Blasphemy Laws-

England and Scotland passed blasphemy laws in the 17th Century

Execution of Aikenhead, a deist, in 1697- last execution for blasphemy in Great Britain.  Prosecutions of John Taylor, Richard Carlile and others

Famous case of Gay News, prosecuted for printing a poem and illustration connecting Jesus with homosexual acts

Mary Whitehouse, a guardian of public morals brought the prosecution, to “protect our Lord”

Editor and tabloid found guilty.  Editor’s penalty overturned

Case helped to create backlash, which began the Gay Humanist’s movement in Great Britain

Failure to repeal Britain’s blasphemy laws until 2008

The Rushdie affair brought accusations of impiety, and a reminder that Britain’s blasphemy laws only protected Christianity

United States

America- a scant history of blasphemy prosecutions

Massachusetts death penalty for Quakers returning to the colony after banishment and severe treatment of blasphemers

Prosecution of Samuel Gorton, 1643.  Went back to England

Small number of blasphemy prosecutions in the United States in the 1800’s. America tolerant of religious beliefs

Deism very popular in 1800’s

U.S. followed English Common Law, and some jurists believed, as in England, that Christianity was part of the law of the land

Blasphemy usually prosecuted if offensive, obscene language, etc.

Last important U.S. blasphemy case- Charles Smith, President of American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, 1928

United States far fewer blasphemy prosecutions than England

Bill of Rights applied to states beginning in 1925; Maryland’s blasphemy laws ruled unconstitutional because in conflict with 1st Amendment

Difficult to define blasphemy vis-à-vis Islam, many different words for different offenses

Statistics on blasphemy trials in Islamic and non Islamic nations

The rise of blasphemy prosecutions all over the world

Encroaching attempts to quell criticism of religion

Closing remarks- Freedom of belief, expression and thought must be respected

(Text)


The references discussed in this lecture can be found in the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture, “An Atheist Perspective on Blasphemy” at atheistscholar.org.

This lecture will discuss the concept of blasphemy, its definitions, and its relation to the concept of heresy. I shall ask your patience as we glance at a kaleidoscope of blasphemy’s history in ancient civilizations, classical Greece and Rome, early and later Christianity, Great Britain and the United States.  Then we shall focus on what some studies and agencies have to say about the contemporary situation concerning blasphemy prosecutions, punishments and executions.  Blasphemy and other prosecutions involving religious issues are on the rise all over the world, particularly in the Middle East. Throughout the world, past and present, a pattern can be observed: when religion has had significant influence on government, there have been blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy charges brought against people, who have often been subjected to torture, imprisonment and/or death.  Such charges are based on people’s offenses against religion.  Secular governments have sometimes had blasphemy and heresy laws in their criminal codes, but a consistent pattern of charging and punishing offenders has come from theocracies, or from nations where religion carries inordinate influence with the secular arm.

This lecture attempts to present a convincing case that such religiously based prosecutions are the result of the influence of religion on government.  For much of our human past, government and religion were either inseparable, theocracies, in other words, or the government was engaged in a continual struggle with religion for hegemony.  The secular leaders usually attained and kept the power, but they often struck agreements, written or by the back door, with religious leaders that gave religion considerable power over citizens’ rights to free expression and free belief.  This lecture is necessarily about freedom of expression and its stifling, which goes hand in hand with religion. I am not engaging in a denial that there have been secular governments which have also attempted to limit citizens’ rights to free speech with severe penalties attached for its exercise. I am not claiming that the closing down of free expression is the sole province of religion and its proponents, but that such restrictions are always present, in varying degrees, with the hegemony of religion.  Among those restrictions, the charge of blasphemy against a citizen is always a violation of human rights.  I plan to make my reasons clear for the necessity to learn about blasphemy and its egregious history.  There is currently a revival of blasphemy prosecutions in the modern world, making the concept no longer a historical curiosity, but a dangerous resurgence.  We shall see its growing strength in many countries and the attempts of obscurantists to stifle the criticism of religion all over the world.

What is the definition of blasphemy?  Ronald Lacey states: “The core meaning of blasphemy is a legal or moral offense consisting of statements that disparage a deity, the deity’s attributes or some person or object considered sacred because of close connection with a deity, such as the Virgin Mary or the Bible.”  There is a difference between the concept of blasphemy and that of heresy, although they have often been mixed together when charges are brought against people by fundamentalists. Bill Cooke defines heresy in this way: “Defined as the crime of holding minority opinions in a closed society, heresy is not the same as blasphemy, which traditionally involved reviling the name of god or outraging fundamental religious sensibilities.  Heresy is the profession of unacceptable doctrines while accepting the fundamental tenets of the faith.  This means that heresy is always relative to whatever orthodoxy is being defended. It also means that heresy is very largely a problem confined to cultures dominated by a monotheistic brand of religion or universalizing ideology that is not prepared to brook any rival interpretation of reality.”

Our facts concerning the ancient world are necessarily scant, but the concept of blasphemy and the corresponding notion that it should be punished predates the classical world of Athens and Rome, which we shall be looking at shortly.  In pagan societies, blasphemy was always a risky enterprise, and sometimes a fatal one.  It is important to remember that monotheistic religions did not have a monopoly on the notion of blasphemy or the belief that it should be severely dealt with.  But with the practices of Judaism and Christianity in the past, and currently, with the practice of Islam, the extreme severity of the punishment for blasphemy seems to be most associated with monotheism.

Leonard Levy, an expert in the history of blasphemy, explains that the ideas around which the fear and hatred of blasphemy center are similar for both polytheistic and monotheistic cultures.  Here is his analysis. Societies influenced by religion have the notion that blasphemy offends the divinity or divinities, or those objects which are deemed sacred to that divinity. Therefore it also offends the priestly caste, the beliefs, often deep-seated, of believers, and the values that are shared by the community. Punishing the blasphemer sets an example and a warning for others not to repeat the offense, but it serves other important purposes as well.  Punishment is believed to avert the divine wrath that the community that tolerates blasphemy might suffer: plagues, crop failures, earthquakes and so on.  Punishment is a confirmation of what priests and believers have said was the truth on matters of faith, and reaffirms the communal norms.

It might seem odd to unbelievers that societies that imagine the existence of an extremely powerful deity would not also believe that such a deity can well defend itself.  Why should the deity, being offended by mockery or defamation by a blasphemer, not be able to visit punishment on the offender alone, rather than the entire community?  This is the rational outlook.  But let us keep in mind that religious belief is usually irrational.  Ignoring an offense against the god or gods would seem to sanction it, and could positively encourage others to repeat it.  Tolerating blasphemy might endanger belief in sacred truths when nothing adverse happens to those who commit it; the unity of society is threatened.  There is also the issue of public outbreaks against the unpunished blasphemer, and even against those who tolerate him.  If the official law does nothing to punish the offender, people might be tempted to take the matter into their own hands, creating dissension within the society.

Leonard Levy states that: “…fundamentally the blasphemer invites punishment because society regards his scandalous crime as a form of high treason against the highest powers of the universe.  Even societies that cherish liberty have denied it to blasphemers.”  It is only recently in human history that many societies no longer consider blasphemy a serious wrong deserving of severe, even capital, punishment. We shall see, in the course of this lecture, that in the modern world, many countries continue to punish blasphemy harshly and as I remarked earlier, there is a growing tendency in some countries to revive the old blasphemy laws and conduct prosecutions based on them. There is a movement on the part of some societies to revise those statutes to make them stronger, and even to pass new, more Draconian laws. Religion is once again demonstrating that it is obscurantist in its very nature and a hindrance to human progress and flourishing.

Now I would like to glance at ancient societies’ attitudes concerning blasphemy.  It is not a simple matter, because many early civilizations did not have what we consider a comprehensive criminal code.  We do not know if religious tribunals judged matters of blasphemy.  We are unsure if there were distinctions made between blasphemy and sacrilege, say concerning an action such as stealing from a temple, a theft most offensive to a deity.  But was such a theft considered blasphemy?  It is clear that blasphemy, if not a grave offense, was a perilous enterprise. Legal codes are only partially preserved from early cultures, so we are not clear about whether blasphemy was considered a crime in some societies or how severely it was punished.

However, we can make inferences. I am most grateful for the following examples researched by Ronald Lacey in his article on Blasphemy, which may be referenced in the Bibliography at the end of my written lecture. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the deceased must assure the god, Osiris, that he has not done certain actions, and a list is provided for that purpose.  If the deceased has committed acts on the list, he may not gain immortality.  One of the requirements is that the petitioner must assure Osiris that he has “not blasphemed a god.” There are some fragments from the Assyrian Code that seem to imply that blasphemy was a very serious offense in Assyria. A false accusation of blasphemy earned the lying accuser forty blows with a staff.  Oddly enough, the rather primitive code of Hammurabi contained no prohibition of blasphemy, so the question remains; was blasphemy not censured as a crime or was it handled by religious courts or other means?  In the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, his friend, is killed after the two heroes insult the goddess, Ishtar.  What may be assumed from the fragments that survive is that blasphemy was taken seriously and punished harshly in many important early civilizations.

Before we focus once again on polytheistic societies, I would like to glance at a monotheistic and theocratic culture, ancient Judaism, and its attitude toward blasphemy.  We have a great deal of evidence for that society’s practices because of information gleaned from the Old Testament and from the Talmud.  The Western, Christian law on the crime of blasphemy is derived from the Old Testament. Prohibition of blasphemy was a divine ordinance supposedly revealed to Moses for the governance of the Israelites, shortly after the appearance of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 22:28 states: “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.”

 Leviticus 24:10-23, cites a crucial decision rendered by Moses.  A man who became angry during a quarrel cursed god. “He blasphemed the name and cursed.” Pronouncing the sacred name of god which is conventionally rendered as Yahweh, inappropriately or carelessly, was bad enough, but to curse god was an intolerable crime. The affect surrounding the personal name of Yahweh was extremely high.  The name was held in awe by the Israelites.  Levy suggests that they probably believed it had some magical properties which they associated with the giving of life and with miracles.

 The original prohibition contained no prescribed punishment, so Moses had to make the final disposition.  The matter was more complicated because the man was a visitor, not a resident. God instructed Moses that “who blasphemes in the name of the Lord shall be put to death.”  The law applied to visitors as well as residents. Moses was supposedly ordered by god to bring the man who cursed out of the camp and the community was ordered to stone him.  It was Leviticus 24:16 that fixed the precedent for punishing blasphemy as a crime in Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Judaic definition, or concept, of blasphemy was expanded after a while, as illustrated by the incident of 701 BCE, when the Assyrian leader, Rab-Shakeh, taunted King Hezekiah’s ability to save Jerusalem.  The Assyrian said that god would deceive Hezekiah by promising Jerusalem would not fall.  Hezekiah’s people tore their garments as a sign of grief and horror, on being exposed to this blasphemy.  The king, who also tore his clothes, sent for Isaiah, the Prophet, who assured him that the only true and living god would save the city.  Biblical accounts say god sent an angel, likely a plague, and 185,000 Assyrians were destroyed.  Assyria retreated.  The Rab-Shakeh tale demonstrates a broadened interpretation of the crime of blasphemy, wider perimeters for what was considered disrespectful utterance, rather than the original one of simply cursing god.  However, blasphemy remained a god-centered crime.

King Ahab (d. 851 BCE) was in league with Jezebel, his Phoenician princess wife, to put worship of Baal in place of Yahweh among the Israelites. The narrative relates that when a man named Naboth would not sell his land to Ahab, the two monarchs concocted a false charge that Naboth had cursed god and the King.  He was found guilty of blasphemy and stoned.  Oddly enough, one would think that the Israelites would think twice about treating blasphemy as a stoning, or killing offense.  This story from their scriptures demonstrated how easy it was for the statute to be subverted.  Apparently they found that it was better to have abuses concerning the blasphemy law from time to time rather than risk offending the deity.

Now we shall move to classical Athens, during the 5th Century Age of Pericles, the great general, orator and leader. Athens prided itself on its freedom of thought and expression.  Let me be clear on this point: some of the most liberal city states of Greece, particularly Athens, had admirably open societies.  Philosophers debated the nature of god and the cosmos, what constituted the good life, and other topics freely. By the 5th Century BCE, Athens had reached a pinnacle of cultural excellence that no society would equal for nearly two thousand years.   But a risk to its open discussion and expression emerged with the threat to Athens’ hegemony in Greece. When war and decline began to weaken Athens, its blasphemy laws were invoked and used to silence dissenters.  That is why this lecture will insist on the revocation of all current blasphemy statutes, even those that are forgotten and ignored. They can be revived from their dormant state and brought to bear on the most virulent of prosecutions.

The Greeks had invented a pantheon of god and goddesses in their own image, complete with the undesirable traits of unrestrained anger, jealousy, sexual escapades, vanity and so on. Their gods were believed to be very powerful, not to be trifled with. Even though Athenians could criticize the state with impunity, it was forbidden to criticize or reflect upon the gods. Impiety was the word the Greeks used for the notion of blasphemy.  It was a very strong word in the original Greek, denoting something horrific and wrong.  Violation of the taboo could put even the most eminent citizens in jeopardy.  Athenians could not mock or repudiate the gods, or defile the customary manner of honoring them.  Athens had regular civic holidays for the most important gods, in which all citizens were expected to take part.  Not participating placed people under suspicion of impiety. 

As I have commented, there were many infractions of the laws about honoring the gods, with the prohibitions breached time and again by various writers, philosophers and others. However, despite the fact that such violations were frequently ignored, the law stated that the act of dishonoring the gods, showing contempt for the gods or depraving or disrespecting holy matters or objects were all instances of impiety.  During uneasy times, society could use those laws to intimidate and punish those citizens who disobeyed them. That is just what happened during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BCE, which we shall discuss in a few moments.

Anaxagoras (500- 428 BCE) was probably the first free thinker to be condemned for his beliefs.  Around 450 BCE, his conviction that a superior intellect had designed the world, rather than the mythic, flawed gods, resulted in his being placed in a dungeon and charged with impiety.  Pericles, the powerful and pre-eminent Athenian statesman, had been Anaxagoras’ pupil and he undertook to defend the old philosopher.  Pericles was a superb orator and his defense of Anaxagoras probably saved the thinker’s life. Anaxagoras had to pay a fine and lived out his days in exile.  Exile was better than death, but at that time, Athens was considered the center of culture, and to be banned from residence there was a kind of cultural death.

Pericles successfully defended his mistress, Aspasia, from impiety charges.  But he failed to exonerate Phidias, the greatest sculptor of the classical era.  Phidias had designed the Parthenon’s interior as well as sculpted the huge statue of Athena that dominated it.  Athena was the patron goddess of Athens.  Phidias carved figures of Pericles and himself on her shield, in this way signing the work as his and honoring his patron, Pericles.  Athenians were furious at Phidias’ pride and with his impiety; because they believed he had profaned the protecting goddess of the state, and so implicitly attacked his city-state, itself, an offense akin to treason.  Around 433 BCE, Phidias died in prison, while awaiting his trial.  Anyone who has seen and appreciated his work will likely find the state itself had committed impiety against both art and the sculptor, who was most likely Greece’s greatest artist in stone.

Euripides, one of classical Athens’ three greatest playwrights, wrote work that was on the verge of impiety.  Belief in the gods was wavering among the public, and he consistently stripped the gods of their dignity.  His play, Hippolytus, which seemed to cast doubt on the sanctity of oaths, finally passed the tolerance level of the authorities.  However, Euripides evaded punishment by demonstrating that the oath in his play had lacked divine sanction.  He is rumored to have left Athens and lived out his life in Macedonia.  Aeschylus, the writer, was earlier accused and defended himself from the charge of impiety.  He, too, was one of Athens’ most important playwrights.  The facts have not survived concerning his case, however. Many of Euripides’ and Aeschylus’s plays have survived, are performed and studied in the present day. They still rank as some of the greatest works in the Western canon.

During the war between Athens and Sparta, called the Peloponnesian War, from 431- 404 BCE, Athens and Sparta contended for Greek supremacy.  Many of the accusations of impiety at that time were very political in nature, as those accused were often associated with the powerful party of Pericles.  His enemies conspired to bring his domination of Athens to an end; those close to him, or associated with him, were often attacked on religious charges. War hysteria began to alter Athenian society.  In 417 BCE, a law was passed, forbidding the teaching of atheism.  Dozens of important people were accused of impiety.

In 413 BCE, Athens was preparing an expeditionary force against Sparta, when the city awoke one morning to a frightening and horrendous discovery.  Someone had mutilated most of the statues of the god, Hermes, son of the greatest god, Zeus.  The Herms had been cut about their faces and a historian hinted that they had been castrated, as well. Such a far-reaching act seemed as though it must have been a conspiracy. Alcibiades, a wealthy, rising statesman and general, was suspected of being behind the mutilation of statues, an act of horrendous impiety.  Remember, impiety was the Greek word for blasphemy.

Unreliable informers soon brought word that Alcibiades was to blame.  The city of Athens had felt in jeopardy previous to this crime, and during the heightened atmosphere of Hermes hysteria, a new impiety was discovered.  Informers now accused Alcibiades of parodying the Eleusinian Mysteries at a drunken party.  He was said to have played the part of the high priest, revealing and mocking the very secret and sacred rites.  Alcibiades was important and well connected in Athens, so when he demanded a trial, it was postponed.  While at war, he was condemned in absentia of both impiety and trying to overthrow the government.  His property was confiscated and he was condemned to death.  Alcibiades joined the Spartans and fought against Athens when he heard the verdict.

The reign of terror continued, catching the philosopher, Protagoras, in its net.  The esteemed philosopher was over 70 years old and a distinguished teacher of rhetoric.  He confessed at a public reading of his book, “On the Gods,” that he had become an agnostic.  He said: “As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist.” Athens, previously so rational, was afraid the gods would punish the city, so the people burned his books.  He fled, but perished in a shipwreck.

Diagoras of Melos, a poet, was considered an atheist.  He threw a wooden statue of a god into the fire, saying the heroic deity should provide another miracle.  People were so terrified by this act, they began to associate Diagoras the Atheist, as he was called, with the so-called conspiracy to profane the mysteries.  He fled and lived out his life in Spartan territory.  It is ironic that Sparta became a haven for some Athenian dissidents.  Such a turn of events was a form of political theatre.  Sparta was not known for culture but for prowess in war.  It was considered a cultural backwater, superstitious and narrow-minded.  Athens had fallen very far when it began to condemn its best citizens of impiety and some of them were forced to find refuge in Sparta.  It was a sad decline for free thought and speech in a city state that so proudly had proclaimed its superiority over the rest of Greece.

The final victim of war hysteria, declining superiority and consequent conservatism, both religious and political, was the famous philosopher, Socrates.  He drank a cup of hemlock in 399 BCE.  That was his death sentence, meted out by the citizens of Athens, the city he loved so much that he refused to save his life by being smuggled out of prison and going into exile.  A life away from Athens was no life at all for him. He chose death instead.

Plutarch, the historian, said of Socrates that he had “lost his life because of philosophy.”  Socrates could be considered, as Levy calls him, “intellectually subversive.”  He had a list of unfortunate connections that helped condemn him as well.  Socrates had been the friend and teacher of Alcibiades.  Alcibiades, even though brilliant and talented, had a reputation for drunken, unruly and unrestrained behavior. The charge of mocking the Mysteries might have been true; his escapades were notorious.  Socrates had also been the friend of Critias and teacher of Charicles, both heads of Athens’ ruling party for a time.  These two men were responsible for killing more Athenians, most of them from the democratic faction, than the Spartans had in battle. Socrates did not take part in the reprehensible actions of any of these statesmen, but he was not an admirer of democracy and the fact was well known. 

His teaching method, conducted everywhere in public, was to question a concept, say morality, and by probing questions, make his participants aware that they had no true understanding of the terms of the idea being discussed.  His practice was ostensibly an attempt to arrive at some notion of the truth, but often led to an admission by the participants that it was difficult to evaluate and know the validity of accepted beliefs.  Many scholars believe he was the first proponent of a morality that was based on individual conscience, rather than laws, even when such laws had been democratically composed.  He said that he answered to a daemon, an inner voice, or necessity.  But he professed not to know how to arrive at morality, and was an unconventional religious person, whose interrogations shook people’s faith in conventional beliefs and religion.  He was seen as destructive and subversive.

Socrates was put on trial for impiety.  It was said that he had corrupted the youth of the city, did not believe in the gods of the state, and advocated his own gods.  There was no way that the jury would have found him innocent, but they were very closely divided.

Prosecutions for impiety sent Socrates, Phidias and Protagoras to their deaths, and caused the exile of Alcibiades, Anaxagoras and Diagoras. Such egregious cases are illustrations of what happens when religion, supported by the state, is given the ability to forbid free speech and enlightenment.  Notice that there is no recorded proof that any of those men had insulted the gods or reviled them. It is equally obvious that many of the charges had a political motive behind them.  In ancient Greece, treason against the gods was often regarded as treason against the state.  Many citizens, however, were more amenable to accepting a charge of impiety against someone rather than treason against the state.

During the slow decline of Athens, many of the so-called impiety charges were brought against intellectual dissidents.  Freedom of speech, thought, literature, art, politics and philosophy were placed in the stranglehold of impiety, or in other words, blasphemy.  Athens, originally the center of culture for much of the known world at that time, continued to bring impiety charges against people for many years.  In 323 BCE, the famous philosopher, Aristotle, fled the city after being indicted for impiety.  He had written an inscription for the statue of a political patron comparing him to the gods.  He left, or fled Athens, he claimed, so “Athens would not sin against philosophy twice.”

Such events probably contributed to the philosopher, Epicurus’ decision not to deny the existence of the gods, but instead to suggest that they led lives of complete bliss somewhere in the ether with no interest in humans.  Epicurus maintained that people did not have to concern themselves with the gods, but he was most careful not to denigrate them. He, too, like Aristotle, belonged to the 4th Century, when impiety continued to be a dangerous undertaking.  Epicurus remained cautious enough to note in his journal his participation in every civic festival of Athens. (See How Atomism and Lucretius made the Renaissance Modern at AtheistScholar.org for more discussion of Epicureanism.)

Many citizens equated the social stresses of their city-state with the religious skepticism of many of its intellectuals. Skepticism was blamed for Athenian decline.  Blasphemy laws were conveniently invoked to rid the city of its most illustrious and provocative thinkers, artists and writers.  We remember and revere their names and their work to this day, and the names of those who tried to silence them have sunk into the dust of history.

Scholars have found that for most of classical Rome’s history, the law was more concerned with magic and sacrilege rather than blasphemy.  In fact, the Twelve Tables of Roman Law said nothing about blasphemy but put the death penalty in place for any person trying to sing or compose incantations to harm someone.  However, one can find legal treatises from the late Empire that would seem to prohibit blasphemy.  Rome was a society with an extremely complex and understandable code of civil law, but with an undeveloped criminal code.  It was left up to the magistrates to set the punishment for offenders.

It is important to keep this fact in mind when studying the persecution of Christians, as many of them engaged in what might be considered a form of blasphemy.  Until the Emperor Decius, around 250 ACE, there were not specific laws aimed against Christians.  There were only slight legal references to “offenses against the gods.” The scholar, Geoffrey E.M. de Ste. Croix, has argued that it is a mistake to try to find a particular legal foundation for the persecution of Christians, such as blasphemy or other charges.  He states that the only things needed were: “a prosecutor, a charge of Christianity, and a governor willing to punish on that charge.” (Please see The Early Christian Church and its War on Reason” for more on the exaggerated claims of persecution by Christians during the Roman Empire.)

Christians would not offer incense or oaths to the gods in court, which in practice were more loyalty oaths to the state, rather than religious statements.  They openly maintained that the pagan gods did not exist, as well as stating that if the gods did exist, they were not deities but demons.  The general populace, who wished for continued favor in the eyes of the gods, became enemies of the Christians, whom they saw as insulting the gods.  Insulting the gods was considered a form of blasphemy although the Romans did not call it by that name.

I would like to briefly segue to the trial of Jesus, or rather, the purported trial of Jesus, because the accounts of it relate to both blasphemy and Roman law.  This is a difficult subject, because there is so much myth and legend surrounding the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that it has become difficult to ascertain if any of the tale is true.  Fine scholars such as Robert Price believe that the entire Jesus narrative is fiction.  Indeed he calls the story of Jesus’ trial and execution “the Crucifiction!”  Jesus was brought to trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin on the charge of blasphemy.  Believers find the story plausible and think that Jesus’ putative trial for blasphemy was the worst blasphemy trial in history.  It is certainly the most famous, followed by the aforementioned Socrates trial.

There are problems concerning the blasphemy narrative in the Gospels, as well as with the entire story about Jesus’ trial and conviction that have yet to be accounted for.  Both the Mark and Matthew Gospels maintain that Jesus was tried for blasphemy.  Yet Jesus’ own words, reported in the New Testament, do not accord with his saying anything blasphemous.  Death by stoning, if you remember, was the Jewish penalty for blasphemy, not Roman crucifixion. Skeptics point out that the Sanhedrin had not tried anyone before for blasphemy. They argue that it would have been highly unlikely for the Romans to care about Jesus insulting a Jewish, rather than a Roman god.  Some scholars assume Jesus was executed for a political crime against Rome.  The blasphemy charge was likely made up by the writers of the Gospels to vilify traditional Judaism. The Gospel authors were Christians and there was increasing hostility, venom and acrimony between traditional Jews and the new Jewish Christian sect. (See the Devil, Part 1 at atheistscholar.org for more information on the tensions between traditional Judaism and Christianity.)

I mentioned earlier that St. Croix and other scholars have pointed out that Roman magistrates had great leeway in passing death sentences on offenders.  Pontius Pilate, they maintain, could have sentenced Jesus to death for disturbing the peace in his area.  If you recall in an earlier lecture, The Early Christian church and Its War on Reason at atheistscholar.org, the magistrate, Pliny the Younger, acted in just such an arbitrary manner when Christians were brought before him.  He found they had not done anything illegal, and described their religion as a superstition. Yet he sentenced those who would not renounce Christianity after three queries to death.  His sentence was more of a peacekeeping gesture in the area rather than an actual charge against Christians. The incident happened in the 1st Century ACE and underscores the free hand given to Roman magistrates.

When Christianity became dominant in the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century ACE, the Church began to persecute pagans and dissenters in its turn. It did not offer a general tolerance, which reinforces what we know to be religion’s consistent practices when it attains power. Interestingly, blasphemy underwent changes in definition and importance under Christianity. Before the Nicene Council in 325 ACE, the word, blasphemy, was rivaled by the designation, impiety, as the name of the crime against the deity.  Greek was the language of choice for terminology and expression of thought in the early Church.  If you recall, the Greeks defined blasphemy as any sort of ill speech, verbal abuse or defamation directed toward the gods, especially profane speech against them. The word, impiety, has a soft sound in English, vaguely meaning something lacking piety or irreverent. But as we have learned, to the Greeks the word expressed speech or writing that was shocking and abhorrent against religion.

However, in very early Christianity, impiety or blasphemy, began to acquire various and complex meanings. It began to connote more than simply cursing or reproaching god.  It soon commenced to signify the breaking of the unity of Christendom, and its true faith.  Any utterance that deviated from that faith was deemed to be impiety or blasphemy. Before the precepts of the Church had become dogma, before there was a formal Roman Catholic Church, before any canonized New Testament, or the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, blasphemy was considered the cardinal sin.

But by 400 ACE, the word began to be considered an epithet and was additionally confused with heresy.  As Christianity became more powerful, it lost no time persecuting blasphemers, heretics, and people from minority religions. The state was pressured to cooperate in forcing all its citizens to worship the true Christian Church and embrace all its doctrines, since no salvation was to be had outside of its purview. This practice has been repeated over and over in history.  The Catholic Church preferred to try and convict offenders on the charge of heresy more often than the charge of blasphemy.  But the accusation of blasphemy was also used, sometimes added to other charges, and sometimes on its own.

If you recall from some of my former lectures, early Christianity was not in the least a monolithic institution.  There was a plethora of sects that designated themselves as Christians.  It was only gradually, with the acquisition of hegemony, that the Catholic Church became centralized and monolithic, and that doctrine passed into a fixed rigidity. One of the Church’s ways of achieving unity was by persecuting and murdering members of the sects that were potential rivals for supremacy, such as the Gnostics and the Cathars.  During the long period of achieving unity, the Church did not define blasphemy, and punishments for it were rare. It was the crime of heresy that was clearly spelled out. As we have learned in the lecture on the Inquisition, there were many ways to accuse dissenters of heresy and severe penalties, often death, resulted from a conviction for it.  The word, blasphemy, nearly disappeared as a legal concept.

The idea of blasphemy was a very different matter in the Eastern Empire of Byzantium, where the Orthodox Church was dominant.  Emperor Justinian I sponsored a massive codification of the laws, called the Corpus Juris Civilis, which was a large influence on later legal provisions in Europe. According to Levy, its statute on blasphemy, dating from 529 ACE, alleged that “famine, earthquake and pestilence” recurred because of a failure to punish blasphemy, which “provoked god’s wrath.”  The Orthodox Church believed that blasphemers could lose their souls, but it still fixed the punishment for blasphemy as death, so that those who blasphemed could be “brought into anguish.”  When Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire in Central Europe in 800 ACE, he retained this provision, as did his successors.  Blasphemy was severely punished, but the word usually became mixed with heresy charges as time went on.

It was Thomas Aquinas, the 13th Century theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, who fixed the definition of blasphemy and provided a rationale for its punishment. Aquinas was the Church’s greatest theologian during the Middle Ages. He argued that “blasphemy is a greater sin than murder because it is committed directly against god,” whereas murder is merely “a sin against one’s neighbor.” Aquinas hastened to deny that blasphemy would harm god, but nevertheless, “the gravity of a sin depends on the intention of the evil will rather than the effect of its deed.” Ronald Lindsay states that in this passage, Aquinas “manifests the thought process of many religious believers through the ages.” Aquinas was most likely more concerned about heretics and blasphemers infecting the faithful and tempting them to stray from the faith, rather than about any evil will against god.

Levy states that while Christian offenders were customarily considered heretics, it was the Jews who were officially labeled as blasphemous in the late Middle Ages.  Beginning with the 13th Century, the Popes habitually described Jews as blasphemers. The Church identified Jesus Christ as god.  No greater blasphemy existed than rejecting Jesus, except the greatest sin of all, deicide, killing god.  The Jews were believed to be guilty of both crimes.

Aquinas and later theologians decided that Judaism was in an unusual position.  Jesus had prayed for the Jews and their existence proved the truth of the testimony from the Bible.  So even though the Jews did not understand their Bible, according to the Church, they were the guardians of it, and it had spoken of Christ’s arrival.  The Church decided to tolerate the religion, and wait for the conversion of the Jews. But in the meantime, Jews themselves, with their blasphemy against god and his mother, could not be tolerated, even if their religion could be. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 stripped Jews of their civil rights and they were persecuted and murdered everywhere in Europe.

Ostensibly, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th Centuries, helped undermine the concept of heresy.  By presenting a viable, prosperous and active alternative to Catholicism, the Protestant religion, as it became established, demonstrated that moral and civic order did not need to rest on one exclusive creed.

However, the use of the word, blasphemy, was often substituted for the charge of heresy, as offences against religion were not tolerated by Protestants.  Early Protestants brought as many prosecutions for blasphemy as their Catholic foes did for heresy.  Part of this practice was due to the Protestant dislike of using the word, heresy.  Heresy charges were leveled at Protestants too often for the Reformation leaders to feel comfortable with using the word. So when the Protestant hierarchy was faced with alternative or unacceptable religious views, it generally characterized them as blasphemy.  The charges of blasphemy, rather than heresy, made no changes to the severe punishments blasphemers/heretics endured.  Such distinctions were not any help to, and did not lessen the terrible maiming, imprisonment, and executions those people suffered who embraced opinions presumably offensive to the Christian god.  Blasphemers and heretics, alike, felt the same pain when whipped, had their tongues slit or cut out, or when burned at the stake.

Now we shall turn our attention to the history of blasphemy in Great Britain and America, where in the present day, progress has been made concerning the use of blasphemy as a criminal charge. Then we shall glance at the worldwide increase and interest in charging citizens of various countries with blasphemy, heresy, apostasy and similar religious crimes.

England in 1695 and Scotland in 1661 both passed blasphemy laws.  Thomas Aikenhead was the last person executed for blasphemy in Great Britain in 1697.  The Scottish law specified that an unrepentant denial of god or the Trinity should be prosecuted.  Aikenhead, a Deist, had recanted but was executed just the same. In England, blasphemers were actually tried under common law, law made by the judicial branch of the government and based on precedent.  In 1676, John Taylor called Christ a whore master and religion a cheat.  Chief Justice Thomas Hale decided Taylor could be tried and punished because Christianity was “parcel” of the English common law.  Dozens of people were prosecuted for blasphemy after Hale’s decision.  There were no executions for the offense, but there were prison terms.

Of interest to Americans, Richard Carlile received a six year blasphemy sentence in the 1800’s for publishing and selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. The English government went beyond the customary concept of blasphemy as a crime of insulting the deity.  It was decided that blasphemy was dangerous for the faith of the lower classes and threatened morality.  Once again, it is quite obvious that the government and the religious authorities were working in tandem to deprive people of their civil rights.

Britain abolished its blasphemy law in 2008!  Before that, the statute created a situation that led to a famous case in 1976.  In June of that year, Gay News, a bi-monthly journal that aimed at a gay readership, published a poem by James Kirkup, called “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name.” It was a 66 line free verse narrative told through the voice of the Roman centurion who pierced Jesus’ side to hasten his death on the cross.  The poem claimed that after performing sodomy and fellatio on Jesus’ dead body, the centurion experienced both physical and spiritual love and became a convert to Christ. Imaginative mention was made of Christ’s previous acts of same sex love with some of the apostles. The poem was printed on a full page of tabloid-like paper, with an illustration on the facing page.  The illustration was of Jesus on the cross, with the centurion behind him, in the act of removing his body from the cross. Jesus was depicted with full frontal nudity and apparently, in the popular vernacular, was “well-hung.” The verses are easily found on the web, for anyone who might be interested.

The poem went unnoticed for about three months until it came to the attention of Mary Whitehouse, a self-appointed guardian of the public morals and watch dog of the press, the films and the airwaves.  She was most aggressive in pressing for a prosecution of Gay News by the British Justice system.  She explained that: “I simply had to protect our Lord.” Kirkup, the poet, was in Japan at the time.  He was a writer of some distinction and he vowed never to return to England.  He was, he said, “a born unbeliever,” finding all Christian churches filled with gloom and despair.

Whitehouse had conferred with her lawyers to determine if the poem was blasphemous.  She said that the offense “lies in the attacking of Christianity in an indecent manner, with intent to bring religion into contempt, corrupt public morals, and shock or insult believers.” Whitehouse and her lawyers initiated a private prosecution.  They decided not to go after Kirkup or the illustrator, but to prosecute Denis Lemon, Gay News’s Editor, and the poem’s publisher, Gay News itself.  It was a privately mounted prosecution from first to last.  Whitehouse had a double motive for bringing the charges.  That same year, Jens Jorgen Thorsen, a Danish film director, had decided to make a pornographic film about Jesus’ sex life and he wanted to film it in England. Whitehouse felt that if they could win against Gay News, Thorsen would be unable to carry out his intention.

Needless to say, the jury found Lemon and Gay News guilty.  Lemon was sentenced to a nine month suspended prison term, fined 500 lbs and 1/5th of the prosecution’s costs.  The Court of Appeals later reversed Lemon’s sentence.  Gay News, Ltd., was fined 1000 lbs.

In theory, the law against blasphemy was made stronger by the guilty verdict in the Gay News case.  But there were no prosecutions against books such as The Jesus Hoax, written by a former nun, the American John Updike’s book, Marry Me,         which compared a character’s penis to Jesus and equated sexual intercourse with Heaven, and Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” a book and movie which were parodies on the story of Jesus. These works were released in the same general time frame as Kirkup’s poem, from approximately 1974 to 1979.  One wonders if the prosecution of Gay News was taken up because of the conjunction of Jesus with homosexuality.  The judge, King-Hamilton, was exceedingly offended by the linking of Jesus to gay practices. His problem seemed to be with homosexuality rather than Jesus, as King-Hamilton was Jewish.

There is a gratifying footnote to this parody of justice.  Mary Whitehouse had begun to declare publicly that “everything good and true,” that “every decent person believed in, was being undermined by the gay lobby.”  The gay lobby was a figment of her imagination, but it gave some prominent gay figures the idea of actually forming a Gay Lobby.  In 1979, the Gay Humanist Association was launched. It is still an active voice in England, dedicated to protecting gays from the attempts of religion and its advocates to deprive them of their rights.

The Gay News case also helped to renew efforts to rescind Britain’s blasphemy law.  The attempts failed, but criticisms of the law included the fact that it only protected Christianity.  The Salman Rushdie case would be a highly public reminder of the British blasphemy law’s lack of protection for religions other than Christianity. In 1988, Rushdie, a well-regarded author, came out with his fourth book, titled the Satanic Verses. The novel had been published by Penguin.  It offended the Muslim religion on many points.  In 1989, the Ayatollah Komeini issued a fatwa that ordered Muslims to kill Rushdie.  Translators of the book, publishers, and others who were connected to it in some manner were attacked, and in one instance, killed; some buildings with a connection to the volume were threatened with bombing.  Rushdie was protected by the British Secret Service, and until recently, spent a great deal of his life in hiding.  The fatwa was formally rescinded by the government of Iran in 1998.

There was a great deal of discussion during that period about extending the blasphemy law to protect minority religions.  But the attempt foundered when people discovered how difficult it was to define what constituted religion. Many people, including the influential clergyman, Keith Ward, decided that the blasphemy law should be rescinded.  The United Kingdom finally abolished its blasphemy law in England and Wales in 2008, as we have said earlier.

 Early America had a very scant history of blasphemy prosecutions.  The prohibitions against blasphemy were on the law books of the various colonies, but they do not seem to have been put into effect very often. Heresy prosecutions began to die out as a capital offense by the late 16oo’s and blasphemy cases apparently became restricted as well.  During America’s colonial days, blasphemy came to be understood as irreligion or atheism, the vilification of Christianity, or the cursing of god.  In reality, punishments for blasphemy were often mild or suspended, and the traditional village atheist was seen by most people as merely a curmudgeon, a harmless eccentric, rather than a dangerous threat.

Massachusetts was the colony with the worst reputation for religious intolerance, but even that commonwealth modified its laws in 1652.  Prior to that, the first major blasphemy case in colonial Massachusetts was in 1643.  Samuel Gorton was a self-styled preacher who was vocally anti-clerical.  He and his followers had bought land in Massachusetts from the Indians, but other Englishmen also claimed the same land.  Gorton was asked by letter from the Governor of Massachusetts to produce his title to the disputed land. Gorton answered with a letter that contained twenty six blasphemies.  There were other legal offenses, and Indians who charged Gorton and his followers with mistreatment.  There was once an exchange of fire between Gorton’s people and state officers.  Finally Gorton and his entourage were brought to trial for blasphemy and other offenses.  Leonard Levy maintains that Gorton was actually a heretic. The correctness of the charges against him remains unclear. Ultimately, Massachusetts banished Gorton and his people, warning them if they returned, they were under penalty of death.

 During the 1600’s, Quakers were treated very harshly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for their blasphemous opinions “against the government and the order of god.”  Massachusetts ordered a man whipped and then left him for dead, severed three men’s ears, branded a man, and starved and imprisoned people in the winter with no heat or bedding.  Nevertheless, the Quakers were fervent and kept returning to Massachusetts to testify to their religion.  They also engaged in provocative acts which increased public hostility to them. Massachusetts passed a death penalty for anyone returning after having been banished.

Massachusetts believed that Quakers were heretics and blasphemers, trying to take unto themselves god’s attributes.  The state decided to enforce its capital punishment laws and four Quakers were hanged between 1659 and 1661.  The authorities explained to the English King, Charles II, that the four hanged Quakers were blasphemously heretical and blasphemers as well. They told the King that the Quakers had returned after banishment, and so they had virtually committed suicide.  Charles II prohibited the death sentence but not the whipping penalty for Quakers.

 Massachusetts’ Charter of 1692 provided liberty for all Protestants and while Quakers were still despised, they were merely shunned rather than punished.  Leonard Levy’s Blasphemy, 1993, provides an excellent overview of the state of blasphemy laws in Early America. According to Levy, “after the execution of the four Quakers by Massachusetts, no blasphemy cases of importance occurred in America.”  In the 1660’s there were eleven prosecutions, all in New England, five in Connecticut, four in Plymouth, and two in Maine.  There were four cases in the 1670’s and six in the 1680’s.

During the 1800’s America became increasingly tolerant of minority beliefs. In fact, Americans were not merely tolerant, but indifferent.  Deism and unbelief were spreading in the nation, being particularly popular among the well-off and the educated classes. At the time of the American Revolution, only about 4% of Americans belonged to churches. (Please see Deism at atheistscholar.org.)

Interestingly enough, Massachusetts, once the hub of intolerance, now became the state with a reputation for religious liberalism. (Please see the lectures on American Transcendentalism and American Deism at atheistscholar.org, where you can go to obtain more information about this country and deism, or transcendentalism.)  Harvard and Boston were replete with skeptics, anti-Trinitarians and deists.

Levy states that there continued to be prosecutions for blasphemy in 19th Century America.  Politically conservative jurists, even though many of them were religious liberals, persisted in endorsing the notion that Christianity was part of the law of the land.  They maintained that blasphemy laws were constitutional, even though there were very explicit state constitutional guarantees of religious liberty.  Levy makes a very insightful point when he says: “The fact is that reasons for particular blasphemy prosecutions are usually inexplicable, as is the reason there were so few {in America.}The records mystify.” American prosecutions for blasphemy appear to have been very erratic.

It is important to keep in mind that the United States followed the concept of English common law, so unless modified by statute, blasphemy was at first considered a common law crime in America.  By the 1800’s, blasphemy was only prosecuted if the person committing the blasphemy was offensive.  In other words, prosecutions of blasphemy were really meant to prevent disturbance of the peace.  In 1811, a man called Ruggles said that Jesus was a “bastard and his mother a whore,” and was prosecuted. He was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison and a fine. Later, in 1838, a man named Kneeland, a writer and lecturer, was found guilty of blasphemy even though he expressed his disbelief in Jesus and in miracles in a reasonable manner.  He was a Universalist but was considered an atheist, and was charged with five blasphemies.  He spent sixty days in a Boston jail.  Kneeland’s case is a good example of the capriciousness with which the laws were applied.

The last important blasphemy case in the United States was the conviction of Charles Smith, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, in 1928.  He was initially charged with disorderly conduct because he lobbied for the teaching of evolution in the schools.  Smith then distributed anti-religious pamphlets and put a sign in his window, which read: “Evolution is true.  The Bible’s a lie.  God’s a ghost.” The ACLU and other organizations protested, but he was convicted of blasphemy. He received a sentence of ninety days in jail and a $100 fine. However, he never spent a day in jail. The charges were quietly dropped.

The United States had far fewer cases of blasphemy than England.  The Bill of Rights did not initially apply to the states, so the First Amendment only restrained the federal government.  As the Supreme Court, starting in 1925, began to apply the Bill of Rights to the states, blasphemy laws became non functional.  In 1970, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that the state’s blasphemy statute was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the First Amendment.  There are still a few states in the country with blasphemy laws in their statutes, but blasphemy has become a dead letter in the United States. We are fortunate and owe many thanks to our Founders, who thought about and wrote laws that protected the citizens of the United States from the restrictions and persecutions of organized religion.

I would now like to turn to the egregious contemporary situation concerning the increase of blasphemy, heresy and apostasy prosecutions in some parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. But the problem is not only the Middle East. There are many countries all over the world, including a few in Europe, which are beginning to revive the ancient prohibitions against free expression.

Discussing Islam’s blasphemy laws is rather problematical, as there is not a specific Arabic term for blasphemy.  In its religious literature, there are other words that cover the catch-all term of blasphemy and are understood to be blasphemous when used, such as insult, abuse, vilification, denial, curse, accuse and defame.  Blasphemy often overlaps with the words infidel, insult and apostasy.  As of 2011, “all Islamic majority nations worldwide had criminal laws on blasphemy. Over 125 non-Muslim nations worldwide did not have any laws relating to blasphemy.”  David Forte states that thousands of individuals in the Muslim majority nations have been arrested and punished for blasphemy concerning Islam.  In addition, many countries which enforce blasphemy laws also charge, convict and imprison or otherwise punish blasphemy by individuals that use the internet.  The threat of blasphemy charges is not confined to the public sphere or the media, but to posting on Facebook and other social media on the web.

 As of March, 2012, Human Rights First has noted that blasphemy laws have helped created mob violence and have been used to accuse neighbors, relatives and others in order to resolve personal disputes. The Pew Research Center studied 198 countries for laws against various offenses against religion, including blasphemy.  Pew states that as of 2011, a total of thirty two countries (16%) had laws penalizing blasphemy.  Pew states that anti-blasphemy laws are particularly common in the Middle East and North Africa; thirteen of the twenty countries in that region (65%) made blasphemy a crime. In the Asia-Pacific region, nine of the fifty countries (18%) had anti-blasphemy laws in 2011, while in Europe, such laws were found in eight out of forty-five countries (18%). Just two of the forty eight countries in Sub Saharan Africa, Nigeria and Somalia, had such laws as of 2011. In Europe, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, The Netherlands and Poland had blasphemy laws as of 2011. I am leaving out cases of, and laws against, apostasy.

Some Islamic nations have maintained, when addressing the United Nations, that blasphemy against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is not acceptable and that laws should be passed world -wide to place “limits on freedom of expression.”  In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly condemned religious intolerance without urging states to outlaw “defamation of religion,” dropping the defamation notion for the first time in years.  Additionally, the Islamic bloc in the U.N. also dropped its drive to have the defamation of religion outlawed.  In recent years, opposition from the Latin countries and the West has made the defamation recommendation increasingly insupportable. The year before, the resolution barely received a majority.  This latest resolution on intolerance was passed without a vote.

Most of my material in the following paragraphs has come from the 2013 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, or the USCIF.  Many countries around the world have laws that punish personal expression because they are deemed blasphemies, defamatory or insulting to religion, religious feelings and religious figures.  Such laws contradict the international human rights standard.  This is because they protect belief over individuals. They also obviously result in stifling speech and writing because they often give power to not only governments, but majorities, some of them religious and also extremists, to punish, even with death in some cases, people who dissent, disagree, or disbelieve in particular religious views.  Such punishments are, and have been, enacted over individuals, minorities and dissenters.  Blasphemy laws are often called for by their proponents as increasing the harmony of the community; but when blasphemy laws are passed, dissension, intolerance and violence increase rather than social cohesion.

Such laws are in direct contradiction of the views of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which states that blasphemy laws are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently convened a group of experts and their conclusion was that “states that have blasphemy laws should repeal them as such laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, and healthy dialogue and debate about religion.”

Pakistan is usually cited as one of the most egregious countries with regard to blasphemy charges.  The USCIFR states that it knows of seventeen individuals currently on death row on blasphemy convictions and twenty people serving life sentences in Pakistan.  There are also specific cases of religious blasphemy, defamation or insult reported in its chapters in Egypt, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.  In some countries, such as Egypt, the number of blasphemy cases has increased.  Russia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq already had blasphemy laws, but it is reported that they were both considering new laws.

The USCIRF also states that its reporting period found cases of blasphemy, defamation of religion, or religious insults in Greece, India, Kuwait, the Philippines, Poland, Tunisia, and Turkey, among other countries.  I am not including some of the nations that use euphemisms and charge people with other laws than blasphemy.  The USCIRF reports that there is increasing adoption and enforcement of laws against blasphemy and defamation of religion.

Ronald Lacey makes the additional point that laws against blasphemy in Islamic countries are not based on the more modern excuses concerning the need to preserve peace in communities and countries and protect religious people from offense.  Lacey maintains that these laws are a return to the ancient and medieval views that such statements as disparaging a deity are intrinsically evil.

In Europe many of the laws against blasphemy are legal relics and do not pose much of a threat to freedom of expression, although there are still cases that are brought forward. Islam is another matter.  However, the rigor with which such laws are actually enforced varies to a great extent by country.

But wherever those who embrace the supernatural view of the cosmos and believe that disrespecting the deities or sacred objects or people they believe in is the worst possible sin, free speech and free thought are at risk.  For several years now, the Center for Inquiry has sponsored Blasphemy Rights Day International, a holiday during which groups and individuals are encouraged to express criticism of religion.  It was begun in 2009, and is celebrated on September 30th, which is the anniversary of the controversy over illustrations published in a Danish newspaper which many Muslims objected to.  In a USA Today interview, Justin Trotter, a Toronto coordinator for Blasphemy Day, stated: “We’re not seeking to offend, but if in the course of dialogue and debate, people become offended, that’s not an issue for us.  There is no human right not to be offended.”

The following observation has been quoted from the 2011 book, Silenced, by Paul Marshall: “When politics and religion are intertwined, as they necessarily are in debates about blasphemy and insulting Islam, forbidding religious criticism means forbidding political criticism.  Conversely, without religious debate there can be no political debate; without religious dissent there can be no political dissent.  And without religious freedom there can be no political freedom.”

I would like to urge that we in the West not be taken in by the outworn notion of political correctness.  The secular community needs to take a strong stand against religious laws and religious coercion, from any religion or government that embraces them.

We need to defend our precious right of expression and thought.  People have been tortured, imprisoned and have died to preserve their integrity and their beliefs.  We need to honor them, and to safeguard future generations from a return to medievalism under the guise of protecting religion.  Let us protect instead, our precarious and precious human right to think, speak and believe what we give credence to.  In the case of the secular community, we must press forward and defend our right to speak our unbelief and dissent from credence in the supernatural, in superstition, and in the outdated notion of dualism.

The attempt to pass laws against defamation of religion must be fought with time, with money, and with a strong resolve to resist such obscurantism. If we do not, future generations will be in danger of having to once again fight the war for freedom.  Let us dedicate ourselves to defending our liberty and keeping it safe from those who would stifle it all over the world. I would like to repeat my original contention that all blasphemy laws around the globe should be revoked, even those that appear dormant. Religion is somewhat weakened, especially in the West, but a dying snake can still lash out and poison the unwary in its final throes. 

Thank you for your attention.  I am looking forward to our discussion.

Blasphemy Bibliography

Books and Articles:

Aquinas, Thomas.  Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947.

Cooke, Bill. “Heresy.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  385-388.

Herrin, Judith.  The Formation of Christendom.  London: Phoenix, 2001.

Levy, Leonard W. Blasphemy. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.  A 688 page authoritative study.

Lindsay, Ronald A. “Blasphemy.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  145-148.

Marshall, Paul and Nina Shea. Silenced: How Blasphemy and Apostasy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Nokes, George. A History of the Crime of Blasphemy.  London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1928.  As of this writing, Nokes’ volume is quite difficult to find.

 Web Sites:

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.  Annual Report.  Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Offices, 2004, 2013.

http://www.uscirf.gov/images/2013%20USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%20(2).pdf

Pew Forum, 2012

http://www.pewforum.org/2012/11/21/laws-penalizing-blasphemy-apostasy-and-defamation-of-religion-are-widespread/

Attempts to pass resolutions not allowing blasphemy worldwide

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/19/us-protests-religions-blasphemy-idUSBRE88I1EG20120919

Information on Blasphemy Day

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_Day

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home   |   Atheism   |   Science   |   World History   |   American History   |   Atheist Philosophies    |   Atheist Psychologies   |   Determinism   |   Christianity   |   Judaism   |   Ethics   |   Criticism   |   Atheism and the Law   |   Films and Books    |   Activism   |   Websites    |   The Devil   |   Irrational Medicine   |   Illusion of Immortality
Copyright 2012 by The Atheist Scholar
 
fake ray bans