Who Can Blaspheme?

Today is International Blasphemy Rights Day, spearheaded by the Center for Inquiry.  It’s pretty much Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, but with a broader focus.  I fully back CFI’s fight against blasphemy laws (remember, just in the past few months, Alexander Aan and that girl in Pakistan).  I’m a little more dubious about the practical use of having people in the U.S. and other relatively free nations blaspheme as a way of drawing attention/funds to the fight against blasphemy laws.  But neither of those two issues is the topic I want to discuss today.

Blasphemy is one of the sins I’m a little confused about.  It seems like it’s about the betrayal of a relationship, and I don’t really understand how that can happen if you’re unaware of the relationship.  Let’s contrast blasphemy with the crime of insulting the Thai monarchy.  Although these laws might be enforceable in Thailand, they aren’t binding in the rest of the world.  Whether or not the Thai king actually has rightful authority over Thailand, he definitely doesn’t have it over the whole world.  I have no fealty to him, so the only responsibility I have to betray is the same kind of responsibility I have to all human beings (which is rather a lot to be going on with).

Christianity makes a more audacious claim.  Christ the King does have rightful authority over everyone, but this claim is as unobvious to many people as the Thai king’s claim to the whole world would be.  So maybe the better analogy would be being raised by a single mother, unaware of the identity of your father, and then failing to meet him and take care of him in his old age.  This lapse would be tragic, for you and for him, but it wouldn’t be a chosen slight.  And a mortal sin must be committed with full knowledge and consent.

So, are people participating in Blasphemy day actually blaspheming?  I’m not sure.  Intuitively, this seems more like the kind of sin that only religious people can commit against their own religions; to choose to profane something, you must first acknowledge it as holy.


Further reading: While still an atheist, I wrote a series of posts opposing PZ Myers’s desecration of a consecrated Host, since it seemed only intended to upset people, not to defend his own freedom.

Further further reading: Atheist Kenan Malick has posted the transcript of a talk he gave on the history of blasphemy laws.  It includes this interesting excerpt:

Despite the concern with God and Christianity, the outlawing of blasphemy was less about defending the dignity of the divine than of protecting the sanctity of the state. In 1676 John Taylor was convicted of blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ was a ‘bastard’ and a ‘whoremaker’ and that religion was a ‘cheat’. ‘That such kind of wicked and blasphemous words were not only an offence against God and religion’, observed the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, in front of whom Taylor was tried, ‘but a crime against the laws, States and Government; and therefore punishable in this court; that to say religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved; and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.’

…Four hundred years after Taylor’s conviction, Lord Denning, perhaps Britain’s most important judge of the twentieth century, made, in 1949, much the same point about the relationship between blasphemy and social disorder, though he drew the opposite conclusion about the necessity of the law. Historically, he observed, ‘The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded on Christian religion.’ But, Denning added, ‘There is no such danger in society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.’

Back then, there was more agreement that Christian natural law undergirded social law.  Now, post-Christian thinking has managed to pull in a lot of the results of Christian metaphysics, but hasn’t always bothered to derive them from a new metaphysics.  So Denning is probably right that all the scaffolding exists to sustain the necessary ideas without belief in God.  But it makes me wonder what the new unthinkable thought is.  (Possibly relativism).

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  • Bob Seidensticker

    Nice analysis.

    I find it interesting the lengths some people go to to avoid blasphemy. “G-d” in Jewish circles, for example. Too bad God couldn’t have been more explicit in what he meant. Damn the space limitations of stone tablets!

    To add to your collection, here’s a good photo of a Princess Vader.

    • leahlibresco

      To the best of my knowledge, the use of G-d and YHWH are not just kinda generic anti-blasphemy measures. Naming something is an act of mastery, so having a complete name for God might lead one to think erroneously that you had a complete understanding of God. Christianity also strives to avoid this error, but reminds people other ways.

    • You might find this brief response to a similar question to be of interest.


  • Meagan

    I think that it is pretty clear that the relationship betrayed by violating blasphemy laws is that between the citizen and the state. Perhaps we could contrast blasphemy laws with language laws. In Quebec, under Bill 101, French is the only language in which people are permitted to conduct business and other public affairs. The effect of a violation is the loss of license to conduct business transactions. Without Bill 101, Quebecois would have most likely begun speaking in English like the rest of Canada and United States. By codifying the language, the government was able to enforce the maintenance of French culture. Blasphemy laws similarly make fealty something that a community conceives of as a value that runs the risk of being dismissed without government action. Perhaps it is a sort of societal Ulysses’ Pact–a government makes a decision about some configuration such that binds all future generations to a certain set of behaviors/morals.

  • Mitchell Porter

    “post-Christian thinking has managed to pull in a lot of the results of Christian metaphysics, but hasn’t always bothered to derive them from a new metaphysics”

    I presume that in the “results” you’re talking about, are conclusions about the nature and the specifics of morality.

    There are a lot of interesting factual questions here, about the history of moral justification, the status of morality in secular intellectual culture, and the true psychological causality of moral decision-making.

    My first thought was that “post-Christian thinking” has come nowhere near “obtaining” morality as a “result”. Secular thinkers with an argument for objective morality (like your friend Daniel Fincke) are an obscure minority. The best-known secular moral objectivists might be Ayn Rand’s Objectivists, a philosophical sect that has a widely dispersed popularity and influence but which is mostly at odds with academic philosophy, and also with most secular systems of morality.

    The rationales for morality which do have currency among secular thinkers are (1) sentiment (2) evolution (3) game theory. It’s bad because it makes me feel bad; it’s bad because I’m evolved to think it’s bad; it’s bad because it’s not positive-sum. So, justifying morality via emotion, cognitive idiosyncrasy, or extrapolated self-interest, respectively. I guess these are the non-metaphysical justifications you had in mind.

    Now if we turn to pre-secular history, times when western society was definitely Christian… I think that in practical life, the most common ways to justify moral claims would have been (1) sentiment (2) divine punishment and reward. Most notoriously: you don’t do the bad thing because you will go to Hell if you do. Less obviously: people do feel anger at theft, disgust at cruelty, and so on, don’t feel that these judgements need justification, and (if they have an anthropomorphic idea of God) naturally imagine that God shares these judgements too. There is also the moral example of Christ’s story at the level of culture, which I would say promoted the experience of compassion, so it becomes a sentimental justification of moral judgements more often than in pre-Christian times.

    I would think that inquiring into the metaphysical and rational justification for morality, in the Christian era, was a bit like being a physicist in the secular era. Physics, especially advanced theoretical physics, is not considered necessary or important knowledge by most people, and it is actually easy to conceive of secular societies where physics has been forgotten or ideologically rejected. Similarly, the metaphysical basis of morality was an arcane technical concern that played almost no role in getting things done, with sentiment, threat of divine punishment, and respect for authority (both temporal as well as eternal) being the basis of most moral choices and moral justifications.

    It also seems that one aspect of the transition from Catholic to Protestant societies was the disappearance of metaphysical rationalism as an intellectual element in moral justification (one aspect of a general disappearance of metaphysics). (My impression of Orthodoxy in this regard is that it’s a third way that could almost be defined as phenomenological rather than metaphysical or antimetaphysical, because it’s about practical cultivation of spiritual intuition. But I could be talking nonsense.) Did this disappearance of metaphysics have much to do with the rise of moral relativism in the west? I think that among intellectuals, the disappearance of metaphysics has mattered, but in society at large, it’s the disappearance of God as authority, lawgiver, dispenser of punishment and reward, which has been more relevant.

    “it makes me wonder what the new unthinkable thought is. (Possibly relativism).”

    It’s actually unclear to me whether you mean that relativism, or criticism of relativism, is unthinkable.

    • “Now if we turn to pre-secular history, times when western society was definitely Christian… I think that in practical life, the most common ways to justify moral claims would have been (1) sentiment (2) divine punishment and reward.”

      This (punishment aspect) might have been the common belief (though we should not assume that Christian religion even in many of its basics penetrated many people’s brains back then, nor now), but most educated people would have said that first of all, you are harming your own development and happiness as a human person. Divine command clarifies and ratifies what nature has already made us. If we want to be happy, flourishing, fulfilled individuals we need to do what we were made to do, which is become excellent in all of our capacities, to the extent that we can.

      You basically say that implicitly in your analogy about metaphysics then and physics now, I think, but making it explicit is, I think, helpful.

      “I think that among intellectuals, the disappearance of metaphysics has mattered, but in society at large, it’s the disappearance of God as authority, lawgiver, dispenser of punishment and reward, which has been more relevant.”

      Yes, but don’t miss the feedback loop between “the intellectuals” and the “at large.” They each make thoughts thinkable for the other. The only way the “at large” could forget was if the intellectuals forgot it first – stopped doing their job of teaching and creating culture. More than that, if the intellectuals really forget the metaphysical tradition, which happens on occasion, the recovery is extremely difficult. When Anscombe, MacIntyre, and others began to revive virtue ethics, it was a big deal, people had forgotten how those ideas worked, and so the ideas could not be taught (the theory of the ideas at least – in practical behavior it was and is still standard). Everything can be lost in just one generation, unless the books are enough to revive it. Thank goodness for books.

  • “It seems like it’s about the betrayal of a relationship, and I don’t really understand how that can happen if you’re unaware of the relationship.”

    Sin requires knowledge that a thing is wrong and a will to do it anyway…so, there is no (formal) blasphemy when a person is (through no fault) of their own unaware of the evil of their actions. Their statements may still be materially blasphemous.

    That being said, sin is not JUST about our relationship with God…it is about our humanity and living it out. Even when I was an atheist, when I knowingly insulted other people’s beliefs I was making myself a little less human by choosing to be uncharitable.

    • BTW, the relationship thing and the being human thing go together: it is in our human nature that we have a capacity for a relationship with God, and when we degrade that nature it injures our ability to form that relationship. Conversely, it is God grace that is instrumental in making us fully human and disrupting the flow of that love by rejecting a relationship with him stunts our human development.

  • I agree with your analysis of blasphemy. On a practical level, we can also conclude from this analysis that religious people should not be anxious about non-believers committing blasphemy (thus Catholics need not worry about people desecrating the Eucharist, nor Muslims worry about people drawing Mohammed). Rather, they should be anxious to keep themselves from committing blasphemy, whether by word or deed.

    • “On a practical level, we can also conclude from this analysis that religious people should not be anxious about non-believers committing blasphemy.”

      Yes, if you have the rather mainline idea that God will not punish nations for blasphemy and idolatry. I suspect that many people who do get upset about non-believers committing blasphemy either hold this idea (Westboro Baptist) or have carried their anxiety over from previous generations who did. The other reason a person might get upset is that they take it as an insult, not as blasphemy. For instance, Meyer’s stunt with the host is an insult. It can be difficult to determine a person’s intent in blaspheming, but it could be fair to take certain forms of blasphemy (ie. unconventional ones) as knowingly disrespectful. Religious people (we) need to then figure out how they should react to the insult or the disrespect; this is a different thing that reacting to blasphemy as a betrayal of a relationship, but I think it is a live issue.

    • TerryC

      I think one point here is that desecration of the Eucharist slips from blasphemy into sacrilege. Blasphemy, by definition is a form of sacrilege which is verbal. Meyer’s stunt was not a matter of intent, but of action, and it was not a matter of ignorance. Rather it was an act deliberately carried out to elicit a specific response.
      Certainly Westboro Baptist is not popular for their stand, but they may be correct in their base assumption that Divine punishment is forthcoming, without being correct in their behavior designed, in their mind, to respond to the chance of that Divine punishment.
      In other words you don’t have to support the actions of Westboro Baptist to accept that people who have heard Truth, but decided to reject, it are not going to be held responsible for their actions. In this highly connected age it is pretty much impossible for any individual, at least in the West, to claim to be ignorant of the teaching of Christianity (or Islam) for that matter. Through the rejection of of those teachings do they become culpable of those actions. This leads down the road of vincible or invincible ignorance.

  • “So, are people participating in Blasphemy day actually blaspheming? I’m not sure. Intuitively, this seems more like the kind of sin that only religious people can commit against their own religions”

    What you can say is that blasphemers are doing something objectively wrong, but that in their ignorance their subjective culpability is mitigated, depending on the vincibility or invincibility of their ignorance. Their full knowledge and full consent are not present, so they are not mortally guilty of the sin of blasphemy, UNLESS they ought to have known better. Willful ignorance does not get you off the hook, only invincible ignorance. And how those divides play out is only really something God can know.

  • joost r

    “Blasphemy day”. It coincides with the hearing in appeal today of Pussy Riot in Moscow, who desecrated (?) a cathedral in Moscow by singing a mock prayer in it. I was a bit sorry to see that Amnesty International cared so little about the hurt feelings of the believers. At the same time understanding the worry of Amnesty that church and state must not be confounded as seems to be happening in Russia and may not be a reason to stop people from blaspheming and insulting the church. Enlightning your links to the PZ Myers-case. Thank you.

  • deiseach

    Well, I can see the rights to free speech, but blasphemy as a particular right? I don’t know. If it is a right, then it must apply to everything (no protected areas) so what would count as blasphemy against rationalists or freethinkers or atheists? In other words, what’s the difference between blasphemy laws of yesterday and our modern secular version, hate speech laws? If blasphemy only applies to religious topics, then are we saying that it only applies to non-existent entities and that we don’t really believe gods of whatever sort exist – then why draw Mohammed and not Allah? Can there be such a thing as secular blasphemy – are there any ideals, ideas, persons or events considered too sacred or too sensitive to be criticised? If Andres Serrano, the artist responsible for the Piss Christ had instead done a Piss Harvey Milk, would he have received the same level of support for free speech and l’art pour l’art and explanations about how this was not anti-(Christian) gay but instead about the abuse of (Christianity) gay rights movement from galleries, art critics, and newspaper columnists?

    I think there’s a thin line between blasphemy used as protesting irrational or incorrect beliefs (depending on whether your definition of “incorrect” is that of member of faith X about faith Y, or rationalist about all faiths) and moving over into being offensive for the sake of offence, particularly about religion as cultural identifier.

    I didn’t like the original Danish cartoons (the ones from back when this all kicked off) because some of them were – to my mind – insulting to Muslims as Muslims on the basis of them being Mad Bombers, misogynists, etc. And saying that “All Muslims want to beat their wives and kill foreigners” is no more acceptable than saying “All blacks… All Jews… All Catholics… All Irish…” are drunks or usurers or violent or Mad Bombers.

    I think, if you’re going to blaspheme, you have to look at what you’re saying, and make sure it’s not actually saying “I think this element of your society or culture is wrong because it is different from my social or cultural practice”, rather than “I think your religious belief is incorrect because it leads to this bad end” or even just “I don’t believe what you believe.”

    • ACN

      “Can there be such a thing as secular blasphemy – are there any ideals, ideas, persons or events considered too sacred or too sensitive to be criticised?”

      As Hitch once put it:
      “the only correct answer to the question, “Is nothing sacred?” is “No.” “

      • deiseach

        I’d love to see it done, even as an experiment: come on then, Cenre for Inquiry, do some non-religious blaspheming to put your money where your mouth is!

        I genuinely think you would get into dreadful trouble; I’m thinking of things like clashes on “abortion rights” or the Chicago politician who, in reference to the Great Chick-fil-A Controversy, quite unabashedly said he wouldn’t permit one of those restaurants to open in his ward and he’d use the planning process to quash any applications. So he blatantly said he would abuse his office to knock on the head a business (and one run by a franchisee of the group, not directly by the company president who gave the interview) on grounds of personal disagreement with their stated principles, and nobody seemed to care to point out that this would be illegal, never mind the rights of free speech.

        • Ted Seeber

          Non-religious blasphemy: Women should not have the right to abort a pregnancy.

          • B-Lar

            …is not blasphemy. The charge of blasphemy is reserved for rhetorically defending (often with the threat of violence) that which is too weak stand up under its own merit.

            Secular blasphemy is impossble because any reasonable position can be defended with reason and any unreasonable position will be scrutinised until it is shown to be so, or perhaps shown to be simply counter-intuitive.

            If you see dogma within the pro-choice position then I pity you f0r the log in your eye.

          • Arkenaten

            Really? And what if the life of the mother was at risk, Ted? How would your hoiler than thou attitude fair in such a case? Would you still stand by this priciple and watch the mother die?

          • Ted Seeber

            Life of the mother (and the child) in the case of illness or accident is *TRIAGE*, not wilful murder. Sometimes both can be saved, sometimes both die, sometimes one has to be sacrificed to save the other. Is keeping a brain dead pregnant woman on life support after a car accident long enough to let her give birth by cesarean also abortion to you?

            But the point under the case of blasphemy is that *both of you* reacted as if my position was automatically unreasonable without asking the reasoning behind it. How is that any different than a bunch of Islamics attacking Catholic nuns for something the Pope said in Germany?

    • The definition of blasphemy is “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for a religious deity or the irreverence towards religious or holy persons or things.” By definition, then, blasphemy isn’t possible absent a religion. So no, secular blasphemy isn’t possible under the strict definition.

      If you expand the definition to include “sacred cows” of any sort then sure, I suppose there are example (like Ted’s, about abortion, though I’m not sure who he’s theoretically blaspheming against). But that seems to me to be stretching the definition past the breaking point.

      • Ted Seeber

        I recently read an article that suggested some secularists are now making a God out of human orgasm- and that all contraceptive and abortive measures can be seen as their form of “worship” (attempting to make their God pure of mere human conception). It would be that God that I was blasphemeing against.

        • Alan

          So your are blaspheming a strawman or a loose metaphor?

        • Matti

          Ted, you go right ahead and blaspheme against The Holy Orgasm until the cows come home. You might even make some secularists break their ribs from laughing at you.

          • Ted Seeber

            Look above how doing so caused a knee jerk reaction from Arkenaten. I find equal knee jerk reactions every time I blaspheme against the Holy Orgasm- like when I say contraception is rape.

          • Alan

            Ted – don’t confuse saying something stupid with blasphemy. Just because you get a reaction doesn’t make it blasphemy. If everything you can say that gets a knee jerk reaction is considered blasphemy you have essentially raised all political positions to that level – making a pretty uninteresting category.

          • ACN

            Ted, you’ll note that you appear to have confused the definitions of “blasphemy” and “trolling for the lulz”.

            Kindly deconvolve the two.

        • ACN

          This shows such a deep misunderstand of secularism, human sexuality, and any useful definition of ‘god’/’deity’ that it is not even wrong. It’s just incoherent.

          • Ted Seeber

            Then why are women poisoning themselves to remove fertility?

          • Alan

            I guess you don’t know the definition of poison either.

          • ACN

            Again. A ludicrous claim. And it is beneath any thinking person to respond to it.

            If you want to talk intelligently about why women might want to use birth control, we can talk about it. But I’m not going to play this POISONING TEH FERTILITIEZ game with you.

    • I didn’t like the original Danish cartoons (the ones from back when this all kicked off) because some of them were – to my mind – insulting to Muslims as Muslims on the basis of them being Mad Bombers, misogynists, etc. And saying that “All Muslims want to beat their wives and kill foreigners” is no more acceptable than saying “All blacks… All Jews… All Catholics… All Irish…” are drunks or usurers or violent or Mad Bombers

      I’m a bit late to the game here, but I wanted to throw this out there- the big difference here is that religion is a choice. You can’t choose to be black, or (ethnically) Jewish, or Irish, in the same way you can choose to be Catholic or Muslim. By declaring yourself as such, you’re actively associating yourself with not only a set of ideals, but a group of people who claim to conform to those ideals. And mocking who you choose to associate with is definitely fair game.

      I would also LOVE to see that study done. It seems to me that there are several topics that are (at least publicly) totally off-limits for the secular/freethinker/rationalist. Taking any stance against gay rights, pro-choice ideology, women’s rights, or even humanitariam fiscal policy (i.e. advocating for strict laissez-faire capitalism) is pretty taboo. Now, on the one hand you could make the argument that they’re taboo because they’re (mostly) fundamentally nuts if you subscribe to a secular worldview. On the other hand, it does seem to clash with the freedom-of-speech ideal we’re all so proud of. I hope the secular community would condemn the content of the speech, while still vehemently defending the speakers right to say it. I’m not sure that’s what we’d actually see though. We didn’t have nearly enough outrage over the behavior of the Chicago politicians over the Chick-Fill-A incident.

  • deiseach

    Also, tangentially related, as an Irishwoman I am mordantly amused by the quote featuring the late Lord Denning.

    He may indeed have been “Britain’s most important judge of the twentieth century” but he is probably best remembered (from an Irish point of view) for remarks he made – admittedly towards the very end of his life, when his mental facilities were not as keen as they had been and the prejudices of his class and time leaked out – about the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six:

    “In 1980, during an appeal by the Birmingham Six (who were later acquitted) Lord Denning judged that the men should be stopped from challenging legal decisions. He listed several reasons for not allowing their appeal:

    Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial … If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. … That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.”

    …In the summer of 1990 he agreed to a taped interview with A.N. Wilson, to be published in The Spectator. They discussed the Guildford Four; Denning remarked that if the Guildford Four had been hanged “They’d probably have hanged the right men. Just not proved against them, that’s all”. His remarks were controversial and came at a time when the issue of miscarriage of justice was a sensitive topic. He had expressed a similar controversial opinion regarding the Birmingham Six in 1988, saying: “Hanging ought to be retained for murder most foul. We shouldn’t have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they’d been hanged. They’d have been forgotten, and the whole community would be satisfied… It is better that some innocent men remain in jail than that the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned.”

    These cases are also why I’m sensitive on the topic of tarring an entire nationality/ethnicity/religious denomination with the brush of being Mad Bombers; an attitude that was understandable during the IRA bombing campaigns of the late 70s in Britain, but one which does not contribute to better understanding – and so why I dislike the cartoons showing all Muslims everywhere as one monolithic bloc of Mad Bombers.

  • I would argue that the unthinkable thought of modern society is is pacifism or nonviolent resistance. These lines of thought tend to involve a fundamental rejection of the values of the state and the state’s conception of what constitutes power. And, if you look through the history of the last hundred years, nothing gets persecuted like a good non-violent resistance movement.

    • No, that’s even more far-fetched than relativism. Nonviolent resistors tend to get persecuted for the resistance, not for the violence part. And violent protesters get persecuted a lot worse. Plus lots of radicals try to get matched to the nonviolent resistor stereotype, because it actually has substantial positive connotations for most people. Now the comparison is a bit complicated because some medieval people actually did try to pass as blasphemers, but only to get into more lenient ecclesiastical courts, surely not because they would expect their community to be intuitively sympathetic to blasphemers.

      • We’re looking for the “unthinkable thought.” Violent resistance goes beyond thought so comparisons are inappropriate. And I agree with you about the stereotype, but the stereotype doesn’t actually correspond with how nonviolent protesters are treated in reality. MLK was blackmailed by the FBI. Nelson Mandela was jailed for decades. These people are lionized in retrospect BECAUSE of the amount of crap they took. If you look at more modern nonviolent protesters, like Code Pink or Occupy Wall Street, they are NOT respected. They are portrayed as rowdy, disruptive, dirty, or unpatriotic. There is no politician at the national level that could get away with saying that our military does more harm than good. When protesters clash with police, the assumption is automatically that the police were in the right and the protesters were in the wrong. Again, nonviolent protest got the reputation it did by putting up with so much crap and abuse from highest levels of society, and that dynamic hasn’t really changed. Hellen Keller was a famous socialist and MLK was known as much for his antipoverty and anti-Vietnam War activities as much as his civil rights work. But we’re still erasing those parts of their lives because the idea that there are persistent systemic problems with American society that should be resisted is deemed controversial and unpatriotic. They are unthinkable thoughts that we ignore as hard as we can.

        And being called more absurd than relativism is a new one for me. Though since I am partially relativist (not epistemologically, but rather practically. I find relativism to be useful for avoiding judgements made out of ignorance), I can’t say I mind terribly much.

  • Erick

    I think blasphemy is one of those areas of political correctness where people create a double standard.

    For the non-believer, blasphemy is not really about betraying one’s relationship with God, since they do not have that relationship. It’s more about offending a believer and thereby betraying one’s relationship with other people. Blasphemy is a certain lack of charity!

  • MLN

    Fr. Robert Barron explains how/why blasphemy undermines our relationship with God. That would seem to be true whether or not we believe in God in the first place. But, divine forgiveness being what it is, there can be life after blasphemy.

  • In this case I think we should consider blasphemy as an act contrary to the natural virtue of religion. So, basically if we work from the general to the particular, we get the following.

    1. A virtue is a settled habit of the mind by which one tends (easily, readily, cheerfully) to act well, toward one’s perfection and ultimate happiness.

    2. Virtues are divided according to the two faculties of the mind: the apprehensive faculty (i.e., the intellect) and the volitional faculty (i.e., the will). Among the intellectual virtues are prudence (right reason about things done) and art (right reason about the making of things). Among the volitional (aka “moral”) virtues are justice (the habitual desire to render each one his due), temperance (the habitual moderation of concupiscible appetites in accord with reason) and fortitude (the habitual moderation of the irascible appetites win accord with reason).

    3. Justice is about rendering what is due: i.e., it’s about rights, and rights only exist within relationships. The virtue of justice moderates relationships in accord with what is proper to them. Hence we can divide justice into various separate virtues depending on the different kinds of relationships we have and the different ways in which a relationship may need to be respected. (E.g. the virtue of piety concerns the relationship we have to our parents, and secondarily the relationship we have to the state [filial vs. civic piety].) In the field, these are called the “quasi-potential parts” of Justice (if you were curious about the jargon).

    4. Now, among these parts of the virtue of Justice, one of them concerns justice in relation to God. Most people in human history have believed (it seems) in God under some aspect or another: a creator responsible for one’s life or existence and the order/government of the world. In accord with this “natural” conception of God shared by most of humanity, there is a natural understanding of what is owed to God. And this is what the natural virtue of religion attempts to respect.

    5. Consequently the virtue of religion focuses on what is due to God under a few basic aspects: as the one to whom your life is owed, as a benevolent governor of the world, as supremely good, as perfect witness, as deserving of praise. Obviously to get all of these attributes one needs to be rather skilled at natural theology, and many people have not gotten all of them. Still, they follow with a reasonable degree of clarity from the knowledge that God creates. Particular cultural ties and perversions of local cult may obscure the truth, but imperfection in particular cases doesn’t detract from the fulness of the norm.

    6. From these aspects outlined above, we get a few species of the virtue of religion. Acknowledgment of our debt to God for our own life and being inspires Adoration. Recognition that God is a benevolent governor of the world inspires prayer. His benevolence inspires adoration and sacrifice. His role as witness and supreme norm/lawgiver inspires the making of vows to God, or the invocation of the divine witness in oaths to other people. God’s supreme perfection and generosity inspire praise.

    7. So now we get to blasphemy. Obviously there are degrees of blasphemy, and the “perfect” form of blasphemy would be not just a violation of natural religion, but a sin against the supernatural virtue of faith. Let’s stick to the former. Here what we mean by blasphemy is a denial of the divine goodness, and thus a belief that God is unworthy of praise. This can be merely intellectual or be accompanied by malice toward God. Clearly the latter case is worse.

    8. Now, I believe our original question was about positive human laws against blasphemy. Could there be a reasonable law against blasphemy? Well, a law is a reasonable ordinance for the common good divised by the person/group who has care of the community and promulgated. In Isidore of Seville’s classic Etymologies, he says that laws should be “virtuous, just, possible to nature, according to the custom of the country, suitable to place and time, necessary, useful; clearly expressed, lest by its obscurity it lead to misunderstanding; framed for no private benefit, but for the common good.”

    9. The question then is whether a law which defends the natural virtue of religion could fulfill these criteria. Reasonability? yes. Possible to obey? Yes. Just? By definition. Useful? For the promotion of virtue among the people, yes. For the common good? Yep. etc.

    10. It seems that reasonable laws prohibiting blasphemy could exist.

    • Whether thought-crime is possible under a Thomistic legal theory is an interesting question.

      • Kevin

        Surely this is a case of IaIIae Q96 a2.

        • I think you’re right. Also there’s the matter that political prudence assumes the free agency of subjects, and the extension of political law to cover every act of a human being would be totally repugnant to freedom. (For similar reasons, casuistry is detrimental to the moral life.)

    • Kevin

      This is well argued.

      I’d add — not for Elliot’s benefit but for the avoidance of doubt — that the reasonability of laws against blasphemy does not entail that any given response to blasphemy is justified.

    • Excellent analysis, gentlemen. I’d only add that a relatively obvious example of a context in which it would be reasonable to have at least some laws against blasphemy is canon law; and this would be true even if one assumed that civil laws against blasphemy are impracticable.

  • Intuitively, this seems more like the kind of sin that only religious people can commit against their own religions; to choose to profane something, you must first acknowledge it as holy.

    What if you acknowledge that it may be holy (but you highly doubt it), and that even if it were you’d do the same thing?

    And CFI is a rotten organization that even atheists should be ashamed of associating with. But unfortunately, modern atheist and anti-theism are basically the same thing. They aren’t doing a noble but misguided thing here – their blasphemy day is akin to a pack of racists drawing racial caricatures of Obama, with them saying they’re doing so because they oppose his views on assassinating American citizens.

    Now, post-Christian thinking has managed to pull in a lot of the results of Christian metaphysics, but hasn’t always bothered to derive them from a new metaphysics. So Denning is probably right that all the scaffolding exists to sustain the necessary ideas without belief in God.

    What necessary ideas?

    The idea that marriage is, as an institution, intimately linked with reproduction and starting a family? Apparently not.

    The idea that the unborn and (given Peter Singer and trends in ‘bioethetics’) babies are deserving of a right to life? Apparently not.

    The idea that getting knocked up, or knocking someone up, outside of marriage is – outside of cases of rape or utter ignorance – something to be ashamed of? Apparently not.

    The idea that there are objective morals and intrinsic goods? Apparently not.

    The list goes on.

    What’s been discovered is that you can have a government and laws without Christianity, even culturally. But who ever denied this?

    tl;dr version – The idea that a ‘post-Christian society’ would tear the fabric of society was borne out. That fabric is torn. All that’s changed is that, like with jeans once upon a time, people have decided the torn fabric looks okay anyway.

  • I figure this is proof that someone or some organization can be both profound and childish at the same time.

  • Scott Gay

    Evil speaking is a curious phenomenon, even psychologically. I really appreciate that John Wesley made it one of his standard sermons. Just as many that believe in God do it as those who don’t believe in God. It’s certainly is the way it is(anticipating arguments, but read the sermon), and curiouser about those that sustain a relationship with God. When I was first challenged on this subject my experience with it the most was in a teacher lounge and the vestibule of church. But it’s everywhere, and when you run into the odd person who doesn’t they are often not some easily categorized demographic( and a needed breath of fresh air out of the mouths of people). I guess some will come back at me that I’m off the topic of blasphemy, but my position brings it closer to home.

  • Irenist

    “But it makes me wonder what the new unthinkable thought is.”
    I’m not sure about the new unthinkable, but the new unspeakable seems to me to be racism. Almost no one says “gosh darn it” anymore, but lots of people use locutions like “the n-word.” Given the hideous history of racism in this country–and the fact that God is (literally) infinitely more capable of looking out for Himself than the victims of racism–I think it’s a shift that represents progress of a sort.

  • Ted Seeber

    I completely agree with your analysis, but it reminds me of the person who was a bit confused on the meaning of the word Charity. There is a secular, or at least common, meaning to the term; and there is the Catholic Canon Law meaning to the term.

    The only Catholic Canon Law on the subject comes to us from Christ himself- in defining the ONE UNFORGIVABLE SIN: Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

    Which has absolutely NOTHING to do with the sorts of blasphemy that blasphemy laws are about. Blasphemy laws are just a form of Political Correctness gone mad- atheists should really be all for them, because they are about freedom from religion. Or rather, about freedom from other people’s religion. They are all about not being offended by somebody else saying whatever God you believe in is a fraud, because their religion says so.

    Catholic Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit on the other hand, will never be punishable by mere human courts, because it’s entirely in the person’s mind. Their actions can hint that they’re committing this sin, but nobody can know for sure other than the person committing it. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit has five requirements:
    1. You know God is real (no atheist can commit Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which ties back into your post somewhat- they can’t even fulfill the basic requirement of this form of Blasphemy)
    2. You have heard the voice of God in prayer
    3. You are prompted by that voice to do something.
    4. In support of some other sin, knowing what is right and just, you choose to ignore God and do what is NOT right or just.
    5. You make such a habit of it that even though you know God exists, you never listen and choose to do evil. Worse yet, you may grow to hate even the concept of God- because you know He exists and His Voice has become painful to you. You don’t seek out the sacrament of reconciliation. You instead run away.

    And thus, to paraphrase Pope John Paul The Great, the relationship is broken- and you’ve doomed yourself to Hell for the One Unforgivable Sin.

    And where I started out this post disagreeing with you, I convinced myself that you’re right, Leah. It is all about relationship. And for that very reason, the blasphemy laws, or their more benign cousins, the Freedom From Religion lawsuits- are downright stupid.

  • Stephen Sparrow

    Leah, a nice piece. Have you read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor ? WB is virtually a theological treatise on the fallacy of Blasphemy. An exceptionally clever novel.

  • Ted Seeber

    I think the new unthinkable thought is orthodoxy. Just watch how the Protestants and Atheists rail against the concept of an objective morality! Catholicism is the ultimate blasphemy against the religion of moral relativism.

    • Not possible. Blasphemy doesn’t exist without a religion.

      • Ted Seeber

        Moral relativism IS a religion. It is the worship of self.

        • Alan

          No it isn’t. I know you have a problem using language in a way others will understand (one could say you are an extreme relativist in your choice of definitions) but moral relativism does not fit with any meaningful definition of religion.

          • Ted Seeber

            Alan, you apparently just failed to use language in a way others will understand.

            Moral Relativism is the religion of basing one’s morality on one’s personal, subjective wishes. That is what I mean when I say Moral Relativism is the religion of self.

            You can’t get away from religion merely by being disorganized.

          • Alan

            Ted – you just fail, consistently. First, that isn’t a definition of moral relativism that would include the whole category nor does that fit a definition of religion.

            The basis of morality alone does not make it a religion, organized or not. Religion does not merely equal morality.

  • Since the definition of blasphemy is “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for a religious deity or the irreverence towards religious or holy persons or things,” it seems to me that blasphemy lies in the eye of the beholder (or the ear of the hearer). If you say something rude about Mohammed and I’m not a Muslim, to me that’s not blasphemy. Likewise, if you say something rude about Jesus and I’m not a Christian, to me that’s not blasphemy.

    The definition of hate speech is speech that “vilifies a person or a group on the basis of color, disability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristic…[and] may incite violence or prejudicial action.” Blasphemy is directed towards a being or object which some people perceive as holy, while hate speech is directed towards individual followers or believers with the goal of harming them or encouraging harm to them.

    So no, I don’t believe that anti-blasphemy laws are equivalent to hate speech laws. Contempt and ridicule against a non-existent — or at least intangible — being are very different things from vilifying or advocating harm towards real actual humans.

    • Erick

      This is very narrow thinking, Delphi.

      Would calling black people the “n-word” in front of an only white people crowd not be hate speech then? I guess those KKK meetings aren’t hateful after all, since there are no black people there to be offended by it.

      By insulting someone’s God, you are basically saying it’s ok to look down on the believers of that God. To be prejudiced against them. You are saying it (not to the believers) to everyone else out there. You are basically saying, “Catholics are not as smart as us atheists”. Or “Hindus are so dumb”. It doesn’t sound so different from “black people are not as smart as us white people” to me.

  • kenneth

    “……are people participating in Blasphemy day actually blaspheming?”…..
    Yes, absolutely. Blasphemy as a sin, something purely of internal import to those within a religion and relationship with a deity, is completely unimportant as a public policy matter. What’s at stake, and always has been, is the power asserted by some humans to punish other humans ostensibly to defend the honor of their own god. For those prosecuting blasphemy, the issue is whether they can legitimately make their own authority unassailable by wrapping it up with the deity or religion at hand. They assert that right and authority sometimes with the force of law, sometimes through the threat of extrajudicial violence. This cannot and must not be tolerated by any society that honors freedom of speech and conscience. Blasphemy then, as it is contemplated by “Blasphemy Day”, is the ultimate act of free expression. Those who assert a right to jail or kill others who fail to show deference to their idea of the sacred DESERVE to have those ideas blasphemed and insulted incessantly, and in the most vile and profane ways possible. Blasphemy in this context is noble. It is a way of standing up to other humans and saying “you are not any god’s rightful Earthly avenger or regent, and we are not your subjects.”

    • Brian

      Though I may not be able to satisfactorily explain why, I know that you must be wrong. You must be wrong because 1) it could never be noble to do something immoral and 2) it is a perversion of freedom, and not an authentic expression of it, to do something immoral. Blasphemy is immoral. “Blasphemy Day,” then, seems to be an occasion for really misguided individuals to act like foul-mouthed creeps.

      • kenneth

        You do realize that ALL of Christianity’s martyrdom saint tradition is grounded in acts of blasphemy? The Romans did not persecute the early church because they marched to a different drummer where beliefs were concerned.

        The empire and paganism in general to that time were highly syncretic and never cared about orthodoxy of belief. The Christians were persecuted because they loudly and un-repentantly bad mouthed the state religion of the day, refusing to make even token pro-forma sacrifices as a token of respect for political and social conventions. From the Roman point of view, the Christians were celebrating Blasphemy Day 365 days a year and engaging in a “perversion of freedom, not an authentic expression of it.” Of course it’s safe to say the Christians dying in Caesar’s arenas for such effrontery didn’t feel they were being “loud-mouthed creeps” for the sake of adolescent rebellion. They saw themselves as staking out freedom of conscience AND practice.

        So which is it? Is blasphemy always and inherently immoral or can it rise to a noble act? Or its nobility depend on who is doing the blaspheming versus who is receiving it and whose side prevails long enough to dictate the narrative of history for a given time period?

        • Brian

          I must admit, I was delighted while reading your reply. It is an interesting turnabout – Christians, in more ways than one, are the ultimate “blasphemers.”

          My views on this are not fully formed, but I do know some things for certain. One of those things is that the God of classical theism – His existence – is simply a rational fact and that blaspheming against Him really is immoral. Of course, the atheist will disagree with that, but it is not necessary for him to agree if it really is a rational fact. It is the difference that makes the difference in your example which compares “blaspheming” against fictitious deities against blaspheming against Ipsum Esse Subsistens.

          Now, I am not supporting anti-blasphemy laws (at least not yet – I need to do some more thinking and research). I am merely noting my disgust at the notion of something immoral ever being “noble” or “the ultimate act of free expression.” It’s perverted.

          • kenneth

            You seem to be saying that anyone who believes their own religion to be self-evident is within their rights to blaspheme others at will while taking mortal insult at anyone who returns the favor. THAT is the precise formula for every religious war and genocide ever perpetrated.

          • Alan

            Right, so it is just that your truth is the correct one, and theirs isn’t.

            Well, I do know some things for certain too. One of those is that the God of classical theism – his existence – is simply an irrational belief and blaspheming against him carries no moral implications. Of course, the christian will disagree with that, but it is not necessary for them to agree if it is really an irrational belief. It is this similarity between the examples of ‘blaspheming’ against fictitious deities which makes it disingenuous to persecute one while defending the other.

          • Brian

            My position is quite simple. Classical theism is true, and demonstrably so. Paganism is false, and demonstrably so. Blaspheming against the God of classical theism – that is, the only one and true God – is wrong, and it could never be noble or an authentic expression freedom to do something wrong. That is perverted.

          • Alan

            Your position is simple, and wrong as classical theism is not demonstrably true. So the rest of your argument falls with it.

            Glad we could clear all that up.