The Importance of Blasphemy

September 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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