It’s the twenty-first century and our planet still hasn’t outgrown the ancient concept of blasphemy, as demonstrated by the recent Mideast violence. The more I think about it, the bigger the topic seems, so I’ll restrict myself to a few observations:seven to be precise, a holy number. Therefore, if you disagree with any of them you are hereby damned to hell.
1) Blasphemy is personal. I’m thinking specifically about strong blasphemy in the sense of insult and contempt. When you disrespect a devout person’s religion, you’re disrespecting their very identity, and they’ll react accordingly. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to blaspheme, but if you’re openly mocking or condemning someone’s religion to make a point, don’t expect to have a rational conversation with them afterwards. Strong blasphemy makes sense if your goal is to expose an ideology to ridicule by everyone who isn’t already a committed follower. But it isn’t a good conversation starter with the faithful.
2) That said, a lot of the current rage is probably about other grievances. The recent anti-Islam video provided a convenient rallying point, but let’s not forget that the US and its allies not only have a recent history of invading, bombing, and drone-attacking Muslim countries, but also a much longer history of supporting brutal dictators such as the Shah of Iran, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein (in the 1980s), among others. These aren’t the sorts of things that people in those countries tend to forget. (I’m not excusing the violence; I’m saying there’s a larger historical context.)
3) Freedom of speech is incompatible with freedom from offense. No matter what you believe, your beliefs deeply offend millions of people, many of whom think you’ll be tortured in hell. They feel they have a right to shut you up.
4) The very concept of blasphemy needs to be rejected. It’s a harmful idea because it shields ideas from scrutiny and open criticism. Criticism and mockery are tools by which we sift ideas, with the hope that good ideas will prove more resilient than bad ones. Bad ideas tend to hide behind the shields of faith, tradition, and usefulness to people in power.
5) This isn’t to say that everyone who disses a religion is a good person. A lot of people are just jerks, or trolls provoking a response, or fundamentalists from rival religions. But we can either defend these people’s rights to free speech, or we can be lumped in with them by the defenders of religious privilege.
6) Discrediting “blasphemy” takes time. It took Western countries centuries to weaken it to its present condition, and we aren’t entirely free of it yet. Whenever you hear someone say that it’s wrong to “attack” religion, they’re invoking the concept of blasphemy even if they don’t use the word. Tonight I looked up the word in the Catholic Encylopedia, which gives a fascinating little history of the penalties for blasphemy in ages past (death in Old Testament times; flogging, tongue-piercing, and being “condemned to the galleys” in medieval times — and this is aside from what happened to full-blown heretics and apostates, who were of course killed in nasty ways). The entry brings the story up to 1917 (when the encyclopedia was published) by noting that in the US and UK, anti-blasphemy laws with a punishment of a fine and three month’s imprisonment “were declared constitutional as not subversive of the freedom of speech or liberty of the press” — apparently a state of affairs of which the Church approved.
7) You weaken “blasphemy” by weakening religion itself. To the degree that someone truly believes that disrespect toward religion is an offense to God, and that toleration of this evil is also an offense to God, they will try to stop blasphemy by any means necessary—a lesson repeated ad nauseum in both the Bible and the Quran. People grow more tolerant only as their religion becomes watered down and their thinking becomes more secular. This should be our goal.