1 utter obscenities or profanities; "The drunken men were cursing loudly in the street" [syn: curse, cuss, swear, imprecate]
2 speak of in an irrevent or impious manner; "blaspheme God"
Blasphemy is the disrespectful use of the name of one or more gods. It may include using sacred names as stress expletives without intention to pray or speak of sacred matters; it is also sometimes defined as language expressing disapproved beliefs, or disbelief. Sometimes blasphemy is used loosely to mean any profane language.
In a broader sense, blasphemy is irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable. In this sense, the term is used by Sir Francis Bacon in Advancement of Learning, when he speaks of "blasphemy against learning".
Many cultures disapprove of speech or writing which defames the deity or deities of their established religions, and these restrictions have the force of law in some countries.
From Middle English blasfemen, from Old French blasfemer, from Late Latin blasphemare, from Greek blasphemein, from blaptein, "to injure", and pheme, "reputation". Blasphemy, which was opposed to "euphemy" (see euphemism), and has also given "blame" from Old French blasmer.
There has been a recent tendency in Western countries towards the repeal or reform of blasphemy laws, and these laws are only infrequently enforced where they exist.
Blasphemy laws exist in the following countries (incomplete list):
- The paragraph has not been used since 1938 when a nazi group was convicted for antisemite propaganda. The 'hate speech' paragraph (266 b) is used much more frequently. Abolition of the blasphemy clause was proposed in 2004, but failed to gain a majority. It has been discussed since, especially after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.
- Unsuccessful attempts were made to rescind the law in 1914, 1917, 1965, 1970 and 1998.
- Germany (Article 166 of the penal code, see also the Manfred van H. case)
- Iran (See: Blasphemy laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran)
- Ireland (See: Irish Constitution)
- Israel (Articles 170, 173 of the penal code)
- Italy (see :it:Bestemmia#Aspetti legali)
- The Netherlands (Article 147 of the penal code), see also Gerard Reve and the 1966 blasphemy incident
- New Zealand (Section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961)
- Norway (section 142 of the Norwegian Penal Code never applied).
- Spain (Article 525 of the penal code)
- Switzerland (Article 261 of the penal code)
- United States (see below)
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg adopted on 29 June 2007 Recommendation 1805 (2007) on blasphemy, religious insults and hate speech against persons on grounds of their religion. This Recommendation set a number of guidelines for member states of the Council of Europe in view of Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights. In this area, there is also considerable case-law by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
United States of AmericaSome US states still have blasphemy laws on the books from the founding days. Chapter 272 of the Massachusetts General Laws states, for example:
- Section 36. Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, His creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.
The history of Maryland's blasphemy statutes suggests that even into the 1930s, the First Amendment was not recognized as preventing states from passing such laws. An 1879 codification of Maryland statutes prohibited blasphemy:
- Art. 72, sec. 189. If any person, by writing or speaking, shall blaspheme or curse God, or shall write or utter any profane words of and concerning our Saviour, Jesus Christ, or of and concerning the Trinity, or any of the persons thereof, he shall, on conviction, be fined not more than one hundred dollars, or imprisoned not more than six months, or both fined and imprisoned as aforesaid, at the discretion of the court.
According to the marginalia, this statute was adopted in 1819, and a similar law dates back to 1723. In 1904, the statute was still on the books at Art. 27, sec. 20, unaltered in text. As late as 1939, this statute was still the law of Maryland. But in 1972, in Maryland v. Irving K. West, the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) declared the blasphemy law unconstitutional.
The last person to be jailed in the United States specifically for blasphemy was Abner Kneeland in 1838, as decided by the Massachusetts case Commonwealth v. Kneeland. However, this was prior to the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 incorporating the Bill of Rights to apply to the states and not just the federal government. From 1925 onward, the Supreme Court began a consistent application of the Bill of Rights to the states.
The last U.S. conviction for blasphemy—at least that of any significance—was of atheist activist Charles Lee Smith. In 1928 he rented a storefront in Little Rock, Arkansas, and gave out free atheist literature there. The sign in the window read: "Evolution Is True. The Bible's a Lie. God's a Ghost." For this he was charged with violating the city ordinance against blasphemy. Because he was an atheist and therefore couldn't swear the court's religious oath to tell the truth, he wasn't permitted to testify in his own defense. The judge then dismissed the original charge, replacing it with one of distributing obscene, slanderous, or scurrilous literature. Smith was convicted, fined $25, and served most of a twenty-six-day jail sentence. His high-profile fast while behind bars drew national media attention. Upon his release he immediately resumed his atheist activities, was again charged with blasphemy, and this time the charge held. In his trial he was again denied the right to testify and was sentenced to ninety days in jail and a fine of $100. Released on $1,000 bail, Smith appealed the verdict. The case then dragged on for several years until it was finally dismissed.
The US Supreme Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952) held that the New York State blasphemy law was an unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom of speech. The court stated that "It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures."
Among Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan has the strictest anti-blasphemy laws. In 1982, President Zia ul-Haq introduced Section 295B to the Pakistan Penal Code punishing "defiling the Holy Qur'an" with life imprisonment. In 1986, Section 295C was introduced, mandating the death penalty for "use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet".
In 1990 the Federal Shari’ah Court ruled that the penalty should be a mandatory death sentence, with no right to reprieve or pardon. This is binding, but the government has yet to formally amend the law, which means that the provision for life sentence still formally exists, and is used by the government as a concession to critics of the death penalty. In 2004, the Pakistani parliament approved a law to reduce the scope of the blasphemy laws. The amendment to the law means that police officials will have to investigate accusations of blasphemy to ensure that they are well founded, before presenting criminal charges.
However, the law is used against political adversaries or personal enemies, by Muslim fundamentalists against Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, or for personal revenge. Especially Ahmadi Muslims are victims of the blasphemy law. They claim to be Muslims themselves, but under the blasphemy law, they are not allowed to use Islamic vocabulary or rituals.
The Pakistani Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission complained in July 2005 that since 1988, some 650 people had been falsely accused and arrested under the blasphemy law. Moreover, over the same period, some 20 people accused of the same offense had been killed. As of July 2005, 80 Christians were in prison accused of blasphemy.
Christians in Pakistan protested Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code as blasphemous, with support of Muslims as well. On 3 June, 2006, Pakistan banned the film. Culture Minister Gulab Jamal said: "Islam teaches us to respect all the prophets of God Almighty and degradation of any prophet is tantamount to defamation of the rest."
United KingdomThe blasphemy law in the UK is to be abolished, with effect from 8 July 2008.
Blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom were specific to blasphemy against Christianity. The last attempted prosecution under these laws was in 2007, when the fundamentalist group Christian Voice sought a private prosecution against the BBC over its broadcasting of the show Jerry Springer: The Opera (which includes a scene depicting Jesus, dressed as a baby, professing to be "a bit gay"). The charges were rejected by the City of Westminster magistrates court. Christian Voice applied to have this ruling overturned by the High Court, but the application was rejected, with the court finding that the common law blasphemy offences specifically did not apply to stage productions (s. 2(4) of the Theatres Act 1968) and broadcasts (s. 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990).
The last successful blasphemy prosecution (also a private prosecution) was Whitehouse v. Lemon in 1977, when Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News, was found guilty of blasphemous libel. His newspaper had published James Kirkup's poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, which allegedly vilified Christ and his life. Lemon was fined £500 and given a suspended sentence of nine months imprisonment. It had been "touch and go", said the judge, whether he would actually send Lemon to jail. In 2002, a deliberate and well-publicised public repeat reading of the poem took place on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, but failed to lead to any prosecution.
The last person in Britain to be imprisoned for blasphemy was John William Gott on 9 December 1921. He had three previous convictions for blasphemy when he was prosecuted for publishing two pamphlets which satirised the biblical story of Jesus entering Jerusalem (Matthew 21:2-7), comparing Jesus to a circus clown. He was sentenced to nine months' hard labour.
The last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843.
On 5 March 2008, an amendment was passed to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill abolishing the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel (common law is abolished, not repealed). The Act received royal assent on 8 May 2008, and the relevant section is to come into force two months later.
Blasphemy in Judaism
In the third book of the Torah, Leviticus 24:16 states that those who speak blasphemy "shall surely be put to death", see also List of capital crimes in the Torah.
Blasphemy in Christianity
Christian theology may condemn blasphemy, as in the Luke 12:10, where blaspheming the Holy Spirit is spoken of as unforgivable - the eternal sin. However, there is dispute over what form this blasphemy may take and whether it qualifies as blasphemy in the conventional sense.
In the time of Jesus, when Christian ideas relied upon the influence of natural authority against the then secular religious power of the Second Jewish Temple, this admonishment may be interpreted as warning against an actual reaction from the Holy Spirit in the form of a curse that can irreparably harm a person (and thus be unforgivable but not by dictate). This statement in effect establishes the importance of this aspect of the Godhead, rather than setting an arbitrary law.
Catholic prayers and reparations for blasphemyIn the Catholic tradition, there are specific prayers and devotions as Acts of Reparation for blasphemy. For instance, The Golden Arrow Holy Face Devotion (Prayer) first introduced by Sister Marie of St Peter in 1844 is recited "in a spirit of reparation for blasphemy". This devotion (started by Sister Marie and then promoted by the Venerable Leo Dupont) was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1885. The Raccolta Catholic prayer book includes a number of such prayers.
The Holy See has specific "Pontifical organizations" for the purpose of the reparation of blasphemy through Acts of Reparation to Jesus Christ, e.g. the Pontifical Congregation of the Benedictine Sisters of the Reparation of the Holy Face
Blasphemy in IslamBlasphemy in Islam constitutes speaking ill of any other prophet mentioned in the Qur'an. The Qur'an also states that it is blasphemy to claim that there is more than one god or that Jesus Christ (the son of Mary) is the son of God (5.017). Speaking ill of God is also blasphemy. In Islam, blasphemy is considered a sin. The Quran says "He forgives all sins, except disbelieving in God (blasphemy)". In Islam if a person dies while in blasphemy, they will not enter heaven, except if said person repented before death. However, in Islam, interjections such as "God!"; "Good Lord"; or "for God's sake" are not considered blasphemy, unless the word "God" is replaced with another name that implies worship to someone or something other than God. For example "Jesus!" or "Holy cow" are considered blasphemy because they denote worship to something other than God.
The following Qur'anic verses appear to suggest that there is no worldly punishment for blasphemy, controverting the notion that blasphemy is punishable by death:
In contemporary language, the notion of blasphemy is often used ironically, as a form of hyperbole. As an example, one might express that doubting Wikipedia as a good source of information is blasphemous. This usage has garnered some interest among linguists recently, and the word 'blasphemy' is a common case used for illustrative purposes.
External links and references
- Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression (ISSN US 0363-3659)
- Levy, L. Blasphemy. Chapel Hill, 1993.
- Comprehensive academic study comparing global legal approaches to blasphemy in light of the Jyllands-Posten controversy
- Dartevelle, P., S Borg, Denis, Ph., Robyn, J. (eds.). Blasphèmes et libertés. Paris: CERF, 1993
- Plate, S. Brent Blasphemy: Art that Offends (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006) [ISBN 1904772536]
- The Rational Response Squad: The Blasphemy Challenge
- A More4 news film report on how insulting the prophet Mohammed in Pakistan is a capital offence, and defiling the Koran carries life imprisonment.
- A review of European blasphemy laws
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Blasphemy
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Blasphemy
blaspheme in Czech: Rouhání
blaspheme in Danish: Blasfemi
blaspheme in German: Blasphemie
blaspheme in Spanish: Blasfemia
blaspheme in Esperanto: Blasfemo
blaspheme in French: Blasphème
blaspheme in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Blasphemia
blaspheme in Icelandic: Guðlast
blaspheme in Italian: Bestemmia
blaspheme in Hungarian: Istenkáromlás
blaspheme in Dutch: Godslastering
blaspheme in Japanese: 冒涜
blaspheme in Norwegian: Blasfemi
blaspheme in Norwegian Nynorsk: Blasfemi
blaspheme in Polish: Bluźnierstwo
blaspheme in Portuguese: Blasfémia
blaspheme in Romanian: Blasfemie
blaspheme in Russian: Богохульство
blaspheme in Simple English: Blasphemy
blaspheme in Finnish: Jumalanpilkka
blaspheme in Swedish: Hädelse
blaspheme in Venetian: Raxìa
blaspheme in Chinese: 褻瀆