Blasphemy laws are one of the most egregious and severe forms of religious privilege. It is the use of state-sponsored violence to attack someone for speaking in ways that religious leaders don’t like. Yet many countries, including the United States, still have blasphemy laws, and people are still killed for blasphemy. We may see yet another piece of blasphemy history in a few weeks.
But things are better now, right? Well, yes – just as most social issue are better, and continue to get better. But we have a long way to go, from the horrible way things were not all that long ago, and of course, the fact that things have been worse is not a reason to keep from making them better. Today it may be both Pagans and Atheists who are most often the target of blasphemy charges, but of course blasphemy charges have been around for a long time.
Some Blasphemy from the Past
A full review of the history of the religious violence euphemized by the term “blasphemy punishments” would be a book in itself, but we can at least look at it a little. The deepest history of blasphemy likely goes back farther than any writing or evidence available today, just as violence in general. What information we do have shows the violent enforcement of religious dominance in the many of the most ancient texts we have, from
those which resulted in the many Bibles today to cuneiform, and more, spanning thousands of years and many different religions. This shows that this violence is something that humans can do, while some religions and ideas may make it more or less likely to happen.
Only a few centuries ago, blasphemy was punishable in some very gruesome ways, including the “Judas cradle”, where the victim would be slowly torn apart by a spike, another was being “broken on the wheel”, where many bones would be broken so as to attach the victim to a wheel (see the image at the top), and too many more bloody, painful torture methods to mention. Some, such as the “heretics fork”, even got their names from the crime of free thinking they were used to punish. These devices and more were also used for other crimes of course, reflecting the cruelty of the past.
After that, though outright torture and death sentences faded away in most Western countries, blasphemy was still enforces through modern laws. Here in the United States, only 90 years ago (within the lifespan of many people), Charles Smith was jailed for weeks for handing out pamphlets which upset Christians. He was not allowed to testify in his defense at his own trial, because he didn’t swear an oath on a Bible – a reminder of Christian privilege which still remains today. And he’s not even the most recent case. More recent blasphemy cases in the United States include a case before the Supreme Court in 1952 and in Pennsylvania in 2007, among others. In fact, blasphemy laws remain in a number of states (Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming) and dozens of countries around the world today. Some blasphemy laws (and similar “Witchcraft Acts“) were only just recently repealed in many countries which we would otherwise think of as being modern, including Sweden (1970), Australia (1995), England (2008), The Netherlands (2014), Iceland (2015), Denmark (2017) and more. That’s right, in many areas, you yourself could have been, or still can be, legally charged and prosecuted for blasphemy or “Witchcraft”. And that’s not even getting into Islamic contries, where many blasphemy and “Witchcraft” laws are in place and enforced.
While fully legal violence under the name of blasphemy remains in many places as described above, religious violence against freedom of expression is also often conducted by the vicious twin of blasphemy laws, which is vigilante violence which is later prosecuted weakly if at all, effectively becoming an extension of state sponsored religious violence. Just three years ago, freethought blogs were deemed to be blasphemous by Islamic leaders in Bangledesh. These leaders issued the call for violence against blasphemers, urging believers to kill anyone on a hit list of a hit list of 84 Atheist bloggers , which they made and published on numerous Islamic websites. Several of these bloggers have been killed in various ways, such as being hacked to death in public. One (Niloy Chatterjee), was found in his apartment by Islamic militants, who cut off his hands and left them next to his decapitated body (in front of his family).
The United States congress, while passing laws to “protect religious freedom” (actually legally excusing Christian privilege by people such as Kim Davis), refused to condemn even the grisly murder of Nilroy Chatterjee. The bill introduced to condemn this and similar religious violence (including violence against those with no religion) died in committee.
Why mention all of this now? Well, no reason beyond the importance of speaking their names and continuing the fight for freedom is needed, of course. On top of that, some recent events have brought blasphemy laws back into the spotlight, due to the bravery of comedian Stephen Fry. Many of us who are open Atheists have had the old canard of “what if you are wrong, what will you say to God when you die?” tossed at us, and so it was no surprise when this happened to Stephen, during an interview on TV. His response is great – here it is:
“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?
That’s what I would say.”
Of course, this response went viral, being viewed millions of times. The video is below, but it’s all over the web anyway. Knowing even some of the history of punishments under the name of “blasphemy”, we can see why, even in our modern age and even in a modern democracy, Stephen Fry found himself being investigated for blasphemy, under a 2009 law written because maintaining a blasphemy law is literally required by the Irish constitution (Article 40.6.1.i.).
The resulting public discussion led to calls for the law to be repealed, but because the constitution itself requires that blasphemy be punished, to remove all blasphemy laws requires a constitutional amendment, which can’t be done by simple legislation. So a date was set for a national vote on a constitutional amendment to remove the blasphemy law requirement (the Irish constitution also specifically mentions Christianity in the preamble). That date is approaching quickly – October 26th. That’s right, we will see an actual vote on blasphemy in a modern, industrialized country in 2018.
Hopefully Naturalistic Pagans around the world will get a Samhain gift of seeing one more blasphemy law end. Even so, it will be interesting to see how many people still support state sponsored religious censorship in 2018 in Ireland. I’ll post an update here.
Starstuff, Contemplating by Jon Cleland Host
We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.