September 30, 2009


Today is International Blasphemy Day.

Blasphemy is defined as the contemptuous use of religious symbols or names. The crime, known in British Common Law as blasphemous libel, remains enshrined in the constitutions of a variety of western nations. The origin of the term is linguistic, found in the Greek blasphemia, which translates to mean, “profane speech or evil slander.” This found its first use in common law around the year 1230, in the Ancrene Riwle (the “Rule for Nuns,” or “Rule of Anchoresses”). In this document, blasphemy meant “to utter impious or profane words” and was usually followed by the words “against,” or “upon”.

There is a distinction made between blasphemy and profanity, on the grounds that the former is intentional while the latter simply habitual. Simple cursing would be categorized as profanity, but practicing devil worship or “that old black magic” might qualify as blasphemy. The distinction is not easily determined and never absolute, but many publishers and writers have faced the court over the years for their writings. The seriousness of blasphemy as an offense has declined with worldwide secularization and the blending of cultures.

In earlier years the charge of blasphemy was deadly serious, but the church overdid it. Over the ensuing centuries, and with much misuse, the word eventually came to mean simply “abuse,” losing much of the original power.

Then in 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language, defined blasphemy as “… an offering of some indignity, or injury, unto God himself, either by words or writing.” This is the definition that has since been used when prosecuting blasphemers. As Great Britain in the days of Dr. Johnson was a Christian monarchy, the category in English Law of Blasphemous Libel referred to the crime committed if a person insults, offends, or vilifies God, Christ, or the Christian religion. Blasphemous libel in a state where Christianity was considered to be part of the law itself, became construed as sedition.

Since the days of Johnson’s dictionary, blasphemy laws have been invoked irregularly, with interesting peaks and valleys. In 1811 Shelley published the notorious pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. While this did not lead to a prosecution, he was kicked out of Oxford. In 1952 much the same happened to Mark Boxer, editor of the Cambridge literary magazine Granta , for publishing a poem beginning “God, God, the silly sod.” However, in 1882 a charge was made and a case brought against a publisher for distributing cartoons ridiculing Christianity.

More recently there have been two controversial cases. The first, in 1977, was the first such private prosecution brought under common law in Great Brittan for fifty years. Self-proclaimed moral crusader, Mary Whitehouse brought the complaint against the editor of UK Gay News for the publication of an allegedly blasphemous poem, by James Kirkup. The poem, titled The Love That Dares to Speak it's Name (Careful. Potentially offensive link), portrayed Jesus as a promiscuous homosexual. Whitehouse won the case. The editor was fined £500 (US $ 800) and sentenced to a year and a half behind bars. Further, the court ruled that the poem could not be printed by any publication in Great Brittan.

The editor’s defense attorney, John Mortimer, in an article appearing in The Spectator (April 21, 1990), related that, “at the trial it was ruled that we could call not evidence on the poem’s literary merit.” So it would seem that, under British common law, blasphemers are treated far more harshly than even pornographers.

Interestingly, in 1989 an attempt to invoke the same law against author Salman Rushdie’s for his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, failed on the grounds that the blasphemy law covers only Christianity.

The Irish constitution also contains a blasphemy clause, but there is only one case taken under this article, Corway -v- Independent Newspapers, (1999), for an editorial cartoon published in the Sunday Independent. The court, in rejecting the claim, ruled that it was impossible to say “of what the offence of blasphemy consists”. The exact constitutional requirement for the blasphemy bar, as stated in Article 40 of the Irish constitution, defines the term as “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” As you can see, there is no definition for any of the terms

Since then, the Irish Justice Minister has proposed a new section for insertion into a proposed Defamation Bill, stating: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.” He further describes "blasphemous matter" as something “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.” The defamation law passed with no debate on the blasphemy section, and now the organization Atheist Ireland plans some sort of response.

Notice that Mr. Irish Justice Minister included “any religion” in his language. So I wonder, if I were to tell the waiter at the Italian restaurant in Dublin something to the effect of “these meatballs suck,” could that land me in the slammer for defaming the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

So today is Blasphemy Day. Celebrate by cursing the deity of your choice, and be glad you live in the United States of America, where (for now, at least) such an act is protected by the supreme law of the land.

UPDATE: Looks like there is a really good thesis on this topic already posted to the WWW. Good reading.



Rogue Medic said...

And I was just writing Read A Banned Book To Celebrate Banned Books Week - 2009.

Tomorrow the Ig Nobel Prizes are to be announced.

I did not realize that today is International Blasphemy Day. I learned a bit about blasphemy from your post. Thank you.

Labrys said...

Wow, now there is an ironic bit, that you have to be Christian to blaspheme in England! I guess as a terrible pagan...they at least can't get me for blasphemy! (And the real hilarious bit...the word verification for this comment is "bless"!)