We need to get our definitions right if we’re going to have a serious debate about this, but unfortunately, it isn’t all that easy to find a commonly-agreed definition, even though we can find references to it in that fountain of all wisdom for many Western religious fundamentalists, the Old Testament.
I found various definitions, all of which, to one extent or another, are inadequate. I’d welcome better definitions from anyone willing to supply them, since I don’t want to be accused of straw-man arguments.
Contemptuous or profane speech or action concerning God or a sacred entity.
Irreverent or impious action or expression in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.
Of course, these notions arose at a time when everyone, in public at least, accepted as a given that a deity existed, and what’s more they arose at a time when individual freedom of thought was simply non-existent. As somebody pointed out recently, Dante and Voltaire would have felt much more in tune with the thinking of the Charlie Hebdo killers than they would with what we now call Western values.
Religious intolerance is nothing new.
According to Leviticus 24:16
And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.
Now, that’s fairly clear from the context, even if it doesn’t contain a definition of blasphemy. Talk bad shit about our fictional deity and we’ll bash your brains out. That’s pre-Muslim, by the way, but it forms part of the the basis for Judaism and fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It’s one of the optional bits, if you don’t want to come across as a complete nut-job, though sadly we don’t know which bit is which, since the character who wrote it neglected to say which bits of the Old Testament you can safely ignore and which bits you have to follow.
American fundamentalists, please note.
Admittedly, the Christians and Jews in modern times don’t, for the most part, bash anyone’s brains out simply for speaking ill of Da Lawd, though the Jews as defined by Bibi Netanyahu have developed the unfortunate belief that they can bomb the shit out of Arabs simply for being Arabs and for existing. I suppose existing is a form of blasphemy to some, though in my world, the bombing is the blasphemy, but what would I know about ethics, being an atheist?
Let’s go back to our definitions of blasphemy.
God or a sacred entity.
What’s that? God or sacred entity. In an ancient time, everyone agreed there was a god. You could get yourself burned at the stake, not for disbelieving in that god, but for getting the message wrong, as handed down by various self-appointed priests and that made you a heretic, just as it does today with certain self-appointed imams.
These days, some would say that our sacred entity is and always has been money and there’s no doubt that we’ve all been shouted down for criticising the bankers. As for a god, it’s hard to know what people mean by that since they seem completely unable to explain their idea of a deity, apart from some magical problem-fixer they’d love to have around the house when things go a little flaky.
HAL, in other words.
Of course, you could argue that people hold many things sacred. Here in Limerick, for example, there are people who hold rugby football so sacred that they’s be deeply offended if you said a cruel word against it. And even within the rugby football world, there are Shannon supporters who might accuse you of having a pathological hatred if you laugh at them, just as an old friend accused me recently following a light-hearted jibe.
What does sacred mean? Nothing.
What does god mean? Nothing.
Something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.
Who considers it inviolable or sacrosanct? Is it enough if one individual thinks that? Can that individual silence all of us simply by virtue of holding something sacrosanct?
Isn’t that a charter for every nutcase in the world to silence everyone else?
It’s important to draw a distinction between hate speech and offending people.
Firstly, nobody can give offence. Offence is always taken and if we permit offence to be a criterion governing what may and may not be said, then we put absolute control in the hands of hair-trigger fundamentalists on the lookout for things to be offended by.
This makes no sense.
Hate speech, on the other hand, is incitement to demean and belittle an entire group of people with a view to oppressing them. This is a despicable but increasingly-common trend even in Ireland, where knee-jerk anti-Muslim propaganda is gaining traction even among otherwise intelligent people.
Now, personally, I think Islam is bullshit, just as I think Christianity and Judaism are bullshit, because I think belief in magic is bullshit, but I’m not sure what I’ve just said is legal. It’s conceivable that some irate religious person might make a complaint to the police and I might be charged with blasphemy.
I might actually welcome a charge like that in order to challenge the nonsense of our ridiculous blasphemy law and I’d certainly relish my day in court, but that isn’t really the point.
The real point is that we need people constantly challenging the status quo, the received wisdom, the accepted belief, because otherwise, we’ll end up in a static, unquestioning bubble of orthodoxy and look how well that’s served us over the centuries.