Massimo Pigliucci on blasphemy laws in the 21st century

Massimo Pigliucci writes, blasphemy is a strange concept, according to my dictionary it refers to “the act or offence of speaking sacrilegiously of God or sacred things.”

By that definition, every religious believer constantly engages in blasphemy — of all the other gods she doesn’t believe in. You would think that this simple observation would put an end to any silly talk of legislating blasphemy, but you would be spectacularly wrong. A recent checklist of blasphemy laws worldwide makes it clear that they are found not only in the obvious places — Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other similarly unenlightened nations — but in most European countries, Canada and several states in the US.

To add irony to tragedy, of course, Saudi Arabia — that beacon of tolerance — has recently mounted a campaign at the United Nations to pass an anti-blasphemy resolution, sponsored (surprise surprise!) by the 56 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Because nothing speaks more loudly in favor of religious tolerance than the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, to pick on most obviously the motor behind this effort, an inter-faith conference on religious blasphemy simply could not be held, because Jews, Christians, and even representatives of non-Saudi versions of Islam would not be allowed into the country if they openly professed their respective creeds.

Proponents of anti-blasphemy laws within international bodies like the UN or the European community seem oblivious to the obvious legal (not to mention moral) contradictions that such laws immediately raise. As far as the United Nations is concerned, for instance, blasphemy laws are in stark opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which constitutes an essential part of the UN’s raison d’être. In Europe, as recently as May 2009 the Venice Commission, which is the EU’s advisory body on constitutional issues, clearly stated that blasphemy comes under freedom of expression, which is protected in the EU charter.

Fortunately, most western countries simply do not use their blasphemy laws, though attempts to eliminate them altogether have failed in recent years in Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands, for instance. The UK is a glaring and positive exception: in March of last year the House of Lords finally abolished anti-blasphemy statutes with a 148-87 vote. It is instructive, however, to read how conservative member of the house Detta O’Cathain attempted to defend the indefensible:

“The essential question is: Should we abolish Christian beliefs and replace them with secular beliefs? As long as there has been a country called England, it has been a Christian country, publicly acknowledging the one true God.” Ah yes, the one true god. Except of course for all those other religious people who are legal British citizens and happen to believe in other gods. And of course that is precisely not the essential question: O’Cathain is making the same (possibly willful) mistake that is common among Christian fundamentalists in the United States, the confusion between freedom of speech (including of course for non-theists) and the persecution of one’s own faith. Could it be that this persecution paranoia comes from the actual legacy of intolerance and violence that has characterized Christian churches throughout their history?

But the UK’s positive step is about to be countered by an unusual move in a nearby part of Europe: Ireland is considering putting a new blasphemy law on its books! The proposed statute says in part “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” and defines blasphemy as speech 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.” I’m not sure what the difference is between “grossly abusive” and simply abusive, or where ithe threshold is that defines a “substantial” number of offended, but the concept of “insult” is so tenuous that I seriously wonder how such a law — God forbid it should be passed — would allow the preservation of any free speech at all in Ireland. Suppose I start a religion that has only one commandment: there are no gods other than the Big Green Blob in the sky.” (You will appreciate that this isn’t that far fetched, considering that a similar clause represents the first commandment of all three Abrahamic religions.) Even at the onset, with a membership of one, my new religion will both have to be protected against blasphemy and simultaneously manage to be blasphemous to all other religions in one fell swoop. Talk about logical contradictions! The example might seem outrageous, but it is simply a very obvious version of what is already out there: as my atheists friends often tell their religious counterparts, I disbelieve just one more god than you do, so everyone is by definition blasphemous.

But of course the real argument against blasphemy laws is not a matter of logical contradictions or legal consistency, it’s a matter of simple decency. This was stated most clearly by the US Supreme Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952): “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.” That’s because an open society can only thrive by being, well, open. I understand that this doesn’t go down well in theocratic countries like Saudi Arabia, but it really ought to be a no-brainer in western democracies. And this principle ought to apply to non-religious speech as well: Canada and several European countries, for instance, have “hate speech” laws that make it illegal (e.g. in Germany) to deny historical facts like the Holocaust. Denying the Holocaust is stupid, bigoted and ignorant, but we should not be getting into the business of legislating against people’s stupidity, bigotry or ignorance (it would be a truly Sysyphean task anyway). Instead, we should combat them with education and critical thinking.

What needs protection is not hate speech, of course, but hate action: burning down churches, killing abortion doctors, or attacking the embassies of countries whose citizens publish satirical cartoons ought to be strongly condemned by all and swiftly prosecuted on legal grounds. There is only one reasonable exception to an uncompromising protection of speech: when someone directly incites hate crimes. But on that count, it is religions across the world that have a really bad record. Should we not cleanse our own house from actual violence and hatred, before rallying against the imaginary ones that our paranoia attributes to other people?

by Massimo Pigliucci

This guest post comes by invitation from Massimo Pigliucci who has also reproduced the entry on his blog at Rationally Speaking. He is also the author of several books on the topics of Science, Evolution, rationality, skepticism and creationism.


“File:Massimo Pigliucci.jpg” by Tim Deschaumes is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    Gavin McBride June 10, 2009

    Thanks Massimo Pigliucci, great to see your face around here. Hope we see you again.

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    zayphod beeblebrox June 28, 2009

    Please, somebody prove me wrong on this… It seems to an atheist such as I that at least one of the very cornerstones if not most of the foundation not forgetting the bricks and mortar of this great little nation belong to the catholic church, the church was there at the founding of the state and assumed control over the population from birth to death and beyond. The pope in rome is spiritual master of the majority of irish people today, although not obvious at first glance, what with low church congregations and hellraising antics abound. I sense that despite superficial appearances the vast majority of irish people know in their soul where they are coming from, they were born and bred into the catholic tradition and will stay quietly faithful. the influence is subtle and powerful at the same time, I myself never held the faith but still utter Jaysus! more often than i should, you see even if you are atheist you may have friends and family who are religious.see how far you get around town standing by your atheist beliefs? please reply to me. tx

  3. Avatar
    Gavin McBride June 30, 2009

    ZP. An arch bridge is built not as an n shape but as a semi circle. The bricks are then removed leaving the n shape. What is left is maintained. It would be more costly to leave and then have to maintain ALL the bricks there.

    Similarly religion is often said to have been required to build our civilisation. I would dispute that but even if we grant it, it does not mean we need to keep it NOW. Like the bricks in the arch way it is superfluous to requirements and costly and damaging to maintain.

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    Carter, A. July 07, 2009

    Not wishing to sound defeatist but I think Zayphod is right, though I claim no great knowledge of the Irish public or politics; so much entrenched Catholicism, stubborn old traditionalists that’ll just go with the flow, it’ll be damned hard work.

    When Evan Harris & Lord Averbury got rid of the Blasphemy law in the UK it was amazing, so sudden! It’s easy to forget the National Secular Society had been campaigning against it for almost 150 years!

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    GetSmart July 10, 2009

    So, Irish atheists should get preemptive, and claim Christians, Muslims, Scientologists, Buddhists, Hindus etc. etc. are an outrage to Atheists, and should no longer be allowed to voice their superstitious drivel as it is offensive to Atheists. Then, religionists in Ireland couldn’t even complain to the courts about this as it would be based on their offensive religious beliefs. Case closed. That would be great. Should set a legal precedent for the entire EU on the subject.

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    ZaraMara July 10, 2009

    Thank you for the clear and succint explanation of the proposed law. It is, to my mind, ludicrous as you cannot legislate for personal opinion or taste. One persons offesive is another persons amusing. It would depend to a degree on how willing to be offendedd a person is and some are more easily upset than others, depending on the level of their critical thinking.
    But to take this to the nth degree, were the law passed, you could potentially see such silliness as Baning the following:

    Recipes for beef casserole – Hindus hold the cow in high regard.
    Ads for ‘the Christmas ham’ – Jews regard the pig as unclean meat.
    Page Three of the Sun + any ads for any alcohol or meat which is not Har’aam – becuase that is forbidden for Muslins.
    Ads for non-Kosher food – which us fobidden for orthodox jews.
    Ads for meat whatsoever – forbidden for Buddhists and certain Hindus
    Any premises who publish their Sunday opening hours – Offensive to presbyterians who regard Sunday as a day of rest
    Mosques and Synagogues publishing times of religious services – offensive to Non-muslins and non-jews.
    Churches and temples publishing times of . . . . . you see where I’m headed with this.

  7. Avatar
    Noel Mannion July 11, 2009

    In response to zayphod beeblebrox

    You don’t make any points with your post. Yeah the Catholic Church played a role in Irish life, well because it could, that was the default, devoid of choice.

    Putting robes and vestments aside for a sec, the Catholic Church was a well organized business – resource rich, volunteer wealthy and highly organized, through a hierarchical structure – like any good mafia family.

    Irish people were easy targets for such faith based hope in such hard times. Irish people didn’t have much choice when one considers our rich and tumultuous history with the country practically at war for over 800 years. The church was well placed in those days to fill the intellectual void, dispensing a firm, bet-into-ya education, sprinkled with lashings of superstition, in case we get any funny ideas, like thinking for ourselves.

    But it’s 2009 unless I’ve taken a crazy pill?

    We gone from sandals to scandals! I think, what with the publication of the Ryan report, dwindling congregations, Priest scandals all over the shop, the alter-set have been loosing interest, including those signed up for the preaching duties themselves, in 50yrs, what will be left?

    Do you even think the youtubing, beboing teenagers of Ireland now could care less about religion? One quick stop to Google keywords, and you’ll see it’s not the bible or Sunday mass times they’re looking up. Though they may attend mass, it’s their parents dragging them along, not for their kids sake, but for their own sake, to save face. I’m not saying everyone is like that, I’m not generalising here, but I reckon there’s a lot more people than we think going for the sake of going – remove them and the chapel just got a whole lot colder.

    My point here is this.

    The Catholic Church’s archaic grip on Ireland’s population is dying – a fact widely acknowledged by themselves, although our semantics would differ I’m sure.

    This is simply because the CC cannot provide answers to the complexities of modern day living from a book of interpreted texts written from a badly translated patchwork history book – excellent fiction – but as expert historians will tell you, not accurate at all.

    Irish people need answers to modern day problems, which only rational, intellectually stimulated, superstition free thought can give.

    I agree also with ZaraMara – where would this nonsense end. As I’ve written before, who would preside over an infraction on this ridculous blasphemy law?

    Obviously a religious person, but then surely there would have to be a secular person to independently debate it? Surely, but I fear this wouldn’t happen, considering one has to be “sweared” into law here.

    That’s why this law needs to be quashed, otherwise, we will enter another recession of intellectualism and free thought in Ireland, a return to the dark ages – no thank you!

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    chivosaurio July 13, 2009

    is this really? in 21th century? in europe?

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    Bruce July 14, 2009

    When the Islamic call to prayer is sent out from each mosque, all the area’s Christians cannot help but hear the claim that Mohammed was the (ultimate) prophet of god. As this belief denies the divinity of Jesus, it is inherently blasphemous and offensive to the majority of Christians. Therefore, Islam must refrain from any public call to prayer.

    Likewise, singing many Christmas carols denies the validity of Islam and Judaism and Hinduism. Under the terms of the new blasphemy law, the opinions of Christians on this matter are irrelevant, so all public declarations in support of Christ must cease immediately.

    It’s not just a good idea. It is the law.

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    Apologus July 14, 2009

    Return to the dark ages, unbelievable. It inflates religion and god to a new level. If someone were to say, non-believers are evil. Would that require a fine too?

    Do atheists, in Ireland, need to claim Atheism as a religion?

    What I think they need to do is make about 1000 new religions. In this way, it would be impossible to say just about anything. Ireland would be a silent place. The citizens would become taciturn.

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    Phil Powell July 23, 2009

    Find out who first proposed this law. Then ask him about worshiping SATURN, The SUN. The MOON, TIWSDAY, WODENSDAY, THORSDAY and FREYASDAY.

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    Johnny Britain August 19, 2009

    This really is great its personally like winning the lotto as soon as this bill is passed Ill be suing the government for forcing religion on to my child through the public school system and damaging his ability to rationally think.