Blasphemy has been a crime in many religions and cultures, wherever there is something sacred to protect. Socrates was prosecuted for blasphemy, and Mosaic law prescribed death for cursing the name of God. Jesus was tried for blasphemy, while Christians regarded the action of the Jews in trying him as itself blasphemous.
Secular modern states often retain blasphemy laws, but they are infrequently enforced. In the United States, state blasphemy laws remain on the books, but the Supreme Court's expansive interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes it likely that any blasphemy prosecution would now be regarded as an impermissible establishment of religion. In countries governed under Islamic law, the concept of blasphemy is broad, embracing many kinds of disrespect or denial of religion; the condemnation (1988) of the author Salman Rushdie by Iranian clerics is a recent example of theocratic action.
"Blasphemy" may be used by extension to describe any display of gross irreverence towards any person or thing deemed worthy of exalted esteem. In this broader sense the term is used by Sir Francis Bacon in the Advancement of Learning, when he speaks of "blasphemy against learning".
Sometimes the word "blasphemy" is used loosely to mean any profane language, for example in "With much hammering and blasphemy, the locomotive's replacement spring was finally fitted.".
The public domain 1913 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines blasphemy as:
Compare "euphemy", which is a little-used word meaning "describing something as better than it is", as in euphemism.
Other terms for blasphemy are blasphemous libel, defamation of religion, vilification of religion, and religious vilification.
Blasphemy laws exist in these countries:
A person who is aggrieved because aspersions are cast upon his religious belief or affiliation or religious activity does not need to file a complaint under the Criminal Code. He can seek redress under the Anti-Discrimination Act (1998).
The last successful prosecution for blasphemous libel in New South Wales took place in 1871. The case was R. v. William Lorando Jones (unreported, Parramatta Quarter Sessions, Simpson J., February 18, 1871). In that case, the elderly Mr. Jones was found guilty for saying that the Old Testament was immoral and unsuitable for a female readership. The Court sentenced Mr. Jones to a fine of £100 and two years in jail. A public outcry over the sentence resulted in the release of Mr. Jones four weeks later.
A person who is aggrieved because aspersions are cast upon his religious belief or affiliation or religious activity can seek redress under the Anti-Discrimination Act (1991).
The Crown last laid a charge of blasphemous libel in 1919. The case concerned journalist Robert Ross, who had published a satirical piece in which Bolsheviks ransack heaven. The prosecutor dropped the charge, but proceeded on a charge of sending blasphemous materials through the mail. The Court convicted Ross, and sentenced him to six months of hard labour.
A person who is aggrieved because someone is engaging in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of him on the ground of his religious belief or activity can seek redress under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.
In 1977, the Criminal Law and Penal Methods Reform Committee stated that “today it would seem anachronistic to charge anyone with blasphemous libel.”
The Crown last prosecuted a charge of blasphemous libel in R. v. Rahard (1935). In that case, the court adopted an argument that prosecutor E. J. Murphy had proffered in the case of R. v. Sperry (unreported) 1926. Mr. Murphy put the issue this way:
Because blasphemy appears to be an obsolete crime in Canada, Canadians complain instead of hate speech. The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits hate speech that targets an "identifiable group," which includes a religious group. Canada's provinces and territories have human rights commissions or tribunals which can award compensation in matters of hate speech.
The only person prosecuted for blasphemous libel in New Zealand was John Glover, publisher of The Maoriland Worker (a newspaper), in 1922.. The Crown laid a charge of blasphemous libel because the 12 October 1921 issue of The Maoriland Worker included two poems by British poet Siegfried Sassoon. Siegfried's poem 'Stand-to: Good Friday Morning' includes the following three lines:
The case was tried in the Supreme Court in 1922. The prosecution failed.
In 1998, the Crown decided not to prosecute Te Papa museum for displaying Tania Kovats' Virgin in a Condom. In 2006, the Crown decided not to pursue blasphemy charges against CanWest, a broadcaster, for airing an episode of South Park featuring a menstruating Virgin Mary statue.
Rather than complaining of blasphemy, a New Zealander can complain of hate speech. New Zealand prohibits hate speech by its Human Rights Act 1993.
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 a reprieve or a 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 and Muslims in Pakistan condemned Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code as blasphemous. 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.
The blasphemy laws of England and Wales were abolished on 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. The court found 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. 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.
In 1697, a Scottish court hanged Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy. The last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843.
On 5 March 2008, an amendment was passed to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 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 came into force on 8 July 2008.
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:
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."
Christian theology may condemn blasphemy, as in the Luke Bible (World English)/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.
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
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:
1=When ye hear the signs of Allah held in defiance and ridicule, ye are not to sit with them unless they turn to a different theme. [Qur'an 4:140]
1=And when they hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say: "to us our deeds and to you yours; peace be to you. [Qur'an 28: 55]
1=Hold to forgiveness, command what is right; but turn away from the ignorant. [Qur'an 7:199]
1=Have patience with what they say, and leaves them with noble (dignity). [Qur'an 73:10]
1=And the servants of Allah . . . are those who walked on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say 'Peace' [Qur'an 25:63]
1=Allah is with those who restrain themselves. [Qur'an 16: 128]
1=. . . But they uttered blasphemy . . . if they repent, it will be best for them, but if they turn back, Allah will punish them." [Qur'an 9:47]
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), approved by the United Nations in 1948, contains articles which militate against the idea that blasphemy is a crime. Article 7 says everyone is equal before the law. Article 21 supports democracy not theocracy nor ochlocracy. Article 18 declares that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Article 19 says everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. By adopting these articles, most nations, it seems, in 1948, accepted the idea that a country did not need to protect its gods, its preachers, and its religious majority from hurt feelings.
Although most Islamic states were signatories to the UDHR, those states had not, it seems, accepted that blasphemy should be abolished because, on 5 August 1990, the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) adopted The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). The CDHRI's preamble says that Muslims are the "vicegerent of Allah on Earth" and that Allah made the Islamic community, the Ummah, "the best community." The preamble says the CDHRI is a guide from that community to humanity about "a dignified life" which, it seems, means a life lived in obedience to Shariah. The preamble states that fundamental rights and freedoms "are an integral part of the Islamic religion" and "are binding divine commands." Articles 24 and 25 of the CDHRI make all the rights and freedoms stipulated in it subject to Shariah and only to Shariah.
Shariah is not a code of law but a legal system. Countries and communities differ in their interpretation and application of the laws in that system. Nevertheless, all Islamic countries and communities condemn blasphemy. Countries and communities can find support for their actions against blasphemy and against non-Muslims in the Quran and in the hadiths.
Many commentators have said that Sharia is dangerous and intolerable. The European Court for Human Rights has declared that Sharia "is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy." The Court said:
In February 1992, Adama Dieng, secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), delivered a statement about the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the ICJ and on behalf of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights. The statement said of the CDHRI:
The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) says some limitation on freedom of speech is necessary to protect religion, but a Sharia-based limitation "is in direct violation of international law concerning the rights to freedom of religion and expression, and ... is incompatible with the universal philosophy of human rights."
From the information above, one might conclude that the CDHRI controverts the principles of the UDHR. Nevertheless, in 1997, the High Commissioner for Human Rights included the CDHRI in A Compilation of International Instruments (vol. II (1997), pp. 478-84), a collection of documents that promote human rights. Furthermore, on 15 March 2002, Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared at an OIC symposium that "no one can deny the acceptance of the universality of human rights by Islamic States.
In 1999, at the instigation of the OIC, Pakistan brought before the Commission on Human Rights a resolution entitled 'Defamation of Islam'. The purpose of the resolution was to have the Commission stand up against what the OIC claimed was a campaign to defame Islam.
Some members of the Human Rights Commission put forward amendments that called for the protection of all religions. Consequently, the Commission adopted a non-binding resolution entitled 'Defamation of Religion' Each year between 1999 and 2006, the Commission approved very similar resolutions about protecting religions in general and about protecting Islam in particular.
In 2005, Yemen introduced a resolution entitled 'Combating Defamation of Religions' in the General Assembly (60th Session). 101 states voted in favour of the resolution.
In March 2006, the Human Rights Commission, with 47 members, became the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The Council approved a resolution entitled 'Combating Defamation of Religions', and submitted it to the General Assembly. In the General Assembly, 58% (111) of the member states of the United Nations (192 states) voted for the Resolution; 28% opposed it; 14% abstained. Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council, voted for the Resolution.
In April 2007 (4th session), the UNHRC adopted a resolution which was entitled 'Combating Defamation of Religions' and which was much like the preceding resolutions on that subject. Russia, Cuba, and China voted with the majority (24 countries), which favoured the resolution.
In August 2007, the Special Rapporteur to the Human Rights Council, Doudou Diène, reported to the General Assembly on the manifestations of defamation of religions and in particular on the serious implications of Islamophobia on the enjoyment of all rights. Among other recommendations, the Special Rapporteur recommended that the Member States promote dialogue between cultures, civilizations, and religions taking into consideration:
On 18 December 2007, the General Assembly voted on another resolution entitled 'Combating Defamation of Religions'. 108 states voted in favour of the resolution; 51 voted against it; and 25 abstained. The European Union and those countries with systems based on English law opposed the resolution. The resolution required the Secretary General to report to the sixty-third session of the General Assembly on the implementation of the resolution, and to have regard for “the possible correlation between defamation of religions and the upsurge in incitement, intolerance and hatred in many parts of the world.”
In 2008, the UNHRC passed another resolution about the defamation of religion. 24 members were in favour; 9 were opposed; 14 abstained.
On 27 March 2008, the UNHRC requested that the High Commissioner for Human Rights compile a report on “relevant existing legislations and jurisprudence concerning defamation of and contempt for religions.”
At the same time, the UNHRC asked its Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to bring to the Council's attention all instances of racism and blasphemy. In the words of the resolution, the Rapporteur is to “report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination …”
Githu Muigai, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, addressed the UNHRC on 19 September 2008. He delivered the report prepared by Doudou Diène. The report called on Member States to shift the present discussion in international fora from the idea of 'defamation of religions' to the legal concept of 'incitement to national, racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence', which was grounded on international legal instruments.