Blasphemed lately? Watch your back!

The word blasphemy is not as frequently heard in the Western world as it used to be. But among the faithful the concept has not gone away. (Christians often condemn blasphemy in words and deeds while avoiding the seemingly archaic word.) In other cultures—primarily Muslim—blasphemy still has deadly consequences.

Deadly or not, to believers blasphemy by whatever name is a big deal. After all, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven,” we are told in the synoptic gospels. “He that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death (Quran Surah 24:16). Moreover, it is not just the blasphemer who suffers the wrath of God, but also the congregation that fails to fulfil its duty to “stone him…to death” (Leviticus 24).

In the American colonies, long before the United States Constitution introduced an Enlightenment attitude toward liberty, there were severe blasphemy laws. One would hope Christians and Muslims would visit their religious taboos only on their own crowds, but that’s not been their inclination. They just can’t keep their beliefs to themselves. And that goes beyond the evangelistic commandment in Matthew 28 that Christians spread their “good news” worldwide. From the Crusades to Catholic missionaries to today’s politically active fundamentalists, Christians’ tactics make Matthew’s challenge look unambitious. In the U.S., they seek to control laws, tax policies, and entertainment by hijacking the power of the state; they are no less oppressive just because Muslims do it more forcefully. Quran 24:16, for example, directs that “the [blaspheming] stranger” be stoned just as readily “as he that is born in the land.” Visitors don’t get a pass.

Steeped in stories of the faithful being punished because of sinners nearby, it is understandable that Christians and Muslims have a need to force nonbelievers to conform to their doctrines. God made it clear to Lot that he’d destroy everyone in Sodom unless 50 or more “righteous” could be found. That and other examples of Jehovah’s harshness toward good people just because they exist alongside sinners makes some of Pat Robertson’s nuttiness explainable. Angry about “Gay Days” at Disneyworld, Robertson predicted that God would rain down “serious hurricanes, terrorist bombs, earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor” on homosexuals as well as gay-friendly Central Floridians and their guests.

Christians even make the convenient misinterpretation that religious freedom means—in the words of Robert Boston’s Taking Liberties—telling others what to do, using the power of civil government to do so when they can. The separation of church and state so carefully designed into the Constitution not only annoys them, but becomes the victim of a rewriting of history by David Barton and other fundamentalists (many of whose only other knowledge of the Constitution relates to their guns). Against that shoddy context, they are not content to voluntarily impose blasphemy constraints on themselves, but seek by social or legal forces to inflict on others the same restrictions.

The first European settlers in the New World had great trouble with establishmentarianism (likely because in England it was not their own creed being established). Churches in Massachusetts saw to it that the first written expression of capital offenses included blasphemy along with idolatry, witchcraft, murder, and other dastardly crimes. But by the late 18th Century, cooler heads prevailed in the formation of the new United States of America. Happily, our founding fathers paid more attention to Enlightenment philosophers than to their Bibles.

However, the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) did not apply to states, only to the national government. So while the federal government was created to be entirely secular and thereby indulgent toward all beliefs, popular or otherwise, most state laws afterward remained little changed for years. The Constitutional intent was not a defeat for the faithful, but a protection of smaller or less politically powerful denominations from large church bodies getting their hegemonic way. (Thomas Jefferson’s assurance to frightened Baptists in the Danforth Baptist Association of Connecticut explains the problem and its solution.)

In 1868, the 14th Amendment extended the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom to state governments, so with the usual foot-dragging, all levels of government across the land were prohibited from both imposing a favored religion upon others and religion generally on the non-religious. That meant that blasphemy laws, inasmuch as blasphemy is a religious phenomenon, are unconstitutional and came to be of no legal effect. It’s understandable that many Americans mistakenly think that laws against blasphemy were completely eliminated soon after passage of the 14th Amendment. But if you do think they’re gone entirely, think again, for about 150 years later six states still have blasphemy laws: Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming.

(In majority Muslim countries, of course, blasphemy laws are the norm. In majority Catholic countries they are less frequent, but still exist. In Ireland, the parliament did not abolished the blasphemy provision of the criminal code until well into the 21st Century. It did so over opposition by the Catholic Church and Pentecostal Church. The Catholic attitude toward freedom of expression was clear in its warning that if “the identity of a person of faith can be freely insulted, then personal freedom is undermined.” It’s touching to see the Holy See concerned about undermining personal freedom.

Here’s a glance at blasphemy laws still on states’ books in the United States, the country that pioneered and is largely (except for many Christian fundamentalists) still proud of its separation of church and state:

Massachusetts “Whoever wilfully [sic] blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.” General Laws Chapter 272, Section 36

MichiganAny person who shall wilfully [sic] blaspheme the holy name of God, by cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Any person who has arrived at the age of discretion, who shall profanely curse or damn or swear by the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” Michigan Penal Code Section 750.102 Act 328 of 1931.

Oklahoma “Blasphemy consists in wantonly uttering or publishing words, casting contumelious reproach or profane ridicule upon God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Scriptures, or the Christian or any other religion.” Revised Laws of Oklahoma, Article XXVIII Section 2398.

South Carolina “Any person who shall . . . use blasphemous, profane or obscene language at or near the place of [a religious] meeting shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall, on conviction, be sentenced to pay a fine of not less than twenty nor more than one hundred dollars, or be imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year or less than thirty days, either or both, at the discretion of the court.” South Carolina Code Ann. § 16-17-520.

Wyoming “Nothing in W.S. 1-29-104 or 1-29-105 shall authorize the publication of blasphemous or indecent matter.” […104 and …105 deal with privileged material of governing bodies or criminal and civil proceedings] Wyoming Statutes Chapter 9 § 1-29-106.

 Pennsylvania “An association name may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.” 19 Pennsylvania Code §17.

[The foregoing information is not legal advice nor assured by a qualified attorney.]

Despite their existence, blasphemy laws are rarely enforced in America. Moreover, state government actions based on provisions like those above would certainly result in their being ruled unconstitutional. However, that they are still on the books, as one commenter said, “provides the states with a ‘symbolic power’ of moral condemnation, as well as the prospect of actual punishment.” In other words, although actual prosecution can happen and administrative inconvenience can be inflicted, the broader and more surreptitious effect is to chill freedom of expression, thereby giving covert and undeserved support to religious control. “Inconveniences” like these still occur.

In 1957, in Pennsylvania the principals of Conversion Center, Inc. applied for a non-profit corporate charter. The charter was administratively denied (but was granted by the state supreme court on appeal).

In 2007, George Kalman a filmmaker in Pennsylvania was denied his application for nonprofit incorporation of his organization, I Choose Hell Productions. His application was rejected due to the state law barring “words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”

In 2014, an application for ATHEIST as a license tag was denied even though others specifying equivalent Christian words were not. It took court action to correct the applicant’s inconvenience.

In Oklahoma, the legislature dealt with, though defeated, several resolutions to stop Richard Dawkins from speaking at the University of Oklahoma. Still, some lawmakers asked for an in-depth investigation of Dawkins’ speech.

Indeed, social pressure, lobbying, and political pressure against blasphemy are widespread even though, thankfully, less enforceable by law than in the past. The broadest effect can be found in the language and posturing of politicians. Like sparrows in mines, they are sensitive to religious proclivities including religionists’ needs to be coddled, get special consideration, and to receive stamps of official favoritism to the social detriment of their opponents, directly or with a wink and nod.

South Carolina is home to Christians Against Blasphemy the goals of which include promoting congressional legislation to protect the “integrity of the church.” Since the integrity of churches is up to churches, not the legislature, I assume this goal has more to do with protecting their dogma from criticism.

Of course, there are organizations fighting back. One, the American Humanist Association, called for the repeal of all blasphemy laws. According to Mel Lipman, its president, a constitutional lawyer, “Laws prohibiting blasphemy are a relic of the Middle Ages and are blatantly unconstitutional. Blasphemy is a purely religious offense and hence the sole concern of religious organizations and their own members.”

Clearly, blasphemy of any degree is an offence only to believers; it should not even be implied that they are relevant to anyone else. Even slight reflections of their blasphemy rules in law or regulations are at an unconstitutional cost to those who are not of similar faith. Blasphemy rules deserve no recognition in an enlightened society and no place in social and commercial intercourse. Perhaps time will eventually consign the concept of blasphemy to the junk heap of history, along with amulets, talking serpents, and angel-dictated holy books.



About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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