On Blasphemy

I am regularly accused of blasphemy. Instead of trying to communicate my ideas through a comment box I thought it would be easier to explicate my understanding of the word here. Blasphemy is a term commonly used to describe an apparent crime that was originally outlined in the 10 commandments given by Moses to the Israelites but it seems to mean different things to different people and is taken far more seriously by some than others. It has, in the modern world, come to mean and unnecessary use of the word ‘God’, including the shorthand ‘OMG!’. In most Western countries this is not seen as either a crime or a social faux pas, although many people still find the mocking of religious figures offensive and distasteful despite the lack of criminality attached to it. However, in many conservative religious cultures, especially Islamic ones, any mocking or negative depiction of god can attract severe penalties, even death in some cases. Before criticising the notion of blasphemy I thought I’d try to define what it is by using the books from which the law is derived:

“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” – King James Bible
“Do not use my name for evil purposes, for I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name” – Good News Bible
“Do not subject GOD’s name to your casual swearing, that you may appear righteous, pious, or to attain credibility among the people” – Qur’an
“You shall not take the Name of Adonai Your God in vain, for the Lord will not clear the guilt of one who takes his Name in vain” – Torah

Clearly I don’t speak Greek, Arabic or Hebrew and have relied on the translators involved for the veracity of their translations, the first two are ‘official’ translations that have been published, the latter two are reliant on the websites I used, please correct me if you are aware of a better translation of either. The Good News Bible is often criticised for its uniliteral translation used in order that its reader may find it easier to understand, the differences are clear here, with the emphasis on ‘evil purposes’ rather than simple everyday misuse.

In order that a notion of blasphemy be derived from these laws, one must first establish what is meant by ‘in vain’, is it to be equated with the ‘evil purposes’ of the Good New version or the ‘casual swearing’ of the Qur’an? The follow-up ‘that you may appear righteous, pious, or to attain credibility’ adds extra significance for me as it gives an indication of how the author of the text perceived the misuse of the name of god in the context of his environment. While many historically Christian societies have decided to define blasphemy as an unnecessary use of the name of god, a much broader definition is evident in the Qur’an and many Jews to this day refuse to utter the name of god in any context. Who is right in this matter? Aside from the fact that I don’t believe god exists so I couldn’t really care less if his name is used in vain or not, I’d like to say that all the books are pretty consistent while their interpretations may not be. However, the differences in interpretation are merely quantitative rather than qualitative, the essence or spirit is the same it is just the degree in which they differ.

Personally, by using the four texts quoted above, I would describe the notion of blasphemy as being one of using the name of god in order that your speech may be given added weight when its use is not needed or required for the point to be intelligible. This would of course include saying ‘Oh God!’ when you stub your toe, or texting ‘OMG! I can’t believe you got the job!’ – Most religious believers would be with me so far. I would also include anyone who attributes any apparent good fortune or luck to an act of god as being blasphemous. ‘God saved me from dying in that car crash’ and ‘God healed my cancer’ aren’t so far away from ‘OMG! I can’t believe you got the job!’ and there is no evidence of divine intervention in any of those statements despite the regularity with which one hears them (or similar). To be so vain as to purport to have knowledge of god’s will merely from observing the outcomes of events you have been unable to predict is, in my opinion, the very essence of the notion of blasphemy. This does not of course stop at positive events, we have all heard people saying things like ‘Aids is a punishment from God’, which is being presumptuous even for a fundamentalist. Anyone who describes themselves as a believer and/or member of one of the three Abrahamic/monotheistic religions of which the ten commandments are a part, should not be declaring their ability to describe any earthly (or cosmological) occurrence as an act of god without realising the hypocrisy of their declaration. I would extend this still further to those who extricate their own personal morality from the bible by quoting arbitrary verses that fit in with their own opinions. ‘Gays will go to hell’ is really just an extension of the above definition of blasphemy.

To deny the lay population the ability to use the name of their god in an anything but positive or praising manner is how blasphemy laws have been used to deny free expression or belief in all monotheistic cultures since the dark ages. If a person knows that they will be punished for merely expressing an opinion that some part of a holy text may be factually inaccurate or morally deviant, they will be far less likely to do so. To know that they cannot even utter the name of their god outside of prayer is oppressive the extreme and while the laws on blasphemy have been relaxed in much of the modern world, there is still an underlying, nagging feeling among many people that open criticism or mocking of not just the established church but of god himself is in some way taboo and should not be allowed. These are not feelings that have come about from an actual learning of the ‘sacred’ text the they feel needs protection, they are feelings left over from a childhood of loosely shrouded Christian (or Islamic/Judaic) indoctrination. A relic of being told that god and his words need to be treated in a different way to other things, that the normal societal rules need not apply.

I would not class myself as a blasphemer, even though I do not recognise it as a crime. To use a name in vain is one thing but I only ever use ‘god’ as a descriptive term to describe either a psychological phenomena or a character from a book (unless in quotes), I give the word no more import than any other in either my thought or my speech. If a word has no special significance attached to it and by using it one is not trying to add gravity to one’s argument, the word has not been used in vain, hence it is not blasphemous. That is not to say that some who do attach special significance to ‘god’ will not be offended by my views or will not think that what I have said is blasphemous but it is only blasphemous when seen through their eyes, not mine.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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11 Responses to On Blasphemy

  1. Nate says:

    This was an excellent post! I thought this point was especially brilliant:

    To be so vain as to purport to have knowledge of god’s will merely from observing the outcomes of events you have been unable to predict is, in my opinion, the very essence of the notion of blasphemy.</blockquote

  2. uglicoyote says:

    Reblogged this on The Road and commented:
    OMG! I guess I’m a goddamn blasphemer. SOB

    • aynway says:

      I was gonna say, “Goddamned good post!” You beat me to the punch!

  3. Nate says:

    Reblogged this on Finding Truth and commented:
    Please read this post! He made some great points that I haven’t really considered before. I think believers and nonbelievers alike could get something from this…

  4. ubi dubium says:

    Yes, it’s always amazed me how believers go from the original “blasphemy” as using “god” as a curse word, cursing god directly, or invoking the name in making a vow you don’t intend to keep, to their current definition of “disagrees with me in any way about religion” or “does not show my religion the same deference that I do”.

    However, as a Pastafarian, there is only one blasphemy: That dry sandy parmesan “cheese” that comes in a can. Don’t use that. Only fresh-grated, please.

    • I’d include any cheese that calls itself cheese but clearly is not. If it comes in a tube or a can, it must not be called cheese. That is the law.

  5. Wesley says:

    You said “there is still an underlying, nagging feeling among many people that open criticism or mocking of not just the established church but of god himself is in some way taboo and should not be allowed”. I’m not sure I agree with that point. To me, it’s more of a consideration for the views of others. Most of the folks I’ve ever met hold the same feeling.

    I’m not going to scream out “God Damnit!” loudly in public, not because I think the cops or some devine intervention will occur (or some insidious, ingrained taboo), but because I understand that it’s highly likely that there are folks standing around who are believers…what’s the point in offending them when there are a myriad of other ways to express the same thought? Far from a taboo, I think it may stem from conscientiousness and consideration for others.

    Sure, religion is around, but so is tolerance toward folks who hold religious beliefs. It’d be nice to see more of that, rather than always pounding on their beliefs (whether you agree or not) in writing or in verbal exclamations.

  6. Why should a person’s religiosity be given more respect than their sexuality? It is common to hear open criticism of many things that people hold very dear to them, from criminal activity caused by social deprivation to political views held due to what school one attended, people are often criticised for the way their mind works when they have never made a conscious decision to think in that way, what makes religion any different?

    I tolerate people of all views, I believe in free speech and free expression but that also gives me the right to challenge any views I disagree with. Being tolerant is not the same as ignoring something you believe to be wrong.

    If I refuse to engage in a discussion with a person because I fear they will be offended (time & place permitting), I may as well give my vote to an extremist.

    • Amanda S. Moores says:

      I love this example — point well made!

  7. Noel says:

    To me, blasphemy is simply doing the opposite of what God intended us to do, such as mistreating our neighbors, hating our brothers, being selfish, etc, not merely stating a word that others choose to interpret as offensive to their religious doctrine.

    • So ‘blasphemy’ & ‘sin’ are interchangeable? I don’t think thats corrrect, blasphemy is about communicating an idea rather than carrying out an action.

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