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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Why An Atheist Speaks About Religion Every Day

In my personal experience, when questioned about their religious beliefs, most people seem to find it difficult to reconcile their underlying mistrust of global religious institutions with an inability to wholly reject the notion of an omnipotent god (clearly this is only people I converse with in ‘the real world’, most people I only know through their online personas have much more polarised opinions on the matter). This is not normally a result of independent inquiry, concluding with a summation of available evidence but a relic from the mild Christian schooling most of us were subject to through our childhood (or not so mild in some cases).

I personally went to Church of England schools and although I was taught the literal truth of many bible stories, I’m not sure if any of my classmates every went on to believe those literal truths into adulthood. Certainly many of us realised the hypocrisy of religious classes teaching us the insignificance of material wealth while all other teachers pushed us to succeed in their subjects to facilitate the accumulation of that wealth. This left very few in the school who could be classed as truly ‘devout’, of which I was one (however surprising you may find that). However, when my religiosity in my teenage years led me to read the bible along with much of the apocrypha, I was interested to find out why the apocrypha had been proscribed and how many of the beliefs of the modern Christian churches have been established from the diverse and often heretical beliefs and practises of early Christians. I felt it my duty as a Christian to attempt to discover as much as I could about the original meaning behind the scriptures and decided to read as much as I could about all ancient and classical near-eastern belief systems. Nobody with a logical or scientific way of thinking like me could do this without losing all belief in the literal validity and veracity of any and all religious books.

Most people seem to have been whitewashed with a kind of ‘soft’ Christianity, which leaves the way open for tolerance of others’ sin, providing those are only the personal sins that do not directly interfere with the lives of others. I use the words ‘soft’ and ‘pious’ in this context so as not to be confused with moderate or fanatical, a person can be moderate and pious or pious and fanatical but not moderate and fanatical. It is really to describe the depth of the subjects religious belief rather than the strength of their opposition to those who have differing beliefs to their own. Despite the underlying racial or sexuality based bigotry inherent in almost all cultures and the subsequent loose definitions of ‘good’ or ‘just’, most people try to adhere to the pre-Christian teachings from the philosophers of the classical world:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” – Marcus Aurelius

While there is nothing wrong at all with the views expressed in the quote, indeed I believe the world would be a much better place for all of us if a lot more people thought along those lines than the ones they do, this is not a Christian worldview. The idea that one should live what the Stoics (and Aristotle before them) referred to as ‘the good life’ has been around long before it was ever written down, living in a way that benefits those you live with and around and deriving pleasure from this existence without the necessity of any higher power or authority to dictate the minutiae of everyday lives is the philosophy of the first humans to live in groups larger than immediate families. It is not compatible with any of the 3 major monotheistic/Abrahamic religions that dominate the vast majority of the world’s landmass. Understanding the truth of the quote yet referring to yourself as a Christian, Muslim or Jew is the sort of religious belief born of ignorance and apathy, a way of thinking cobbled together piecemeal over a person’s lifetime without recourse to logical analysis or critical thought.

What is not always apparent however, is the far darker side to this form of religiosity, while the individual believer may have ‘soft’ beliefs, those that harbour much stronger feelings toward their religious doctrine are to be praised for their piety. It allows for a reverence towards religious buildings, leaders and institutions far beyond that of anything secular. It allows for special status and exemptions, breeds a culture of divergence and holds up the pious and devout as examples, role models for children or paradigms of virtue to be imitated by the masses. Those holding ‘soft’ religious views think they know what is taught in the books they have little knowledge of, do not feel strong enough to follow those teachings to the letter, yet they feel an admiration for the celibate priest or the veiled woman who claims to be following the right path. It is the ignorance of so many ‘soft’ believers that offers protection to all religions, the belief that religious faith and piety is somehow special among human character traits and cannot be criticised, even when it interferes with other social norms we have established. Genital mutilation of children and the inhumane and painful killing of conscious animals is not only condoned but also a necessary part of being a member, domestic abuse and rape are routinely unreported or blamed on the victims and the image of the institution is far more important than the risk posed by known sexual predators to vulnerable children.

It is not just the perpetrators of these actions who are to blame for their continuance, it is the willful religious ignorance of the vast majority of citizens throughout the Western world that allows these despicable practises to go unchecked. This is why I believe that religious education is very important and should be taught in all schools, not just the bits that help indoctrinate children into a particular religion but all the nasty and disgusting bits of all religions. More importantly still is the context of those who originally wrote the texts and the content of the texts that didn’t make it to the final draft. Only by undermining the ‘god-given’ authority of a religious text can its content and meanings ever be tested in a productive way.

This is not about race, culture or ethnicity, all the far-right parties in Europe profess a strong Christian belief. I couldn’t care less about your genetics or if you prefer to eat with sticks rather than cutlery. Believing that your god gives you the right to commit acts of cruelty counts for nothing with me, cruelty is cruelty no matter who commits it or by what orders. ‘Just following orders’ was not a valid defence when used by Nazi concentration camp guards and whether your commanding officer is yahweh, allah, god, Hitler or Stalin means no difference to me. Allowing people who profess to be good to act in evil ways is no better than collusion.

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” – Voltaire

These are the reasons that I, as an atheist bang on about religion every day even to people who don’t want to hear it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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