What is blasphemy? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines blasphemy as ‘the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God‘. In some parts of the world blasphemy laws used to exist but were abolished years ago. In other parts of the world such laws still exist, and I dare say they are used to suppress criticism of religion. A number of countries have laws on their books permitting imprisonment for blasphemy, and others have the death penalty.
Whilst we have the dictionary definition, nonetheless different people will interpret what it means to blaspheme in different ways. To be critical of a religious belief is, to some, perfectly justifiable and part of a valid discussion in the role of religion in society. Questioning God’s words in the form of a critique is also seen as acceptable. To others, doing these things is a form of blasphemy and seen as an outrage.
Recently a school-teacher in West Yorkshire has come under fire for using a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in a discussion with their students about racism. There have been calls for their sacking and protests outside the school where they work. The situation has ignited discussions on what is and is not permissible when it comes to religious debate. I don’t know whether the teacher is a Muslim, but whilst I would not condone anyone going out of their way to be deliberately insulting and nasty to Muslims, discussing religious beliefs and values, and criticising them where one feels it’s prudent, is part of our right to freedom of speech.
There’s another side to this. To be blasphemous is to be disrespecting God, who has rights (or so some say). I have to wonder why an all-powerful, omnipotent, omnipresent deity would be so hung up on whether or not every human liked them or not. I have to wonder why such a being would need rights, as defined by human terms, since they could reset the entire universe with a snap of their fingers if they so wanted. God’s rights do not supersede human rights – not as far as I’m concerned. After all, God is prepared to kill those who speak badly of them – that seems like a tremendous over-reaction to me (Leviticus 24:16).
If God cannot take criticism, do they have any business wielding the power they possess? If religions are so vulnerable to any form of criticism, are their foundations all that solid? To maintain a compliant, faithful population by threatening to imprison or kill anyone who speaks ill of religion is to rule by fear and hate. That doesn’t seem especially in keeping with the common mantra that the religious have greater morals than the irreligious…