Every great idea starts out as blasphemy.” (Bertrand Russell)
“Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.” (Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses)
“Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” (FFRF T-shirt issued to condemn a 1989 fatwa on Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses)
Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan was freed Jan. 27 after serving a year in prison and being fined $8,000 for committing blasphemy. He posted words on Facebook that at least 75 million humans around the globe agree with: “There is no god.”
Aan was released “on license,” meaning he’s required to report regularly to authorities. He’s also vulnerable to vigilante retribution.
In December, two members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were released from prison for committing “hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.” Their crime? Singing a one-minute protest song on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral to condemn the Russian Orthodox Church’s social repression and its ties to President Vladimir Putin.
Internationally, blasphemy prosecutions are chillingly on the rise. It’s not just places like Pakistan and Iran. Ireland passed a law in 2010 punishing blasphemy with a €25,000 fine ($34,000).
While such laws clearly violate the First Amendment, America has also seen its share of persecutions. Blasphemy laws turn thoughts objectionable only to some religionists into “crimes,” thereby clearly violating the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of conscience.
Robert Ingersoll captured the injustice of blasphemy statutes marvelously while defending C.B. Reynolds of New Jersey in 1887:
“By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion — sought to prevent argument — sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.”
The few antiquated blasphemy laws still on the books in the U.S. discriminate against non-Christians. By definition, blasphemy must discriminate. Any profession of faith in favor of one sect is blasphemy against another (i.e., you either believe that Jesus was the son of God, or not; that the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad, or not; that a dry cracker is the body of a noncorporeal being, or not).
Establishing a religion
Blasphemy statutes place the religious sensibilities of the chosen sect on a pedestal. As Bertrand Russell observed of the English common law, “[C]learly no one ought to speak ill of Christianity in such a way as to be likely to promote a breach of the peace. Those who use this argument do not, however, propose to extend the same protection to other religions. If you abuse Lenin to a Communist until he gets so angry that he hits you on the nose, the Communist is sent to prison. If the Communist abuses Christ to you until you get angry so that you hit him on the nose, it is again the Communist that is sent to prison.”
As stated by former Associate Justice Abe Fortas in Epperson v. Arkansas: “Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice.”
Speech and blasphemy
Freedom of speech is not absolute. Fighting words, threats, defamation and libel are included in prohibited speech. Merely uttering a phrase that would once have been considered a sin against God must now fall into one of those categories if it is to be punished.
In a case challenging a Michigan law that made “profanely curs[ing] or damn[ing] or swear[ing] by the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost” a crime, the court held that “God damn” was not speech justifiably prohibited by law. The court referenced a Supreme Court holding that states may not make a “single four-letter expletive a criminal offense” and found “no principled distinction between the expletive in [that case] and the milder profanity in this case.”
In a challenge to a Pennsylvania law prohibiting corporate names containing “[w]ords that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name” another court found the statute violated the First Amendment because it restricted speech on the basis of viewpoint.
The Supreme Court summed it up, “from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. 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.” Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson (1952).
From blasphemers’ mouths
American colonial punishment was severe. Massachusetts had the death penalty until 1697, with the later sanction of branding the blasphemer’s tongue with a hot iron. With the adoption of the federal and state constitutions, these laws dropped into disuse. But before that happened, brave American freethinkers paid a price.
Thomas Jefferson Chandler of Delaware was found guilty in 1837 of declaring that “the virgin Mary was a whore and Jesus Christ was a bastard.” Another blasphemer, a Mr. Ruggles, was convicted in 1811 for observing “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.”
A tamer utterance by Abner Updegraph in Pennsylvania in 1824 was condemned: “The Holy Scriptures were a mere fable, that they were a contradiction, and that although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.”
Abner Kneeland of Massachusetts was convicted in 1838 of uttering the following:
• “The Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself,) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.”
• “Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theatre at Athens, five hundred years before the Christian era.”
• “Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can be accounted for on natural principles, or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.”
• Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.”
The aptly named Michael X. Mockus was found guilty in 1921 for saying:
• “Mary (meaning the Virgin Mary) had a beau. When her beau called one evening (both being young) he seduced her. He brought her a flower and put her in a family way. No woman can give birth to a child without a man.”
• “Look how the priests teach you, the falsifiers, thieves. It is not possible that he could be of the Holy Ghost, there must be a man. A young Jew was the father of the Christ. No woman can have a child without a man; that never happened and never can happen.”
• “The father of Christ was a young Jew and was no Angel Gabriel. Any girl who wants a child can call a Gabriel or some John.”
• “All religions are a deception of the people.”
• “There is no truth in the Bible; it is only monkey business.”
If you’re accused of blasphemy, you’re in good company. Throughout history, some of the greatest artists and writers have been accused of (though perhaps not criminally tried for) blasphemy. Among them are James Kirkup, author of the poem “The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name,” Monty Python for “The Life of Brian,” John Steinbeck for “The Grapes of Wrath,” H.L. Mencken (pretty much constantly from 1899-1956), Charles Darwin for “On the Origin of Species,” Percy Bysshe Shelley for “Queen Mab,” Thomas Paine and his publisher Richard Carlile for “The Age of Reason,” Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe, arrested for atheism and blasphemy, Galileo Galelei, Aesop (born c. 620 B.C.E) and Socrates (died 399 B.C.E).
According to the “Encyclopedia of Unbelief,” Charles Lee Smith, in 1928, was the last person in the U.S. to be convicted of blasphemy as a crime. Smith had moved to Arkansas to protest the anti-ex`xvolution statute that was about to be passed. (It was overturned 40 years later by Epperson.)
Smith had rented a storefront and distributed leaflets such as “The Bible in the Balance,” “Godless Evolution” and “The Ape Ancestry of Man.” What got him into trouble was the sign he put in his window, “Evolution is True. The Bible’s a Lie. God’s a Ghost.” He was arrested for selling literature without a permit, even though he was giving the pamphlets away. In court, he refused to swear an oath, wishing to affirm instead. The judge, appalled at his atheism, refused to let him testify and fined him for distributing obscene literature.
After numerous threats, arrests and an attack on his storefront, Smith was charged with blasphemy. Again he was not permitted to testify and was convicted, although the conviction was overturned.
In the most recent U.S. case, George Kalman wanted to name his film company “I Choose Hell Productions.” His choice was rejected by Pennsylvania because corporation names were not allowed to be “blasphemous.” In 2010, the court held that the blasphemy statute violated the First Amendment.
Despite the numerous cases overturning blasphemy laws and the fact that “it is proper to regard the statute before us not only as obsolete, but as repealed by implication in such essential parts as an advanced and enlightened civilization justifies with due regard for the personal liberties of the citizen,” several states still have them, although they’re rarely enforced and would fall to a constitutional challenge. The following are still on the books:
Massachusetts: “Whoever wilfully 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.”
Michigan: “Any person who shall wilfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
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.”
South Carolina makes it a crime to “use blasphemous, profane or obscene language at or near the place of [religious worship].”
Blasphemy prosecutions are still rampant in many other countries, and not just places like Pakistan and Iran. Ireland passed a blasphemy law in 2010 punishing the crime by a €25,000 fine. The United Nations debates a “defamation of religion” resolution every year.
They should instead listen to Dan Barker, sage and FFRF co-president: “You cannot be convicted of a victimless crime.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School. Go online to see the complete Blasphemy FAQ: