The Peculiar Logic of Blasphemy Laws

Who Burned The WitchesBy Koh Wei Jie, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

Rimsha Masih, a 14-year old Pakistani girl, was arrested this August after being accused of burning pages from a Quran, the holy book of Islam. Under Pakistani law, defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran is punishable by life imprisonment. Recently, her case was thrown out by the Islamabad High Court, and she is now free. She was declared innocent because no one had actually seen her burn pages of the Quran. This fortunate development is a sliver of good news in the middle of a grim situation: blasphemy laws still exist, and they are unjust and oppressive political tools. Blasphemy laws have no place in a civilised world.

What are blasphemy laws?

Blasphemy laws restrict what people can say or write about religion. They vary widely in scope, form, and extent of enforcement. They can be classified as specific or neutral towards any one religion.

Religion-specific blasphemy laws

Some countries have blasphemy laws that single out one religion or a specific subset of a religion for protection. Section 295 of the Pakistani penal code identifies Muhammad as a sacred figure and prescribes the death penalty or life imprisonment for those who “defile” his name. Similar laws exist in Islamic states such as Afghanistan and Kuwait. However, such laws are not unique to Islamic states: an old British law, now abolished, made it illegal to blaspheme against the Church of England.

As the sanctity of a religious idea is defined only by those who subscribe to it, blunt blasphemy laws are often used as a political tool to enforce ideological hegemony.  They serve as a means of stifling discussion and criticism of religion.  Supporters of such laws can also use them to restrict progress in secular fields. Intellectual discourse, including medical and scientific research, can be deemed blasphemous if it is seen in any way to deviate from officially approved religious dogma.

To those who endorse blasphemy laws, it makes no difference whether there is any evidence for their religious beliefs, or even if such suppression makes logical sense. Their message is clear: shine the light of critical inquiry upon our religious beliefs, or cross our arbitrary thresholds of offense, and you will face medieval consequences

Religion-neutral blasphemy laws

Some countries enforce laws that do not specifically protect one religion, but in theory, protect all of them. Section 298A of the Malaysian penal code details how “causing, etc., disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will, or prejudicing, etc., the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion” is illegal.   

In practice, however, such laws are ripe for abuse, most commonly in favouring the religion with the most political influence and power. For example, Sunni Islam is the official version of Islam in Malaysia, and the Malaysian government prohibits “deviant” interpretations of Islam. Religion-neutral blasphemy laws may appear more egalitarian than religion-specific blasphemy laws, but they suffer from a logical inconsistency that instead allows the state to set the terms of acceptable religious speech.

This inconsistency stems from the fact that all religions have teachings that contradict tenets of other religions. For instance, polytheistic religions are, by definition, incompatible with monotheistic religions. Even monotheistic religions have major doctrinal differences among one another—one believer’s sacred prophet and saviour can be seen as another believer’s false prophet and blasphemer.

If one follows this line of reasoning strictly, the conclusion is that all religious views, and views about religions, should not be expressed, because all religions are mutually offensive.  Instead, diverse religions generally coexist peacefully by selectively ignoring doctrinal conflicts. This theoretically creates adequate space for each religion to operate with minimal conflict—a peaceful status quo.

However, the subjective and contradictory nature of religious doctrines makes any state-defined status quo arbitrary. Moreover, when those with a vested interest in controlling religious speech also have the power to control the acceptability of said speech, people have to constantly second-guess how the powers-that-be will react to what they say. This creates a climate of fear—fear that one may cross an invisible out-of-bounds marker set by the state, and fear that religious people can claim to be offended for any metaphysical reason. Intellectual discourse is thus stifled under the weight of self-censorship.

Blasphemy is not to blame

How then should we address the problem of religious disharmony? Societies have to recognise that the mere act of blasphemy against religious ideas cannot reasonably be considered a legal issue. Those who want it to be a legal issue have to prove three metaphysical claims: that their deities exist, that the act of insulting a deity is temporally harmful and wrong, and that the previous two claims apply equally to people who do not subscribe to their religion. No one has proven these claims, so it is unreasonable to have blasphemy laws, especially in secular countries.

While blasphemy can take place during a crime such as harassment, the illegality of the crime should have nothing to do with the act of blasphemy against an idea per se. Only the temporal effects of said act should matter. Even if someone decides to violently act upon feelings of offence, the blasphemer should not be blamed for causing the violence, unless, of course, he actually intended to incite violence in the first place.

Consider, for example, the fact that thunder and lightning are natural phenomena. To say so may be offensive to those who believe in Thor, but as the law is not in the business of deciding whether the Norse god of thunder exists, crimes committed by Thor-worshippers to protect his name are of their own volition.

The way forward

Blasphemy laws are tools of social control that hinder intellectual exploration and religious freedom. Although some of these laws are intended to maintain social harmony, they instead create new problems. Their proponents argue against taking social stability for granted, but what if the price of taking for granted the gifts of free intellectual discourse is much higher?

As Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant famously urged, “Sapere aude!”— dare to be wise. The appropriate response to religious offence should be to pick up the pen, not the sword. If society is to enjoy free and civilised discourse, people have to be brave enough to tolerate views that they disagree with, and have the courage to express themselves even in the face of adversity.

6 comments

  1. Keller Scholl

    To play the Devil’s advocate, I disagree. There is some acceptance, in some countries, that Holocaust denial is not protected speech and will be punished. If this is accepted, then, from an A Priori stance, I don’t believe that there is anything different about blasphemy laws sufficient to justify their destruction. Do you wish to argue that “the status is not quo?” If that is not accepted, I will have to give up my Kantian and Libertarian arguments, and go with good old fashioned (Pre-Mill) Utilitarianism. Blasphemy causes such offense to believers that it should be forbidden, even if it does hinder intellectual exploration in theological matters.

    P.S., Ireland has a blasphemy law that is not only still on the books, but was passed within our lifetimes.

    • “Blasphemy causes such offense to believers that it should be forbidden, even if it does hinder intellectual exploration in theological matters.”

      I think a lot of the discourse regarding offense to the religious disregards the crucial psychological difference between offense caused by a run-of-the-mill insult like “You are stupid” and blasphemy. The former is injurious to how that person views him or herself with regard to him or her values, while the latter does so to those values per se. Try shouting support for the joys societal benefits of child rape to any civilized person as he or she goes shopping, perhaps with videos and live demonstrations.

      Perhaps this is not surprising given that many non-believers have not been religious before, and thus cannot appreciate the difference and get infuriated with the apparent pettiness of the religious.

      • Keller Scholl

        I don’t entirely follow your point about religions in a philosophical context. I haven’t dealt with metaphysics much before, as my philosophical knowledge is entirely self-taught, so I may be misunderstanding some word or term that you have used.

        You say that theistic religions lack positive ontology. You say that atheism is incoherent, along with religious belief, because it attempts to put forth a positive position on something that is “inherently undefinable.” This, to me, implies that religious belief also puts forth a positive position on the inherently undefinable. This seems to conflict with your point that most theistic religions lack positive ontology. What did you mean by the “inherently undefinable,” if not something that would be covered by an ontological system?

        Separately, I take issue with your characterization of utilitarian legality. A utilitarian legal system is not required to enquire, in every legal case, the precise benefits and costs of an action. The information costs of this approach would be ridiculous. Utilitarian legal systems can be set up to punish even people acting in accordance with utilitarian principles, because respect for rules and information costs matter.

  2. Great article; thought provoking and nuanced.

    But while I agree with the conclusions you reach about the legal nature of blasphemy, I don’t see eye-to-eye with the way you reach them, as well as the utilitarian framework that undergirds your arguments.

    Firstly I think you’re imposing too harsh a criteria on what constitutes as an issue disputable by the law. By asserting that in order for religion to be considered per se one would have to-

    prove three metaphysical claims: that their deities exist, that the act of insulting a deity is temporally harmful and wrong, and that the previous two claims apply equally to people who do not subscribe to their religion. No one has proven these claims, so it is unreasonable to have blasphemy laws, especially in secular countries.

    -would be to impose a level of philosophical rigor that is absent from a lot of law as it is practiced. Legal judgments frequently make huge assumptions about the metaphysical identity of the person, the existence of free will and moral responsibility, the validity of our moral intuitions about fundamental ethical norms such as justice, human rights, or psychological well-being. It is the only way it can move forward productively on issues people hold dear.

    What I would use to argue instead for the separation of the religious per se from the legal sphere, is the problem with consistently formulating issues in the former. Most if not all theistic religions lack positive ontology. The thing about the concepts used in religion is that its adherents do not claim for them clear, consistent and comprehensible definitions. Say I conceived of the concept, “ghnjk”. What is a “ghnjk”? I can make it mean whatever I want, whenever I want. It lacks positive reality in a way that precludes one from productively comparing the merits of “ghnjk” to eating a burger. This is why, by the way, I think that atheism is incoherent, along with religious belief-though the latter tend not ascribe intellectual virtue to their beliefs as much as the former group does. It attempts to put forth a positive position on something that is inherently undefinable. Back to the main issue, I think it is common knowledge that the law, and the public sphere more broadly, should use as their fundamental units of analysis concepts that have an objective social reality- that is, concepts that are not non-things, and that “apply equally to people who do not subscribe to their religion.”

    Then there’s the problem of whether legality should be or even is based on temporally-bound utilitarianism. A fraud is illegal regardless whether society benefits as a whole from it, or even if anyone finds out at all. And if we were to adhere fully to a temporally bound account of what is legal-or good-, there is nothing stopping the current generation of humans from using up all of the earth’s natural resources in order to maximize our well-being since, as mere potential experience, the lived lives of future generations of human’s-including foetuses-, as well as principles like justice and freedom don’t count.

    I’m not entirely sure I’m making full sense though, feel free to criticize.

    • Keller Scholl

      Sorry, I accidentally replied to the wrong post. This was where the post was intended to go.

      I don’t entirely follow your point about religions in a philosophical context. I haven’t dealt with metaphysics much before, as my philosophical knowledge is entirely self-taught, so I may be misunderstanding some word or term that you have used.

      You say that theistic religions lack positive ontology. You say that atheism is incoherent, along with religious belief, because it attempts to put forth a positive position on something that is “inherently undefinable.” This, to me, implies that religious belief also puts forth a positive position on the inherently undefinable. This seems to conflict with your point that most theistic religions lack positive ontology. What did you mean by the “inherently undefinable,” if not something that would be covered by an ontological system?

      Separately, I take issue with your characterization of utilitarian legality. A utilitarian legal system is not required to enquire, in every legal case, the precise benefits and costs of an action. The information costs of this approach would be ridiculous. Utilitarian legal systems can be set up to punish even people acting in accordance with utilitarian principles, because respect for rules and information costs matter.

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