I’ve been working on this post for a while, but now that the Wild Hunt has opined on the subject, I thought it was probably time to get this off my chest. With the violence that has gripped the Islamic world over the last two weeks, it seems appropriate to discuss the issue of blasphemy. How was it viewed by our ancestors, and how might we view it today?
In pre-Christian Iceland, the Christian poet Hjalti Skeggjason was outlawed for the bit of doggerel at the top of this post. Socrates was famously put on trial for blasphemy and impiety. The ancient Athenians also put to death many hundreds of people on charges of impiety for desecration of statues of Hermes during the Peloponnesian War; Anaxagoras and Alcibiades were among the victims. Clearly, the notion of blasphemy or impiety as a punishable offense is not something unique to monotheistic religions or unknown to Pagan faiths, and punishments for what we today might consider mild expressions of free speech could be met with harsh penalties.
I happen to think that modern Pagans and Heathens should not hide it when those of other faiths say things that are offensive to us. We should feel free– nay, obligated– to speak up and react accordingly. Different people will have different reactions, of course; some will calmly explain why something is offensive to Pagans, and ask for understanding in the future, while others will match rant for rant and show righteous indignation. As long as the reaction is peaceful and legal, we should not be afraid to make use of the tools that the law provides us; chief among them is the court of public opinion. When we look calm and rational, and our detractors look like kooks and fanatics, we win in that particular court, but sometimes you need to show you won’t knuckle under to bullying.
In modern times, although many nations have blasphemy laws on the books, the United States explicitly does not. The First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits such things under the umbrella of the freedom of speech, which was called out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952:
“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)
Thus, those that are calling for prosecution of the people responsible for The Innocence of Muslims, or for cartoons of Mohammed, or whatever are pretty much out of luck. (Breaking news flash: they may be out of luck if they’re expecting charges of blasphemy, but apparently it’s good enough to get you arrested for an alleged probation violation.)
The problem with blasphemy laws is that they must fall into one of two types. Either they are specifically geared to protect a specific religion (such as those in Saudi Arabia, which go even further and protect a specific form of Islam), or they must perforce be worded so broadly as to practically ban anything that anyone finds offensive for any reason.
To take one example, even the tolerant Netherlands has a law that makes “scornful blasphemy” a criminal offense punishable by three months in jail plus a fine. Does such a broad prohibition include offending the religious sensibilities of Pagans, Heathens, and Wiccans? Would publishing Hjalti Skeggjason’s poem cross the line? How about Piss Christ, or a showing of The Innocence of Muslims?
Israel makes it a crime, punishable by a year in the hoosgow, if “one publishes a publication that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others”. Would it be possible, for example, to undertake a prosecution of the Tel Aviv edition of the New Yorker, on the grounds that their “Yes, Wiccan” cartoon was offensive to Witches? Unless you’re out to specifically protect a single faith, you end up protecting them all, and it’s only a matter of time before Pagans and Heathens start to exercise their rights in countries that do have such (in my opinion overly-) broad blasphemy laws.
One wonders what Bill Donohue (the head of the Catholic League, whose appearance on Fox News when the slightest irreverence towards Catholicism shows its head) would say if the Catholic Church were prevented from claiming that Pagan and Heathen faiths are inherently “false” and anything to do with magic and the occult is Satanic?
Part of the problem with the modern push for anti-blasphemy laws is that the loudest calls are coming from people who have absolutely no compunction against publishing and saying the most vile, heinous, slanderous lies about other faiths. It is a stark and obvious case of “protection for me, but not for thee”. Does anyone seriously expect to see anti-blasphemy prosecutions in Saudi Arabia against people who mock and spew opprobrium against Judaism or Wicca? And don’t forget that even Satanism itself would find itself protected by some of the broader definitions of blasphemy that are currently on the books in certain countries.
Personally, I am dead-set against laws that punish blasphemy, whether that is blasphemy against Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Asatru, Wicca, the Religio Romana, or whatever. The freedom of speech, and the freedom to express ideas is fundamental, and ultimately trumps anyone’s claimed right to live without being offended or mocked.
Even the crudest expressions of hate and scorn are, ultimately, the right of the person making them to make, and even obvious crudities can have their place to shock the complacent members of dominant religions that not everyone shares their faith, and that some resent the assumptions and privileges that go with it. Sometimes one needs to be crude and shocking to get the message through to someone else that “I don’t hold the same things sacred that you do.” Reminding others that people believe different things is not hate speech.
Naturally, this freedom does not extend to violence, whether against persons or property. Words can be hurtful, but ultimately they are only words, and can be overcome with more (and better) words. Violence is destructive, and should be punished with all the force appropriate and necessary to ensure that it is not repeated. Hold up a sign in front of a Pagan bookstore saying “You’re going to Hell”? Yes. Throw a brick through that same store’s window with that tied to it? No.
Of course, I reserve the right to be marching on that same sidewalk with my own sign. Such is the nature of speech– it should encourage more speech. That’s a good thing.