—A novelist is sentenced to death by the head of a foreign state because the writer portrayed Islam’s prophet in a defamatory way.
—An angry mob storms an American consulate and kills four people; the demonstrators are outraged that a movie trailer demeans Mohammed.
—Reacting to that same movie, Turkey’s Prime Minister calls for blasphemy laws to be instituted in his own country and by the United Nations.
Outrage at religious insults isn’t confined to Islam, though. When Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with cow dung was exhibited in Brooklyn, in 1999, New York’s mayor, the Catholic Church, and others condemned the show and threats were received by the museum.
Insults to one’s deeply held religious beliefs are experienced as offensive and an attack against the sacred order. Not taking the lord’s name in vain is one of the top Ten Commandments. So there is good reason for people to be tread carefully on another’s religious sensibilities.
However, if we were to restrict freedom of speech as it relates to religion, where would we draw the line? You can’t insult Islam but it’s OK to denounce Scientology? Is it anti-Christian for Jews to denounce Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as anti-Semitic?
Mocking religion is the most serious kind of ridicule, it seems - more than denouncing your country or making fun of someone’s mother. Whether religion should be a special category is a big question. Leaving that aside, though, other questions arise: what counts as a religion and who does the counting? There is no consensus, even amongst scholars of religion, as to what constitutes a religion. Does a group that declares itself religious make it so or is religious legitimacy conferred by the larger culture? Does the size of the religion matter—small ones must take their lumps but big ones can make you shut up?
Complicating the matter is deciding whose sensibilities matter when a religion is defamed? Is hurting the spiritual leader’s feelings more important than that of the layperson? Which leader? Which sect within the religion? How many people need to feel aggrieved? Is one person’s feelings being insulted sufficient to stifle another’s opinion?
There is an additional problem with prohibiting speech that attacks religion: the beliefs of one religion may malign another religion. The Jewish bible, for example, condones the mass killings of idol worshippers. Christianity for years accused Jews of deicide. Sunnis and Shias, both Muslims, blow up each others mosques in the name of defending the true faith.
Blasphemy laws may work where there is a uniformity of thought. Happily, no such place exists. There are always differences of opinions and where differences exist over important matters, people are offended. Of course, those who criticize others deeply held beliefs should do so respectfully.
For some, every religious disagreement is disrespectful. And every slight is taken as mortally hurtful. Blasphemy laws will always be another way for the powerful to have their way with those who disagree.
Laws regulating proper religious thought disappeared from Europe and the U.S. for good reason. People grew tired of killing one another. Individuals were let to go their own way. Conscience became private. Something was lost in the process, as religious communities were weakened. But something great was gained. This is why religious freedom and the right to free speech are both enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They sometimes rest in uneasy alliance, but few have figured out a better way to live.