Is blasphemy bunk?

So, some poor ex-Muslim bloke in Afghanistan is in deep doo-doo for converting to Christianity. Do not fear, says Mr. Karzai, we’ll figure it out. This doesn’t change the utter nonsense here: a man “apostasizes” from Islam and so must go to jail (or worse). That’s crazy stuff.

Apparently God is affronted if we blaspheme him (by accepting some doctrine — in this case the divine sonship of Jesus — that he is opposed to). We Christians are not in the habit (any more: thank-you Enlightenment!) of imprisoning or stoning apostates and blasphemers (although in England, blaspheming the Christian God is still technically illegal). Nevertheless, we do tread warily lest we offend God and are struck by lightning.

Here’s why blasphemy is bad from my Mormon perspective: by trifling with sacred things we make it less likely that they will hold salvific value for us. Bad-mouthing God is hardly conducive to the kind of relationship with him that we need and which will make us happy.

Here’s not why blasphemy is bad: because it offends God. If the Great God (Yahweh, Allah, Whoever) of the Universe cannot take being called names, then, well, we have a problem. After all, are we not supposed to “turn the other cheek” to those who offend us? Is God exempt from his own commandments?

So, go ahead and say all manner of nasty, foul things about God. He won’t strike you down and you don’t need to go to prison for it. He isn’t going to “punish” you for it. God is bigger than that (which is why I don’t believe the Heavenly-Mother-Is-Invisible-To-Avoid-Offense-To-God “doctrine”).

But don’t do it anyway, because a) it’s not cool, b) you have covenanted not to, and c) you need to be friends with God in the end, not for his sake, but for yours. Eternal life is not a reward for good behaviour; it’s a state achieved by being godly, and gods don’t blaspheme themselves. Waste of time. Not nice. (A bit of self-deprecation, maybe. At least, if God is an Englishman.)


EoM on blasphemy


  1. I like this post. We impute many motives to Deity that I’m sure Deity doesn’t have. Perhaps THAT is blasphemous in a small way, to assume that we understand God’s motives in anything that happens to us here. A young missionary dies and we say he has work to do on the other side, God called him home for that. This may be true, it may comfort family and friends, but we don’t know. We can only guess. I think we can say with confidence God wasn’t punishing the missionary or the family and friends.

    Which reminds me of a J. Golden Kimball story. A sister comes up to J. Golden and says:

    “I’ve got 2 brothers. One is wicked, lazy and mean–no one likes him. The other was a saint, but he died young and left his family and friends. Why did God do this to my beloved brother instead of my less beloved brother?”

    J. Golden scratches his chin and says:

    “The way I figure it, God didn’t want that jack-ass of a brother around with him any more than you do.”

    Sister hugs J. Golden and says: “That’s the best answer I’ve ever heard.”

    Which makes me think of profanity, a related topic. Why poop isn’t offensive (it’s cute term) but other alternatives are is just plain mysterious, and, kind of off topic, although cursing and taking God’s name in vain are often combined.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    ENG “blasphemy” derives from the GR verb (and related forms) *blasphEmeO*, which lit. means “to speak against,” and thus to speak in a disrespectful way that demeans, denigrates and maligns. It can apply to humans as well as transcendent entities. The ENG derivative to some extent has its own semantic history and has become more of a religious technical term than it was in the NT. In honor-bound cultures such as involved there, the first thought would have been for the disrespect shown or harm done to a deity’s reputation, a nuance somewhat obscured by the common use of the ENG derivative in translation.

    So I think at least some of the point of concern with blasphemy is not how it affects God himself, as you rightly say, but how it affects other human beings, and God in their estimation. When we speak against God, say against his existence or justice, we are influencing our fellow mortals to hold him in disrespect and to reject him.

    (And I fully agree with you about the silly notion that we don’t know about MiH to spare her name being taken in vain. I’ve always hated that little aetiological myth.)

  3. This death penalty for apostasy (conversion to another religion) in Islam is an aspect of Islam that has troubled me for some time. People often prefer to forget about it or ignore it … but it is a serious issue that deserves attention. There is no official sanctioned religious means for a sane Muslim to choose to leave or abandon Islam and still be alive.

  4. This whole incident reminds me of my first Afghan client, who sought asylum in the United States because he feared his conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would result in persecution or death were he returned to Afghanistan.

    He has recently become a permanent resident of the US and wonders if he might now make a visit to Kabul to visit his mother, whom he hasn’t seen for nearly 20 years. Sadly, it appears that the new regime in Afghanistan is no more open on matters of faith than the old Taliban were.

  5. S.P. Bailey says:

    Separating the doctrine of heresy/blasphemy and the power of physical compulsion was a great achievement of the west and huge challenge in the current near east. I’m not sure about locating the west’s achievement exclusively in the enlightenment though. Generally, it seems, enlightenment thinkers restated in secular terms arguments against punishment of heretics/blasphemers made much earlier on religious bases. For example, Locke’s Letter on Toleration largely rehashes Sebastian Castellio and other much more religious theorists of tolerance that preceded him. Not that the achievement of tolerance in the west had a single cause: certainly a variety of intellectual currents contributed from very religious to the opposite (Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise). And political interest/expedience (tolerance was stabilizing–a boon to kings and merchants) no doubt helped too.

    The big question is: can this history somehow be repeated in the near east? And can we as westerners somehow help it happen? This is a touchy subject: there are things in the Quran that may be interpreted as a basis for a doctrine of toleration, but by suggesting them, outsiders risk rendering such interpretations even more suspect. Like PETA telling Mormons what the word the wisdom truly means on billboards and parade floats.

    My point: I agree, Ronan, that true heresy/blasphemy hurts the individual and not God. It may hurts others, i.e., the community, but still should never be punished by more than something like excommunication. I certainly hope this idea can get a foothold in the near east.

  6. S.P. Bailey says:

    Ed: regarding profanity/vulgarity, I understand that the tradition of considering one term much more vulgar than another term that means essentially the same thing is rooted in derivation. That following the Norman conquest of England, using the latin-derived term was dignified while using the northern tribal/germanic-derived term was considered, well, utterly loathesome.

    I would be delighted to hear from any linguist or language types (Wilfred? Jonathan Green?) who can confirm and elaborate.

  7. Ronan, remember our ethnic Albanian friend from Kosovo in the Oxford ward? He was seeking asylum in England because he was concerned about his safety if he were to return to Kosovo after having converted away from Islam to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His life would literally be forfeit were he to return home to his family. Such is Islam.

    In fact, in my mission, we were instructed to be very careful about teaching any Muslims because, as you and I both know, transplanting to Europe with its freedoms and tolerance does not inhibit the internal honor killings and other consequences required by Islam among Muslim families. If any Muslim for some reason expressed a desire to be baptized in my mission, we were to get the approval of the Area Presidency. If I understand correctly, this approval was sometimes denied. The mission president in Slovenia at the time our Oxford friend was seeking asylum in England told me that in his mission and other missions in Eastern or Southern Europe they simply didn’t teach Muslims at all because of the concern that it could put their lives in jeopardy.

    I think Danithew is right that this is an aspect of Islam that we don’t pay enough attention to and that desperately requires reform. That reform can only happen from within, and if Christianity is any pattern, then it will only happen after much misery and strife within the Muslim world.

  8. Sahih Bukhari is the most prestigious collection of Sunni Islamic hadith. Here are the English translations of hadith I found in my perusal of this collection that deal with the topic of death penalty for apostasy:

    Narrated Ikrima: Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’” — The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari, Arabic-English, vol. 4, hadith #3017, page 159. See also hadith #6922 (vol. 9)

    Narrated Abu Burda: Abu Musa said, “I came to the Prophet along with two men (from the tribe of) of Ashariyun, one on my right and the other on my left, while Allah’s Messenger was brushing his teeth (with a Siwak) and both men asked him for some employment. … Behold! There was a fettered man besides Abu Musa. Mu’adh asked: “Who is this man?” Abu Musa said: “He was a Jew and became a Muslim and then reverted back to Judaism.” Then Musa requested Mu’adh to sit down but Mu’adh said, ‘I will not sit down till he has been killed. This is the judgment of Allah and His Messenger,’ and repeated it thrice. Then Abu Musa ordered that the man be killed, and he was killed” … — The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari, Arabic-English, vol. 9, hadith #6923, page 46. See also hadith #7157 (vol. 9)

    One of the explanations for the death penalty for apostasy in Islam is that abandoning Islam is not only considered the abandonment of a religion but also the betrayal of a people as a political community. It is considered not just an act of apostasy (as we know it) but also as an act of treason.

    Muslims will tell you that there is a scripture in the Qur’an that states “there is no compulsion in religion” … (“la iqraha fi din”) — but this verse is strictly interpreted to mean that people of other religions will not be forced to convert to Islam. It does not apply to people who have already chosen Islam or who have been born into Islam. If one follows Islamic teachings, they, in fact, are compelled to remain Muslims or face the death penalty.

    Some will argue that this rarely happens or that the state governments of many countries do not support this — which may be true. But culturally and religiously, in a Muslim-majority country, there is no relief from this edict and it appears to me from the hadith that any Muslim is granted the right to carry out the penalty. These hadith are, in my opinion (I’d love to be wrong) a recipe for vigiliantism.

  9. S.P. Bailey says:

    This is really terrible, but when I first read about this trial—that an insanity defense might save this poor guy, I thought: “Crazy for Jesus!”

    I’m sorry. It just sounded like a bumper sticker you might see in the deep south.

  10. Ed, Very interesting take on blasphemy. Indeed, to say we know the mind and will of God on all things is really, really problematic and nigh-on idolatrous. For me anyway, ‘cos I really don’t know, though I have sometimes pretended I do. I believe, but only through the proverbial dark glass.

    But hey, I will confidently state this (thus breaking my own rule): God is not a petty, immature tyrant. The situation in Islam is unfortunate. (Thanks Mark, Danithew, S.P., John, and Kevin for excellent comments.) To the extent that we all make God into such in one degree or another is also unfortunate.

  11. Let us not forget:

    I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men (D&C 64:10)


  12. But culturally and religiously, in a Muslim-majority country, there is no relief from this edict and it appears to me from the hadith that any Muslim is granted the right to carry out the penalty.

    This is exactly the reason for restrictions on proselytizing to Muslims in European missions. Anyone can carry out the penalty. In Europe, this often means the immediate families of the “apostate.” What is wrong with a religious or cultural tradition in which a family is willing to kill its own son or daughter for choosing a different religion? This is something that the West should no longer ignore. The Afghan case is perhaps just what is needed to raise awareness of this aspect of Islam. People in Europe and the USA/Canada are asking about the merits of helping establish a democracy in Afghanistan that nevertheless still prohibits any freedom of religion. They are rightly appalled.

  13. Russ (#11):
    Rhetorical, I think.

    I’m glad that Condi Rice and other luminaries have spoken out against this barbarity. That’s a start.

  14. I think that we will find unanimity here in condemnation for non-ecclesiastical penalties for blaspheme. Beyond that, I do find blasphemy truly offensive. I here F-bombs all day and I can live with it, but if I hear someone use “Jesus Christ” pejoratively, I will likely say something. It is painful for me. I understand that there would be a commensurate response in people of other faiths. That said, people have the right to use the term all they want.

    The community or “treason” aspect of leaving the faith is not foreign to Mormonism. I appreciated Joseph F. Smith’s example of trying to stay close to his cousin Agnes who left the Church and lived in the Bay area. We should not shun those who leave the faith, only in the most extreme cases.

  15. Jonathan Green says:

    (S.P.Bailey: Sadly, this discussion has already turned away from the linguistic history of poop. You’re on the right track, but the short answer is that if poop-words suitable for medicine or for cursing didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them. The Normans just gave us extra material to work with.)

    Ronan, I like your thoughts on blasphemy not as something bad we do to God, but as something bad we do to ourselves.

  16. It is not universally accepted in Islam that apostasy is punishable by death. While danithew’s sources are often quoted and are probably accepted by most Muslims, there has been a consistent tradition against death for apostasy. Some question the authority of the ahaadith quoted, especially in light of the verse from the Qur’an. There are Muslim groups calling for change on this very important issue.

    It is also my understanding that only a religious leader can carry out the sentence, not just any Muslim. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Note that Abdul Rahman’s family turned him in instead of carrying out the sentence themselves.

    And there are Muslim-majority countries where conversion is not always a huge risk- Kazkahstan and Kyrgyzstan both are examples of this. While there have been a few instances of former Muslims being killed, they are few and far between and usually a result of the former Muslim actively proselytizing- not a very good idea. But I know more than one former Muslim currently living safely in a Muslim-majority country.

    But this is unquestionably an issue that needs to be addressed. If Shari’a law is used in a country, the death penalty should be restricted to murder convictions. That should have been in Afghanistan’s constitution in the first place.

  17. How do we really know whether something is blasphemous or not? I’m thinking, for example, of occasions where Brigham Young would teach something and say, in effect, “The Christian world considers these truths blasphemous”, clearly not bothered in the least by this fact. Is the measurement of blasphemy our conscience or some communal conscience or determined solely by God? Finally, can mere incorrect belief be blasphemous?

  18. Elisabeth says:

    Wow, Ronan – you are on a roll lately with all these thought-provoking posts! Too bad Spring Break comes around only once a year.

    I think the idea of blaspheming God is similar to worshipping God. I don’t think it makes any practical difference to God whether or not we worship Him, but it definitely does make a difference to us.

    Along the lines of J’s point about treason and traitors, there were (are?) some things in Mormonism that, if revealed, were punishable by death.  And then, of course, there’s the quasi-doctrine of blood atonement.

  19. Back in the good ol’ days, it was pretty much a given that converting to Christianity was not necessarily something that you really wanted to trumpet before the political authorities, and death at the hands of the government potentially loomed in the distance, and the converts knew it.

    I guess we’ve forgotten 1) the sacrifices made by those in the past who chose to believe despite the threat of lions in the Colluseum, 2) the idea that it’s not the right or duty of western civilization to impose our religious views on them any more than it’s their right or duty to impose theirs on us.

    Nobody seemed to be particularly in favor of Bin Laden calling America to repentence, and now we’re going to do the same in reverse and expect the Muslim world to slap their foreheads and ask themselves, “What were we thinking? Of course the Americans are right and we are wrong!”

  20. Last Lemming says:

    there were (are?) some things in Mormonism that, if revealed, were punishable by death

    But I don’t know of any Mormon who considered him or herself authorized to carry out such a sentence. Indeed, D&C 134:10 would seem to explicitly deny them that authority.

    “[W]e do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.”

  21. Blasphemy was as much a crime against Israel as it was a crime against God.

  22. I think that it’s important to preserve the notion of blasphemy in our society. Right here in the bloggernacle, the notion of blasphemy has served a valuable purpose. For example, those who publicly blaspheme their Lord and Saviour by putting words in Christ’s mouth in order to malign their neighbor can’t be taken seriously when they try to seem devoted to Jesus’s memory. If it weren’t for the notion of blasphemy, such a stunt might be pulled off without a hitch.

  23. Well, the important thing is that you aren’t bitter about it, DKL.

  24. John C, thanks for your concern, but I’m pretty sure that whether I’m bitter about it is not terribly important.

    It just strikes me as very funny to have caught Adam (of all people) on public record blaspheming his own Lord and Savior. I can’t possibly be alone here.

    For my part, I’m never really bitter about the occasional blasphemy. And why should I be? Jesus is a barrel of laughts. Take a look at this brilliant little piece entitled, “No Bread.”.

  25. I don’t mind Bin Laden calling us to repentance. I wouldn’t even mind that he is wrong if he would not impose his kind of repentance on us.

    That’s not asking for too much.

    I might as well add my own call to repentance: cases like this remind us how essential the private sphere is for religious freedom. Attempts to change that by bringing back school prayer, for example, are a bad idea.

  26. John and DKL, what’s the difference between blasphemy and sacrilege?

  27. Did I forget my smiley? I always forget my smiley. ;)

  28. S.P. Bailey says:

    Hellmut: throwing religion in the public square into a discussion of hanging heretics seems odd. Don’t get me wrong, I believe firmly in separation of church and state. But we may be able to agree more easily on what that phrase means in some cases (killing heretics) than others (public prayer). Thus, I don’t think one case really illuminates the other. I mean, I doubt anyone here thinks punishing heresy with death is a good thing. Yet working out the details of church-state relations in liberal western states is complex, hotly contested, and usually requires a considerable degree of nuance.

  29. No prob, John C. I took at tongue-in-cheek anyway, which is why I was so freely tongue-in-cheek in my reply.

    Hellmut, I think that sacrilege and blasphemy overlap. My impression is that sacrilege has more to do with sacred things or people in general, but blasphemy is specifically related to gods and deities. Does that accord with what anyone else thinks?

  30. Speaking of sacrilege, the scriptures appear to have crashed: It’s returning an internal server error page (code: 500) as of about 6pm on Friday evening (Mar 24).

    Which brings up a larger issue: If our church is truly inspired, then why are they using Microsoft products? You would think that the Restored Gospel that has 100% of the truth required for salvation would at least make use of a decent computer platform?

  31. Well, they’re back up now. The scriptures, I mean. What a relief.

  32. I disagree with you, S.P., that this a complex issue. In light of the last five hundred years of western history, it’s very simple. The best thing is to respect the private sphere and tolerate each other.

    Seriously, during my first two years in grade school we had school prayer. It was rather troubling to have my teacher contradict my parents about religion. No child should be placed in that position.

    It is not an accident that it was Mormon and Catholic families that appealed the Santa Fe school prayer policy to the federal courts. Such a policy might be nice for folks in Utah and Southern Idaho. For Mormons everywhere else, it would be a disaster. We are compromising the private sphere at our own peril.

    When government endorses one religion over other religions, and that includes religiosity over atheism, then coercion confronts conscience. That’s asking for violence.

    In terms of theology, Christ asked us to pray within the confines of our homes. A private prayer is worth more than a public prayer. A public prayer may even be a sin. Hence, any public prayer might violate the religion of those among us who take the Sermon of the Mount seriously.

    As Christians we are bound by the Golden Rule. I for my part do not want an Islamic prayer at my kids’ school. Therefore the Golden Rule requires me not to impose a Christian prayer on a Muslim.

    It seems that self-interest, theology, and liberal philosophy all point in the same direction:

    •Uphold freedom by sustaining the private sphere.
    •No private sphere, no tolerance.
    •No tolerance, no freedom of conscience.

  33. S.P. Bailey says:

    Hellmut: you and I may disagree, but not all that much. Certainly not as much as your comment seems to suggest. But I do disagree with your gorgian-knot-cutting declaration that the issue is easy. It is not easy: tension exists between the concepts at play: religious liberty, equality between religions and between religion and no religion, and separation between church and state. Absolute equality and absolute separationism cut much too far into religious liberty. Thoughtful balancing of liberty and equality—through the mechanism of separation but also through other legal and social technology—surely is not as easy as you claim.

  34. I would be interested in exploring the details, S.P. Would you like to take this to your or my blog to spare Ronan the threadjack?

    Cheers, Hellmut

  35. Jack the thread.

  36. I would be interested to find out why “absolute equality and absolute separation cut too far into religious liberty,” S.P.

  37. Hellmut — Because we are social creatures, and privacy is simply not enough. Therefore, tension MUST be allowed between people. If religous actions, motivations, and words cannot be expressed in full public view, than freedom and toleration are a sham. There would be no difference between tyranny and democracy; as both would religate the individual to hide out in order to avoid punishment.

  38. That’s an important point, Jettboy. And I agree with that. I have a problem with government endorsing religious speech. As long as the audience is free, I have no problem with religious individuals talking about their faith in public.

    The private sphere encompasses any space without coercion. That’s a lot bigger than privacy.

  39. If the government is for and by the people and the people are religious, than the government SHOULD include religious speech. How much should they include? All of it. I don’t interpret freedom OF religion as freedom FROM religion. For this reason I believe religion should be more open and public (and governmentally sanctioned) than ever before. The difference is an increase in who can do and say what, not on what cannot be said and done.

  40. I have to wonder if salvific is a real word. It sounds like something I would make up. Although it was Ronan who said it, so maybe.

    I have cussed God no end. Not lately, though.

    When I feel really bad is when that word taking His name in vain slips out of my mouth. I was raised on it, so it’s hard to overcome. When I get really, really mad at somebody, boy, does God the worst end of it. I always feel bad later.

    But somebody on the blog said something using somebody else’s name. This I’m going to try, but probably nobody I know will get it anyway.

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