Blasphemy, Insult and Freedom of Speech (a reaction)

Meredith Doig / 22 December 2014

Graeme Lindenmayer is a member of the RSA and retired engineer with a continuing interest in science, philosophy and religion. Here he reacts to the article on "Blasphemy, Insult and Freedom of Speech".

Three things made it very difficult for the issues in this debate to be discussed in any depth:

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  • the topic was expressed in terms that implied that the high moral ground lay on one side of the argument;
  • one of the participants was an uncompromising advocate for this side;
  • and the debate took place in a secular society with the other participants anxious to appear fair in their arguments.
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But in any case, this type of topic is better examined in a seminar rather than a debate. Here is my take on the issues.

Free speech (or freedom of speech)

A literal interpretation of freedom of speech would mean that everyone is allowed to say and publish whatever they liked without penalty.

Even the most ardent proponents of free speech accept that some kinds of speech (and other means of communication) should not be permitted.

The arguments about freedom of speech are about the exclusions. Suggested exclusions relate to speech that would:[list type="bullet"]

  • undermine the security of the state,
  • cause social disruption,
  • cause physical harm to specific groups or individuals within a society,
  • or cause emotional harm to specific groups or individuals.
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The matter in question seems to refer to emotional harm arising from things that may be said about religion. Since different people have different emotional susceptibilities and different ideas about what is sacred, precious or seemly, things that are acceptable to some people are emotionally hurtful to others. So there will be no agreement about what should be specifically excluded, or how the exclusions should be enforced and infringements punished.

The debate touched on the range of attitudes of followers of the main belief systems, but, judging from the account of the debate, the argument got lost. The grounds for accepting and rejecting specific kinds of speech, and what common ground there might be in secular societies, should have been a key issue.

Insult

To insult someone is to make a statement that is taken to be denigrating to them. So, to insult is to intentionally or unintentionally cause emotional harm. When no denigration is intended it is sometimes possible to reach agreement about what actually is intended, and then there should be no insult. But if there is no agreement it remains an insult.

If I call someone a cockroach, is that an insult? The implication here is not literal but that the person has the (unspecified) characteristics of a very inferior creature. So it is an insult by implication, because it in some way denigrates the person.

If I call them a lion, is that better or worse? Presumably it is praise, even though we would not consider the mental capacity of a lion to equal that of a normal human being. Lions are “noble” animals. Cockroaches never appear on anyone’s coat of arms.

If I say that someone is very untidy, is that a direct insult or just honest criticism? People usually find criticism a bit hard to accept, even if it is meant to be truthful. Criticism, true or otherwise, can also be malicious. What distinguishes criticism from insult is that an insult is unfair or untruthful. There may be good reasons why the person was unable to be tidy. The conflict arises when the critic believes the comment to be true and fair and the accused person considers it to be untrue or unfair. If it is true it is not necessarily fair; it may have been intended to be embarrassing. It could then be taken as an insult

If I call someone naïve because they believe in fairies or unicorns, I am criticising that person’s understanding of the world. If I call someone naïve because they believe in Jesus or God or some other supernatural entity, I am also criticising their understanding of the world. In both cases, if I am doing it to help them understand, then I intend no insult but may sound condescending. But if I am strongly implying that the person is in some way inferior to me then I am insulting them. If I choose to be insulting I should have an “acceptable” justification and/or accept some possible hostile reaction from the insulted party. Two issues here are that everyone is naïve about matters beyond their own experience or expertise, and being naïve or misled about something is bad only if it leads to harm to someone or something.

If I call someone a cheat, a liar or a thief, presumably that is worse, because it is a serious moral issue. If the person is actually one of these things, is saying so an insult or just a statement of truth, or both? The person might either acknowledge the accusation, or deny it and claim to be insulted. If they acknowledged it I don’t think it would then be an insult, but I could still receive a hostile reaction. In either case, would good or harm arise out of my accusation? That would depend on the circumstances.

If I do any of these kinds of things once to one person, the effect is between that person and me. If I do it repeatedly and publicly to a class of people, I may be stirring up social disruption. If many people do these kinds of things repeatedly to a class of people there is a stronger likelihood of social disruption. It might even undermine the stability of the state.

But the ostensible issue in the debate was not insult to people, but to God and the prophets.

Insulting God and the prophets

How do these examples of insult apply to God or the prophets? Insulting God is called blasphemy. Its interpretation according to the law or religious authorities includes various forms:[list type="bullet"]

  • Using God’s name “in vain”, e.g., saying ‘good God!’ or ‘Jesus Christ!’ as an expression of astonishment;
  • Ridiculing the idea that God exists;
  • Ridiculing what are purported to be commandments of wishes or God;
  • Ridiculing people because of their believe in God;
  • Depicting God in pictures or statues.
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Many people who believe in God engage in the first of these. Many happily embrace the last one as part of their religious worship. Many deny or ridicule the beliefs of those whose god is not the god they believe in. And Atheists and Agnostics deny or doubt the existence of God and usually have no qualms about engaging in what believers regard to be blasphemy.

If these blasphemies are committed blatantly and vigorously they will often turn some otherwise mild people into angry partisans, which might promote social disruption. Then if one faction of belief tries to enforce its beliefs about blasphemy on members of other factions, it must accept that the others will want to do the same in return. This is what has happened throughout history. And there have always been radical fanatics who have been very difficult to handle.

But are God or his prophets actually insulted by blasphemy? Should God or the prophets be protected from it?

Protection of God and his prophets

Protection means some kind of action to prevent some kind of harm or disadvantage to someone or something. The harm could be physical and/or emotional.

For God to need protection of any kind would mean that God can be harmed by human action and therefore is not omnipotent. If the dead prophets need protection of any kind, how would such protection help them? God is above any insult and his prophets are beyond any insult. It could be argued that to claim they need protection is itself blasphemous.

So any claim to be protecting God and his prophets must be either an attempt to make any blasphemous act appear to be a very serious offence, or to protect particular people from some kind of insult relating to their religious beliefs. Religious people usually make no distinction between these alternatives. This applies to all belief systems, whether it is defaming, criticising or deriding.

The derision does not need to be direct to warrant reaction. A recent Christian example is a piece of art entitled “Piss Christ”, a depiction of a bearded man immersed in urine, which was intended to be a criticism (with some element of derision) of the practice of attributing similar reverence to a representation of Jesus as would be given to Jesus. It was objected to on the grounds of blasphemy or denigration, and the item was removed from the exhibition. But it was merely a form of iconoclasm, distasteful perhaps, but who is the arbiter of taste? And bad taste isn't blasphemy.

On the other hand, there is no censure of the many humorous depictions of the presumably Christian God among clouds throwing bolts of lightning, etc., that occasionally appear in newspapers and other printed matter. There are many mild jokes about God and Jesus. And public declarations of atheism are commonplace in secular societies, even in those where the law against them has not been repealed.

There would also be little, if any, reaction in Christian societies if actions deriding Christianity occurred in a society dominated by a non-Christian religion. But there is often uproar in the Muslim world when things appear in the media of secular societies that can be construed as relating to Mohamed in any way other than devotional. The often-violent reaction to this is claimed, and often believed, to be protection of God and the prophet from insult. (It is interesting that denial of the existence of God doesn’t get the same reaction. Perhaps they think it’s “our” God not theirs.)

Among Christian societies there have been and still are some extremely puritanical groups who react strongly to blasphemy. They happen to be very small minorities in most Western countries and any effect they might have is minimal. Puritanical groups are more prevalent in Muslim societies and they can be a significantly large part of the community. They have local credibility when they react to the Western media because there is resentment in many Muslim societies against real or perceived attacks by Western countries on Muslim countries, Muslim communities and Islam.

In the debate this was illustrated by the statement about secular liberalism being imposed on and by the West, using stealth and military strength. The statement may be partly true. But Islam and Christianity and Hinduism and communism have also been imposed by military strength and varying degrees of stealth, and the ethos of each has also been imposed alongside the religion.

Throughout history there have been people who have had feelings similar to those of present militant Muslims, and they have been very troubling to the societies they objected to. Examples include the Jews, Irish and Tamils. We are aware that most Muslims today want to just get on with their lives. They probably don’t care very much about what people of other beliefs think and say, as long as it is not threatening.

We should not act to stir moderate Muslims to join their violently militant brethren. And the same courtesy should be given to other people whose beliefs are different from ours. But in doing this we should not abandon what we think are the moral strengths of our own society or hesitate to say what we think is true. Nor should we acquiesce to demands that we observe specific aspects of someone else’s religion while we are living in our secular society.

As for God and the prophets, we should be frank about what we think, and there is usually no reason for us to exclude humour when we do it. If we are accused of insulting God we can reply that if God is truly omnipotent nothing could possibly harm or insult him.


Graeme LindenmayerGraeme Lindenmayer is a member of the RSA and retired telecommunications engineer with a continuing interest in, among other things, science, philosophy and religion. He was raised in a Christian family but was led to agnosticism through trying to find an explanation for the inconsistencies in the Bible.

His e-book "Agnosticism in the Eternal Triangle of Belief" can be seen at http://agnosticperspectives.com/category/the-third-perspective/

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