Practically all traditional religions have or have had strict rules on blasphemy. The idea behind this is to honor the sanctity of what the tradition regards as sacred. It is appropriate that one demands of the faithful more than a modicum of respect and reverence for the names and symbols of their religion. Given that in all societies and at all times there have always been skeptics and unbelievers who did not care to respect such injunctions it seemed appropriate for the religious establishment in power to impose severe penalties on those who desecrated in one way or another, in public or in secrecy, whatever was regarded as sacred. Lack of respect and over insult to the sacred in a religious framework is what one calls blasphemy.
In ancient times punishment for blasphemy used to be severe, certainly in the framework of the Abrahamic religions. These ranged from excommunication and exile to hanging, decapitation, and burning at the stake. Savage as such treatments might seem to those who have been awakened to enlightened values and modern worldviews, they seemed perfectly normal to those whose love for or devotion to their god was so intense, not to say distorted, that they felt it was their moral and religious responsibility to protect God’s honor by severe means, not only to punish the impious but also to teach the rest that they better beware of what they say or write about what is proclaimed as canonically sacred.
But even in olden times only the followers of a religion were held accountable for acts or words of blasphemy. One not belonging to the faith was not meted out the same punishment as a believer who blasphemed. But now things have changed. For the first time in history — perhaps since the publication of the cartoon in a Danish newspaper — even outsiders are subject to the same laws of blasphemy. It is important for the world to recognize this ominous turn and its terrible consequences, actual and potential. Furthermore, in the good old times, only the perpetrator of blasphemy was answerable to his or her behavior. Now, as we have been seeing, people who are utterly innocent of the charge, and even those who publicly condemn such behavior, are considered fair targets of the rage of the so-called believers.
I like to think that the vast majority of modern Muslims are appalled by this development which brings only ignominy to their great religion. I am sure many of them are nauseated by the kinds of reactions by the mindless bigotry of some of their co-religionists that one reads and sees in the news. I am well aware that many of them the can do very little about it.
The only hope seems to be this: The leaders in Islamic countries, both lay and religious, imams and ayatollahs, may proclaim to their people that this kind of behavior is contrary to the teachings of their faith. Furthermore, the United Nations should resolve that every member nation repeal medieval blasphemy laws from their books.
In meanwhile, like many Non-Muslims in the United States and all over the world, I too condemn intentional and provocative desecration of the religious symbols of other people. But I also uphold the individual right of every human being in civilized societies to express his or her views on any religion or aspect of any religion as they wish. God forbid that suicide killers spring in the other religions of the world also.
Let us pray and wish for peace and understanding among the peoples of the world.
Anything that leads to murder should raise doubts about its legitimacy when put in service of so-called spiritual truth. That killing was done “for God” and yet didn’t lead to a complete re-think about the theological “approach” to a relationship with God is simply insane. Yet this madness persists today. Every time a sermon is preached where someone says “the Bible says God says” the lie continues to be spread. The answer to all such claims is a loud “Says who?”
Listening to the BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time, hosted by the always wonderful Melvyn Bragg about Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) one story hit home — hard! One of the show’s contributors told the story of Perotine Massey, a Guernsey woman burned for heresy by the Roman Catholics. She gave birth while in the flames. The baby was tossed back into the fire after it burst from her burning stomach and landed — alive — at the feet of a soldier guarding the pire.
This awful event was described in the quaint “Old English” title given to a contemporary engraving depicting the burning as: “A lamentable spectacle of three women, with a child infant brasting out of the Mothers Wombe, being first taken out of the fire, and cast in agayne, and so all burned together in the Isle of Guernsey, 1556 July 18.”
Such an account might confirm the superiority of Protestant Christianity to the brutality of Roman Catholicism — except that Protestants did the same sort of things to Catholics, not to mention to Native Americans.
There is a “reason” for such viciousness: theology practiced as if it is an exact science. Call this the Roman Church/Protestant idea of spirituality as “correct” belief. That’s a liability. The equivalent would be to say that you’re only married if you can pass an exam on the correct details of your spouse’s life history, beliefs, likes and dislikes, blood-type and food preferences.
A theological approach to religious faith attempts to reduce something intuitive to an exact “science.” Tick the “wrong” box and you fail the exam.
From liberal to fundamentalist to charismatic, the Protestant denominations are still as united in their commitment to salvation-through-correct-ideas as are the Roman Catholics. The root of the Protestant commitment to salvation through correct belief lies in the retributive and juridical “rationalistic” history of the Roman Catholic Church from which all Protestant denominations evolved. Western Christianity has relied heavily on signing up to “correct” doctrines in order to be saved. Catholics and Protestants may disagree on what is correct but they agree that correct doctrine is needed for salvation.
Believing “wrong” was for much of church history called heresy and punishable by excommunication or death. Religious “certainties” were so fragile they had to be protected by violence by all sides. That should have eliminated this theological correctness retributive and juridical rationalistic approach long ago. It didn’t because religion was never about God but about a way to dominate people and keep rulers in power. It still is.
The problem is that the book around which these “correct” doctrines are spun is not a book at all. In that sense it “says” so many things that it says nothing. So the book is a great mine to dig anything out of needed to support one’s personal tyranny over others but it is nothing more than that.
For any book to “say” something it has to fulfill 2 tests: First it has to be a work of non-fiction whose truth claims can be corroborated from outside of itself. Second, it has to be by one author or at least by authors who know each other and collaborate to bring their message to readers.
What it can’t be and at the same time be said to have a single coherent message worth killing people over, is a collection of myths, essays, letters, stories, recorded oral history, misinformation and fables that were gradually collected and added to over thousands of years without the authors being aware that their bits and pieces of writing would someday be seen as “chapters” in one “book.” And since little to nothing in the book can be corroborated from outside testable sources, its truth claims (real or imagined) are worthless if taken as “fact”-based let alone in a juridical sense and then used to judge others.
When I run into the idolatry of Bible worshiping I’m reminded of something