8. Blasphemy and offences against religion

Throughout most of history, religion has been a driving force for the suppression of freedom of thought and expression, and the stifling of scientific research.

Bringing Galileo before the Inquisition, and the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno are well-known examples.

But is this an issue today?

Blasphemy laws

Jonothan Turnley says that there is a trend in the West toward an international blasphemy standard and prosecutions for insulting religion.

For a good survey of blasphemy laws around the world, see:  “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_law” 

Some highlights…


In Australia, the Commonwealth no longer recognizes blasphemy as an offence. In Victoria, it is unclear whether anything remains of blasphemy at common law. A person who is aggrieved because someone is engaging in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of him on the ground of his religious belief or activity can seek redress under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. The Act was introduced by the Steve Bracks Labor Government in Victoria. The main purpose of the Act was “to promote racial and religious tolerance by prohibiting certain conduct involving the vilification of persons on the ground of race or religious belief or activity.” The key issue for me then is what do they mean by “vilification”? If I as an atheist express my sincere belief that a particular religion has unfounded beliefs and is used to justify a noxious social policy, does that constitute vilification? To what extent do I have to fear prosecution if I say what I think about a religion? Bear in mind that I am not directing personal abuse against individuals, spray painting slogans on their place of worship and I defend their right to freedom of worship. I just don’t think they should be entitled to special consideration just because they are members of a “faith” group. But I do think that many religious beliefs are deserving of ridicule. What am I required to do? “Bow your head in great respect and genuflect, genuflect, genuflect”? According to the Act, vilification is “public behaviour that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of another person or group of people because of their race or religion.”

Elsewhere in this blog a have posted my comments on the debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell, which took place on the ABC’s program Q&A on Easter Monday. I think that Cardinal Pell’s ignorance about human origins (saying that we originated in South Africa and that Neanderthals are human ancestors) is deserving of contempt, that his apparent ignorance of the Catholic Church’s position on the Big Bang Theory (which was initially proposed by a Catholic priest) is deserving of ridicule and the idea that children are born in original sin (which didn’t come up in the program) causes me revulsion.

“The Act sets a high standard for determining vilification, and it is only in extreme and serious cases that vilification will be found to have occurred.”

The first case under the new legislation was brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria against some Christian pastors after they had made some remarks about Islam at a seminar. The Council won, but this decision was overturned by the Victorian Supreme Court (Court of Appeal).

For an article about this issue, see: Garth Blake, “Promoting Religious Tolerance in a Multifaith Society: Religious Vilification Legislation in Australia and the UK.” The Australian Law Journal, 81 (2007): 386-405.

Several other states have similar “hate crime” legislation.

What about other countries?

The UK

The gallows at Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, where 20 year old student Thomas Aikenhead was sentenced to death by hanging, having been charged with the crime of Blasphemy, for mocking Christianity. Aikenhead had recanted and begged for mercy, in vain, and was tried and sentenced on December 25th, Christmas Day, 1696, then executed on January 8, 1697. (Article from Wikipedia) Thomas Aikenhead (c. March 1676 – 8 January 1697) was a Scottish student from Edinburgh, who was prosecuted and executed at the age of 20[2] on a charge of blasphemy. He was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. Aikenhead was indicted in December 1696. The indictment of Thomas Aikenhead read: That … the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, in profane allusion to Esop’s Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.

The Choudhury case in England, involving Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, held that the blasphemy law protected only Christianity, not Islam.

The 1989 film Visions of Ecstasy was the only film ever banned in the UK for blasphemy. Following the 2008 repeal of the blasphemy law, the film was eventually classified for release as 18-rated in 2012.

Islamic countries

Countries which have Islam as the state religion, regard blasphemy as a serious offence. Pakistan, for example, has legislation which makes execution a penalty for blasphemy. An Australian citizen who made a pilgrimage to Mecca was recently sentenced to 500 lashes, commuted to 75 lashes, for blasphemy after practising his religion in the “wrong” way.

Mohshin Habib writes:

Kuwaiti lawmakers have passed a legal amendment authorizing the death penalty for Muslims who curse their God or the Quran, or who defame their Prophet Mohammed or his wife. In the amended article, if the defendant publicly repents and apologizes for the crime, the penalty will be reduced to five years in jail, a fine of 10,000 Kuwaiti Dinars (KD), or both.

The approved article states that non-Muslims who commit the same crime face at least 10 years in jail. Some MPs demanded the death penalty should also apply to them as well. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan boast the same death penalty law for blasphemy. In other Muslim countries, there are different interpretations to executing people who are outspoken and have different opinion. The Islamic states also never tolerate apostasy, conversion, or freedom from religion.

Indonesia, with the world’s highest Muslim population, is not Islamic as such, but its constitution mandates religious belief. An atheist has been arrested for posted comments about Islam and atheism on his Facebook site. Austen Dacey reports:

Prosecutors have charged Aan under the Electronic Information and Transaction Law, which prohibits inciting hatred or enmity of a religious group, and under the country’s blasphemy provision, Article 156a, which criminalizes “hostility, hatred or contempt” and “disgracing” of a religion. Article 156a also prohibits attempts to persuade others to leave their religion and embrace atheism.

“Liberal” Scandinavian countries

Denmark’s Penal Code has a clause against blasphemy. The hate speech paragraph is used more frequently. Abolition of the blasphemy clause was proposed in 2004, but failed to gain a majority. In Finland in 2008, a District Court sentenced Seppo Lehto to two years and four months in prison for offences which involve hate speech and blasphemy.

The Republic of Ireland

A group representing atheists in the Irish Republic has defied a new blasphemy law by publishing a series of anti-religious quotations. The group, calling itself Atheist Ireland published 25 quotes by writers Mark Twain and Salman Rushdie, as well as Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed and Pope Benedict. The Irish government says the new law, which came into force on January 1, is needed because until now only Christians have enjoyed legal protection of their beliefs. Offenders will face fines of up to $35,000. Atheist Ireland says it will go to court over any action taken against it.


Hinduism, India’s dominant religion, does not have the concept of blasphemy. The Indian Penal Code does punish “hate speech” (insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of any citizen with deliberate and malicious intention to outrage their religious feelings). These laws are applied to all religions including Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam.

When drops of water began to fall from the feet of a crucifix in 2012, believers thought that it had holy powers. Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, suggested that the source of the water to be leaking toilet drainage. “It’s a case of miracle-mongering,” Edamaruku told AFP from his home in New Delhi. “Any kind of miracle-mongering is ultimately to get money and power.” Accusing him of spreading “anti-Catholic venom” during televised debates on the crucifix, outraged religious groups in Mumbai have filed police complaints that could see Edamaruku jailed for up to three years under India’s blasphemy law. Now Edamaruku welcomes the moves against him as “an opportunity, not a thing to be afraid of”, he said, and is challenging India’s blasphemy law.

The legislation bans “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”, a rule Edamaruku believes runs counter to freedom of expression.

The films of Deepa Mehta

Indian-born film-maker, Deepa Mehta, now living in Canada, is best known for her trilogy Fire, Earth and Water. Fire shows two young women trapped in loveless marriages who turn to each other for solace and become lovers. The film was initially passed by the Indian censors, but screenings brought violent protests. Hindu extremists in particular, caused the film to be withdrawn. Deepa Mehta and her supporters demonstrated for freedom of expression. One Hindu critic objected to the main characters being given Hindu names, and said he would withdraw his objection if they had Muslim names. When Mehta was about to start filming Water, the third film in the trilogy, she learned that 2,000 protesters had stormed the studio, destroying and burning the main film set and throwing the remnants into the Ganges. Cinemas were also burnt down by Hindu protesters. Water was eventually filmed in Sri Lanka. Deepat Mehta’s most recent film, an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, (a Booker Prize-winning novel about British colonial India and Partition), will be released this year. It was filmed in Sri Lanka, in the utmost secrecy and under false names, in an effort to keep the fundamentalists at bay. “He’s got the Muslims,” says Mehta, wryly assessing the field of people who might want to stop this film. “And I’ve got the Hindus.” (from  “http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/movies/deepa-mehta-films-rushdies-midnights-children/article2021293/”  ) Two weeks into the shoot, Mehta’s husband and producer, David Hamilton, received notice from the government saying permission to film had been withdrawn after displeasure was expressed by Iran. Mehta made a personal appeal to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, and the filming continued. The BBC tried to make Midnight’s Children into a five-part miniseries in 1997, but the government withdrew permission for that production after Muslim protests.

The US atheist billboard controversy Atheist groups in the US objecting to a Pennsylvania lawmaker’s decision to declare 2012 the “year of the Bible” ran into opposition from the pro-Christian lobby when they protested against this decision by putting up a provocative billboard likening religious belief to American slavery. http://www.AmericanAtheists.org and http://www.PAnonbelievers.org were responsible for the billboard which has since been taken down. The caption on the billboard took what Christian opponents described as “an ironic passage” from the Bible to illustrate their point: Colossians 3:22: “Slaves, obey your masters.” On MSNBC, former President Bush advisor Joe Watkins called the billboard “hateful.” Opposition to the billboard was based on its criticism of the Bible, and it seems that the sensitive issue of the US’s history of slavery was a pretext for having the billboard removed.

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