Happy Blasphemy Day! (They’re just WORDS, idiots!)

 “Impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.”

 Ambrose Bierce


“Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”

Mark Twain


Fuck Yahweh.

Fuck Shiva.

Fuck Mohammed.

Fuck Jesus

Fuck Zeus.

Fuck Allah.

Fuck Thor.

Fuck _____ (fill in the name of any deity, past or present).


There, that ought to do it.  I’m an equal opportunity blasphemer, and the more I blaspheme, the better I feel.

The above expostulations are but one example of an open-ended and purposely indefinable class of speech acts.  It’s in the interests of religious believers to keep the category as wide-open as possible, because that gives them the widest possible latitude to rouse their flock and attack blasphemers.

Thus blasphemy can be the property of an entire book (e.g., The Satanic Verses), which nobody needs to read before condemning its author to death.  It can consist of a cartoon or movie that merely portrays a religious figure…and it’s even worse (to the believers) if the religious figure is ridiculed or otherwise portrayed unflatteringly.


Trying to define it

Definitions of blasphemy do not really help us to understand what it is.  Start with the Bible.  The biblical definition is based on the third commandment, in Exodus 20:7 – “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain.”

 I have never understood that phrase; like the Second Amendment, it admits of a variety of interpretations.  The recent, authoritative Jewish Publication Society translation uses “swear falsely by the name of the Lord” but mentions the other version in a footnote.

I still don’t see what behavior is prohibited, at least by a narrow interpretation of the passage (as opposed to extending it to ridicule, cursing, or irreverence; see below).   My best guess is that if you swear to something false and say something like “I swear before God” or “as God is my witness,” God will know if you’re lying ( = taking his name in vain) and punish you accordingly.


Dictionary definitions 

Let’s see what the secular scholars have to say.

A direct Google search produced, at the top of the list, “The act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk” -- but I’m not sure what the source is; perhaps it’s Google’s own dictionary.

The Free Online Dictionary yielded

“A contemptuous or profane act, utterance, or writing concerning God or a sacred entity…The act of claiming for oneself the attributes and rights of God…An irreverent or impious act, attitude, or utterance in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.”

The Harper-Collins English Dictionary identifies something called "blasphemous libel":Law: the crime committed if a person insults, offends, or vilifies the deity, Christ, or the Christian religion.”

Wordnet 3.0 says that “blasphemous behavior” is “the act of depriving something of its sacred character; ‘desecration of the Holy Sabbath.’"

For Wikipedia, blasphemy is "irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs.”

Dictionary.com provides a four-part definition:

1. impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things.

2. Judaism. a. an act of cursing or reviling God.

b. pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) in the original, now forbidden manner instead of using a substitute pronunciation such as Adonai.

3. Theology. the crime of assuming to oneself the rights or qualities of God.

4. irreverent behavior toward anything held sacred, priceless, etc.: He uttered blasphemies against life itself.”

This is from Reference.com: “Blasphemy means a contemptuous or profane act, utterance, or writing concerning God or a sacred entity. Blasphemy can also be an irreverent or impious act, attitude, or utterance in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct. To blaspheme is thought by some to bring down bad luck upon oneself, especially if you are giving yourself attributes attributed to a higher power or deity.”

Elsewhere on the site, we find this elaboration, which, interestingly, links blasphemy with irreverence toward secular authority:

“…in religion, words or actions that display irreverence toward or contempt for God or that which is held sacred. Blasphemy is regarded as an offense against the community to varying degrees, depending on the extent of the identification of a religion with the society at large or the government. Sedition, an attack on the sovereign, is thus analogous; both it and blasphemy can be seen as subversive of order and authority.”

Those last four words are very telling and help explain the core of blasphemy’s offensiveness: subversion of order or authority.

At Merriam-webster.com, we find blasphemy defined as

“the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God…the act of claiming the attributes of deity…irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable.”


Going in circles


I could go on for hours, but we seem to be going in circles. Irreverence may be intentional or unintentional (its “illocutionary force”), but its perlocutionary force (“what I think you said”) is always intentional.  Again, that leaves the definition wide open: anything that anybody takes offense at? 

True, the various definitions are enlightening insofar as they provide some of the additional dimensions of blasphemy:

  • it can include regarding oneself as divine (secular dictators and, traditionally, many monarchs and emperors); interestingly, the Garden of Eden story prohibits this very kind of behavior: the serpent says "God knows that as soon as you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad" (Genesis 3:5-6), and God is not about to tolerate that!
  • it can include violating a name taboo, as with the Jewish example (many pious Jews write “G-d,” as if the Big Guy himself notices a difference between a hyphen and an “o” every time his name is written; many fanatics avoid uttering God’s name by saying “ha-shem,” ‘the name’);
  • it can include failure to show the proper respect for holy objects or institutions like the Sabbath.

Some of the definitions refer to the Judaeo-Christian god, but that just muddies the waters.  Can a Jew say “fuck Shiva” and not be blasphemous?  How about “fuck Zeus”?  He was a mighty fellow in his time, but there’s nobody around to defend him today.

Blasphemy can even include identifying oneself as an atheist, as I found out in a piece in the Ideas section of the Sept. 30 Boston Globe, as well as first-hand from a chat with a fellow Atheist Nexus member in Eritrea.

His name is Ocean Emanuel, and he has been ostracized for being an atheist.  He writes that “Africa is so crazy with religion.”  He has lost his family, has no job, friends, or school and has had to flee to Sudan.  Please take a moment to feel gratitude that you live in America.  After reading his story, I did.


Examples, please!

The reason why the definition is so elusive is that no definer will provide examples – perhaps for fear of offending religious readers.  Or maybe it’s like the slippery concepts of “obscenity” or “time”:  you intuitively know what they are – unless you actually have to define them.

But I’m a linguist, and I need to get down to the level of actual examples to understand what something means. 

I can say “Jesus went to the supermarket for me” (nonsensical but not blasphemous); or “Jesus helped me make that field goal” (not blasphemous and not even nonsensical for some people).  You can buy porcelain statues of Jesus helping someone with his golf swing, but that’s not blasphemous, nor is the wholly irreverent cornucopia of Christian-branded merchandise that blends faith and commerce in a uniquely American way. 

But suppose I say “Jesus wipes my ass every time I go to the bathroom.”  Blasphemous?  Why shouldn’t I rely on my Savior to help me with this most basic of tasks?


Infinite number of possibilities

So there’s a potentially infinite number of utterances that constitute blasphemy.  For some people, it even includes non-religious utterances involving fuck, shit, cunt, and other words you can’t utter in certain contexts, and certainly not on TV, although technically these constitute a different kind of verbal taboo.

All of this gives maximum leeway for believers to be offended. 


Fighting words and unspoken codes

Which brings us to another key point about blasphemy: according to an unspecified set of speech-act conventions, the utterance of anything deemed blasphemous by the audience allows, even compels the listener to react adversely.  Thus, blasphemy is part of a larger class of language taboos that include so-called “fighting words” (that’s the actual phrase that occurs in laws against disturbing the peace, though one can search in vain for a list of these words).

According to this unspoken code, when a fighting word is uttered, the hearer MUST react violently or call upon the civil authorities to punish the violator.  For example, when large numbers of young people recently began congregating in downtown Keene NH (see http://www.sentinelsource.com/news/local/a-growing-din/article_fe19... ), the headline referred to “concerns about language,” which I take to mean that the good townspeople of Keene heard too many “fuck”’s from the young folks, who use it as expletive or intensifying modifier (“really fucking hard”).  The Keene police, ever stalwart guardians of the public morality, were notified.


Calling an answering machine a cunt

Another bizarre tale: an angry patient, frustrated by a doctor’s receptionist cancelling an appointment because she was ten minutes late, phoned the doctor’s office and called the receptionist a cunt – on an answering machine.  The police were called, and the woman, facing a misdemeanor charge, pled down to a “violation.”  But a violation of what?  Was the answering machine offended?

Believers can make up whatever language taboos they want and obey them in private.  But their insistence that everyone else respect their rules is problematic.  Why should I revere fake gods and prophets in whom I do not believe?   If I’m not a Muslim or a Hindu, what right do Muslims and Hindus have to control my behavior?

Individuals may have their personal taboo boundary lines.  One of my wife’s friends says “fuck” about as often as she says “the,” but relentlessly chides my wife for saying ”Oh my God.”


Just words

As Lenny Bruce, his disciple George Carlin, and countless others have noted, THEY’RE ONLY WORDS.  Vocal organs move, sounds are generated.  That’s all.  One must choose to be offended, just as with ethnic slurs, fighting words and profanity.  

The utterance of anything perceived to be blasphemous triggers an apparently uncontrollable desire for retribution in the listener(s).  Someone utters a fighting word, and you have to fight.  Back in the day, saying the wrong thing could cost you your life in a duel.

For Muslims, the taboo is rigid and all-encompassing.  The slightest slight must be punished harshly.  As others have pointed out, the Pope is vilified and ridiculed every day, somewhere in the world, but you don‘t see Christians burning foreign embassies.  However, they have been known to react violently to works of art they find offensive; recall the controversy over “Piss Christ,” a crucifix in a jar of urine.


Religious believers cannot and must not hold the entire world to their standards.  

American politicians can make all sorts of mealy-mouthed statements about respecting other people’s religion, but the fact is that – as long as there is no crime against person or property --  NOBODY has to respect anybody else’s religion.   


Keep it to yourself.

To believers I say, again: keep your taboos to yourself.  If your religion is strong, it can withstand verbal attacks.  Violent reprisals are the sign of a weak faith whose believers cannot endure any breach whatsoever, be it a book that no one has read, a cartoon, or the mere profession of atheism, as with my unfortunate friend from Africa. 

And if your god is real and all this really matters to him, let him deal with the unbelievers.  The fact that he doesn’t should prove that he has no problem with us…right?  How convenient that holy books assign so much of the killing to humans.  Gods ought to get off their lazy asses and do some of the retribution themselves. 


A two-way street

Finally, I would note that verbal offense goes two ways.  Atheists are blasphemed as a matter of course.  I’m sick of our principled godlessness being denigrated by religious windbags.  I'm tired of hearing that atheists have no morals, tired of being compared to Hitler and Stalin, tired of hearing that we’re evil and going to hell.  I’m fucking sick of being the target of religious hatred and discrimination (polls show an atheist least likely to be elected president, less likely than a person from any religion, and that atheists are the people that poll responders least wanted to marry their children; what are we, untouchables?).

So I’ll make a deal with religious believers:  you stop vilifying me, and I’ll stop saying things that result in you causing YOURSELF to be offended (but we can still ridicule each other).  They’re just words.

So fuck Jehovah.  Piss on Christ. Happy Blasphemy Day. 


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Comment by Alan Perlman on October 2, 2012 at 10:15am

Profanity is not required for blasphemy, but it definitely helps seal the deal. 

Blasphemy is a complex interplay of (speaker's) intent and (audience's) interpretation, but the latter is what creates the offense, for exactly the reasons that Ingersoll says. 

He was a giant.  Long before YouTube, he reached huge numbers of people. Today he would be on TV -- everywhere from CNN to The Daily Show -- proclaiming what the politicians are too chickenshit to say: the root of the current rioting isn't "a video" - it is religion itself.

Comment by Loren Miller on October 2, 2012 at 5:36am

Premium stuff, SB!!!  The more I read from Ingersoll, the more I LIKE HIM!

Comment by Loren Miller on October 1, 2012 at 9:05pm

And while I'm not a great one for profanity as regards blasphemy, if Allah doesn't like my atheism, He Can KISS MY ASS!

That work for ya?

Comment by Alan Perlman on October 1, 2012 at 8:11pm

And I repeat: if Allah is offended, let him do the smiting. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on October 1, 2012 at 8:10pm

Yes, I did note that extreme touchiness is a sign of weakness, not strength.  Muslims may not be the worst at this (hard to imagine worse), but there are a billion of them. 

I don't forget for a second that much of this religious indignation is cynically manufactured and manipulated by religious fanatics.

Comment by Loren Miller on October 1, 2012 at 4:38pm

I don't mind profanity, Alan.  I just don't think that blasphemy needs to add profanity to achieve its purpose.  Hell, if the islamists got all bent out of shape about a Tweet which proposed shaking hands with their prophet (and they did!), that's about as crazy a reaction to as mild a statement as I can think of.

The problem with those who would make blasphemy a crime is their insistence on a thin skin and that their god/prophet/savior/whatever MUST be off-limits from any form of scrutiny, never mind ridicule or mockery.  To me, this reflects insecurity at the least; at worst, I don't want to guess.  For myself, I have no intention of indulging their over-sensitivity, and in my current location, I don't have to ... and I won't.

Comment by Alan Perlman on October 1, 2012 at 4:21pm

Loren...I tried to separate profanity from blasphemy, although the two do occur together. 

The entries are clever as hell, but mainly to freethinkers. 

Religious believers live in a different cognitive world (and Reform Jews in two of them).  They would not even get most of the slogans, so if the intent is to piss people off, I don't think it's accomplished. 

Blasphemy requires action on the part of the hearer, which in turn assumes that the level of offense must be high and its nature unsubtle in order to trigger a reaction, e.g., pic of Jesus having sex with an animal.

Comment by Loren Miller on October 1, 2012 at 10:31am

While we're at it, let's not forget the Center For Inquiry's Blasphemy Contest of a few years ago and the notable entries which gained top honors:

  • “There’s no religion like no religion,” submitted by Daniel Boles of Thailand;
  • “I wouldn’t even follow your god on Twitter,” submitted by Michael Hein of South Carolina;
  • “The reason religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous,” submitted by Michael Nugent of Ireland; and
  • “I survived the God virus,” submitted by Perry Bulwer of British Columbia, Canada.

And most of all, the winner:

Faith Is No Reason - submitted by Ken Peters of California

And while we're at it, let's note something in all of these entries: there's no vulgar language, no invective.  If someone wants to object to any of the above as being offensive, I would expect that such a person's skin was thin to the point of absurdity.

If we as atheists can tolerate Psalm 14 and the rest of the crap which is aimed at us, the believers can learn to deal with the above and other words like them.  Always remember:

NO ONE Has The Right Not To Be Offended.

Comment by Alan Perlman on October 1, 2012 at 10:12am

Not worried.  My town is so small and remote even a god couldn't find it. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 30, 2012 at 8:03pm

VikingDon...The warriors are scary, but Thor isn't going to do jack shit.



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