Giddens (1992) has pointed out that “In pre-industrial Europe, the most serious crimes, which received the highest penalties, were religious in nature, or were crimes against the property of the ruler or the aristocracy.” (p.146) He goes on to list heresy, sacrilege, and blasphemy as religious based events that were “for a long time punishable by death in many parts of Europe.” (op cit)
Transgressions like fishing, hunting, picking fruit, or cutting down trees or bushes on the lands of the king or aristocracy by the common people, were also capital offenses (not always carried out). “The murder of one commoner by another was not generally seen to be as serious as these others crimes. The culprit often could atone for the crime by simply paying a certain amount of money to the relatives of the victim.” (p. 147)
Blasphemy – speaking irreverently about God or sacred things – (Oxford, 2007), is, in contrast to early Europe, an insignificant or minor offense in Western/European societies today. It occurs in everyday speech as part of normal conversation. Sacred persons’ names are often ‘taken in vain’. “Jesus Christ!”, “For Christ sake!”, “My God!”, “Holy Christ!”, “Mother of God!”, etc., are examples of expletives to draw attention to a circumstance the speaker wishes to emphasize. Some people do not use these terms of course, but many do, mostly men apparently. The repercussions from such usage are, if any, reputational only. And perhaps if asked, an apology often suffices. Sometimes science discovers new information about sacred things or persons that go against traditional beliefs. One anthropologist a few years ago had claimed that Christ lived to be 70 and had three children. More recently, a highly respected British historian claimed that Christ was a myth perpetuated by the Romans to secure compliance among the Jews.
In other parts of the world consequences of blasphemy may entail public lashing, stoning, imprisonment, threats of death, or even beheading. Where tradition or controlled opinion, not facts, is power, and compliance in society is extracted mostly by fear or guilt (a technique of religious leaders), strong reprisals for blasphemy will occur. Enlightenment to the point of having a critical conscience that’s expressible in society without fear of punishment, is one main offshoot of access to higher education. Irreverent comments are treated as hate crimes, which in Western cultures, irreverent comments are treated quite differently.
Blasphemy sanctions may however, extend to non-religious, civil actions to this day. Publicly criticizing a political leader’s family for example, may be construed as a form of blasphemy and even libel, leading to certain fines or brief imprisonments. Freedom of speech has its limits. Note that such freedom varies tremendously to this day throughout the world, and one can only hope that fair and objective consequences of ‘blasphemous’ comments will prevail, as in most democratic regimes today.