BLASPHEMY: What does it mean? Is it still relevant?

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.

Internet Journalism and the Freedom To Speak Your Mind

There are things I cannot say or I would get quickly arrested.
There are things I cannot say or I would lose my job, my customers, or be abandoned my close friends, or be rejected by some or all members of my family.
There are things I cannot say or I would be less respected and perhaps severely censured in the media.
And that’s here in Canada.

BUT, what makes this of interest to me at least, is that along with a handful of similar countries throughout the world, I still have the greatest degree of freedom of expression in my writings compared to the majority of countries who apply stricter rules for researchers and journalists.

So, since all events are a function of time, place, and circumstance, Canada is one country that I should be able to speak my mind by paying close attention to the timing of what I say, where I am saying it, and with whom, how and why I’m saying it. And do this without too much worry.

Lately in the news, there has been much discussion about internet security and rights of self-expression. The relationship of course between security and expression is not always obvious. Suffice to note that one’s security may be mitigated by one’s publicly expressed beliefs. History is replete with examples of death, torture, imprisonment, deportation, and shunning that have befallen those who chose to speak their minds in public. How many journalists have been shot, tortured or even beheaded in the past few years? In many cases it’s not because of what they have said but because they belong to a profession that investigates and reports their findings. So bad things happen to good people, even if by association.

Saying that a) organized religions have a poor record of promoting and salvaging peace, b) nude is not lewd, c) all aberrant behaviour is explainable through science, d) many Vegans have low red blood cells, d) proportionate representation is the only truly democratic way to vote, or e) sexual preference has no bearing on civic responsibility – might get me in trouble with some people. And these are what I would term ‘mild’ propositions.

Yet, the public media is guided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, and several federal and provincial Laws, that guarantee certain parameters within which, luckily, an author can function from a wide base of interests to state his or her case. I am able to write about nipples, and penises, and racial prejudice, and political corruptness, and poverty among the elderly, and the shoddy rehabilitation of criminals, and child abuse, and how 80 individuals control most of the world’s wealth, outmoded education systems, and so on. And few people know, or perhaps want to know, that there is a law in place in Ontario that allows women to bare their chests in public, provided it is not done in an obvious sexual way, such as cutting the lawn. So there’s a topic that could be written about without fear of legal sanction, but one might have to deal with cryptic bolts of rebuke by some ignorant readers.

Speaking your mind is your right. How you say it, to whom, where, why, and when, may be predict the kinds of responses you get. Nonetheless, the world’s a better place, I feel, from the presence of authors of all kinds, who seek truth, fairness, an informed public, and a desire to improve the human condition.

TL Hill, PhD
February, 2015