If someone insults your mother, your natural response is to want to punch them in the nose. Likewise, religious believers have no patience with those who insult their religion or their God.
Insulting a person’s religion is, alas, too common around the world. Secular comedians find religion an easy target now that women and ethnic groups are no longer acceptable fodder. Religious leaders can also be acerbic in attacking religions other than their own.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic church turned from insults to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Instead of calling Protestants heretics, we speak of separated brothers and sisters. We are also much more careful when speaking of Muslims and Jews. Goodbye to prayers about “perfidious Jews,” let alone talk of “Christ killers.”
Not only do we recognize that insulting words can lead to violent actions, we also recognize that every human person has the dignity of a child of God and should be treated with respect and given the freedom to follow his or her conscience.
But how should we respond when our religion is attacked?
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In the United States, blasphemy and verbal or written attacks on religion are protected by the First Amendment. We don’t like it, but we tolerate it because we do not want the government policing religious debate.
But internationally, how to respond is much more controversial. In many countries, there are “laws that punish expression deemed blasphemous, defamatory of religion, or contemptuous or insulting to religion or religious symbols, figures, or feelings,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). (Although I am a member of the commission, this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the commission.)
In some countries, blasphemy is punishable by death.
There have also been efforts at the United Nations to internationalize blasphemy prohibitions under the guise of outlawing “defamation of religions,” but these efforts were defeated in March 2011.
Even earlier, in 2009, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the pope’s representative to the United Nations, called on nations to repeal their anti-blasphemy laws.
There are many reasons these blasphemy laws are a mistake.
First, blasphemy laws place governments in the role of determining religious truth, by having to decide what is blasphemy and what is not.
Second, they empower the state to enforce a particular religious view on its population. In practice, these laws are usually enforced against religious minorities and dissenters.
Third, these laws are also subject to abuse when enemies or business rivals falsely accuse their opponents of blasphemy. Rarely are false accusers punished.
Often these laws are defended as a means of preserving religious peace, but in actuality, they can be used by those who want to stir up religious hatred for their own economic or political reasons.
As the Vatican's representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said in 2008 that religious defamation laws "have been used as weapons against personal enemies or as an excuse to incite mob violence."
“Blasphemy laws are incompatible with international human rights standards, as they protect beliefs over individuals, and they often result in violations of the freedoms of religion and expression, especially when persons are jailed,” according to USCIRF.
Permissible limitations on religious freedom only include what is necessary to protect “public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others,” according to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
There are laws against blasphemy or contempt of religion in Christian countries such as Austria, Greece, the Philippines, Poland, and Ireland.
In Greece, for example, in 2014 a man was convicted and given a 10-month suspended sentence for creating a Facebook page mocking a deceased Orthodox priest.
Catholic bishops should follow the Vatican’s lead and call for the repeal of such laws in their countries lest they be seen as excuses for such laws in other countries. Britain wisely repealed its laws criminalizing blasphemy against Christianity in 2008.
Last year, the Irish Council of Churches, which represents all mainline Christian traditions in Ireland, including the Catholic church, sensibly said that the "current reference to blasphemy in the Constitution of Ireland is largely obsolete and may give rise to concern because of the way such measures have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world."
Although blasphemy laws are rarely enforced in European countries, in other parts of the world they are enforced frequently and harshly.
Pakistan is the worst offender. As of mid-2015, USCIRF was aware of 38 prisoners on death row or serving life sentences on blasphemy convictions in Pakistan with many more awaiting trial.
In 2011, two brave Pakistani politicians were assassinated after speaking out against the blasphemy laws. One was a Christian, Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minority religious affairs minister, while the other was a Muslim, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province.
Meanwhile, the mere allegation of blasphemy has incited mobs to kill some Pakistanis, both Christian and Muslim. Often the police were bystanders or active participants in these murders.
Saudi Arabia is another Sunni country where dissenters can be charged with apostasy and blasphemy, and the punishment can be flogging. Likewise, Iran goes after those who do not favor its form of Shi’a Islam.
Egypt has seen an uptick in blasphemy trials under the current government, not only against journalists but also Copts.
Russia also has a new anti-blasphemy law that is being used against an atheist who posted on a humorous website, "If I say that the collection of Jewish fairytales entitled the Bible is complete bull----, that is that. At least for me, there is no God!"
While anti-blasphemy laws should be repealed, a small step in the right direction would be to criminalize false accusations. This would stop people from accusing enemies and business competitors. Once accused, a person’s life is often in danger if not from the state then from mobs.
While laws against blasphemy make no sense, speech that incites violence and prejudicial action is another thing all together. The state has a legitimate role in preventing violence and discrimination, especially when aimed at individuals or groups that have historically been the targets of prejudice and violence.
Not criminalizing blasphemy does not mean being silent in the face of contemptuous speech. Believers have a right to speak out against those who treat their religion with contempt. Condemning the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo does not imply approval of the content of the publication. One can defend the right of free speech while at the same time condemning what is said.
Believers of every faith must join in urging governments to stay out of the policing of religious speech. Every religion's followers must recognize that when they throw their weight around in countries where they are the majority, they make it more difficult to protect the rights of their brothers and sisters in countries where they are a minority.
At the same time, believers must join in condemning contemptuous and hateful speech directed at any religious group. Those who believe their religion is held up to contempt are less likely to turn to violence if they hear others coming to their defense with condemnations of insulting and blasphemous words.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]