Since the release of “Innocence of Muslims”—the laughable (yet surprisingly unfunny) excuse for a movie that actually makes the film Blues Brothers 2000 look like The Blues Brothers—some Muslim leaders have sought to work with the U.N. to make blasphemy illegal everywhere in the world. This has provoked a lively discussion about freedom of speech vs. freedom from blasphemy.
In the U.S. many people, including President Obama, appreciate that our freedom of speech includes the freedom to speak our minds about the religions of the world without any government interference. In some other countries, where governments routinely control what qualifies as allowable speech, there is more of an expectation that governments should punish citizens for using insulting religious speech.
But let’s not get the mistaken notion that punishment for blasphemy is a uniquely Muslim idea. The Bible clearly comes down on the side of freedom FROM blasphemy as opposed to freedom of speech.
And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death. —Leviticus 24:16
Thus saith the Lord God, “Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed me, in that they have committed a trespass against me.” —Ezekiel 20:27
And it’s not just the Old Testament that highlights blasphemy. Jesus himself warns:
Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. —Matthew 12:31
No one likes to be insulted, but why is it that only one institution, religion, has its own name for insults hurled against it. I don’t call it blasphemy when someone berates my kid’s soccer team or ridicules the all-time best movie trilogy ever made on planet Earth!
The difficult thing about blasphemy is that it is, like beauty, obscenity, and an appreciation for celebrity knitting, all in the mind of the beholder. There is no way to define exactly when an honest complaint or critique of religion become offensive enough to reach the level of blasphemy. A mormon may take offense at any reference to magic underwear, I mean “sacred garments,” and a Scientologist may violently disagree with my positive review of the latest Nicole Kidman film.
So when you hear Muslims talking about the need for anti-blasphemy laws in the U.S., remember that all this talk of blasphemy began in a book that predates the Koran. It took a few thousand years for most in the Western world to accept the idea of freedom of speech over freedom from blasphemy, so maybe there is hope that more people in predominantly Muslim countries will come around to this way of thinking, ideally before the next millennium is through.
Michael Morris is the author of Bible Funmentionables: A Lighthearted Look at the Wildest Verses You’ve NEVER Been Told!, which features all of the shocking and hilarious verses that your minister, rabbi, or charismatic cult leader is afraid to preach.