New campaign to end blasphemy laws worldwide launches

By Samira Shackle

Blasphemy laws hit international headlines when they result in a particular abuse of rights. Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan; Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger currently enduring 50 lashes every week.

Yet the problem is far wider than just these individual aberrations. Blasphemy laws, broadly, are those which restrict or punish speech which is deemed to insult religion. The New Humanist has reported extensively on this issue; read our World of Blasphemy series for more information about the status of these repressive laws all over the globe.

According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)’s 2014 Freedom of Thought Report, 55 countries worldwide – including EU member states – have criminal laws restricting blasphemy. In 39 countries, it is an imprisonable offence, and in six, it carries the death penalty.


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49 COMMENTS

  1. A man in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to weeks of daily lashing, simply for announcing he was atheist. In the Saudi eyes that constituted blasphemy. Blasphemy is merely rejecting a religion. It is the opposite of freedom of religion.

    We tend to think of blasphemy as some sort of obscene parody, but the Muslims are so sure they are correct (and so unsure of their arguments) they are willing to torture someone for doubt.

    The notion of freedom of religion is a truce. Islam so often had 99% of the hearts they never felt compelled to negotiate such a truce.

    They are no longer isolated. They will have to learn to play well with others.

  2. Let us not forget that a few years ago a Saudi imam declared anyone holding a Copernican view of the solar system “an atheist deserving punishment”, because the Koran says otherwise. Muslims how do you even?!

  3. I think this kind of legislations are vestiges -and some times much more than that!- of the role religion had in the system of power. The sooner humanity grows out of them, the better.

  4. There’s a disturbing video of a Saudi cleric who, upon delivering a death sentence for blasphemy, burst into tears because someone had insulted the prophet. How on earth do we go about convincing such pieces of slime that secularism is the way to go? The Dawkins foundation should fund a Schindler’s-list-type initiative to rescue all the atheists from Saudi Arabia. “Hitchens’ List” has a bit of a zing to it…

  5. Jason Feb 6, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    There’s a disturbing video of a Saudi cleric who, upon delivering a death sentence for blasphemy, burst into tears because someone had insulted the prophet. How on earth do we go about convincing such pieces of slime that secularism is the way to go? The Dawkins foundation should fund a Schindler’s-list-type initiative to rescue all the atheists from Saudi Arabia.

    This is probably going to rob some Saudi clerics of followers!

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/11/the-god-delusion/
    The God Delusion in Arabic

    The pdf was downloaded ten million times, with 30 percent going to Saudi Arabia. Bassam said that there were over 1,000 downloads on the very first day after he uploaded it, and the numbers only climbed as the translation was picked up and shared on the blogs, websites and forums of prominent Arab atheists.

  6. How on earth do we go about convincing such pieces of slime that secularism is the way to go?

    You can’t go after the clergy: with the exception of very few good hearted ones, they will tend to stay where they are because of their privileged position in society. You may actually ask to what extent do clerics actually believe in their particular religion -and I suspect you’d find very shocking answers, if you manage to look beyond the appearances.
    Never forget that the clergy is perhaps the most powerful social class you can have. The clergy is a class you will have to fight against to conquer any sort of freedom or right -or progress, in general.

    You have to go after the youngsters who are being educated -especially, you have to go after young women, by allowing them access to the education that is being denied to them (on religious grounds) and thus leading them to emancipation…

    ~~~

    As Alan reported, all you may need to start an avalanche is a well written book.

  7. Time to write to my MP about this. It is simply absurd that an irreligious, secular country like New Zealand still has a law against blasphemy on its books.

  8. By the way, how often do we see articles like this from Turkey? I happen to know that they have the lowest percentage of acceptance of evolution in the world. Does Ataturk’s legacy live on?

  9. At law the offence of blasphemy is essentially a libel or defamation of god. In most countries FACT is a defence against a charge of defamation. The defamed party (or agent) is required to adduce evidence that the defendant has made an untrue statement, before they can move on to claim damages. They have to prove that god exists, before he can be defamed. That is a submission I would like to hear.

    I know in uncivilized places like Saudi Arabia, this is a meaningless argument, but it would be interesting to run this argument in a country where there is a rule of law, and they have a blasphemy charge. Get Geoffrey Robertson QC to defend the matter.

  10. GREAT!!!

    There is no such thing as blasphemy. It’s totally made up bullshit used to discriminate against others.

  11. The UK got rid of its blasphemy laws in 2008. Time for slower moving countries to follow our example. Good to see the Rationalist Association taking up the campaign.

  12. Although I understand the point of the map it might be worth distinguishing those countries where laws exist but are never used versus those where laws exist and are used. Yes it would be good to remove those never used laws but I’d much rather concentrate on the places where you do have a serious chance of jail time or death if you commit blasphemy.

    New Zealand is an example of what I am talking about:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_law_in_New_Zealand

    Yes you could be charged found guilty and go to jail but in practice “the Attorney-General usually refuses to pursue blasphemy prosecutions on the basis of free speech objections, as the right to free speech is protected within New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act 1990.”

    I am not sure why Australia is yellow. The situation is described here

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_law_in_Australia

    It’s not clear cut as perhaps blasphemy exists in common law in some states. On the other hand it might also have lapsed due to lack of use. We do have some legislation about hate speech and discrimination on the basis of religion that might I guess be used as a de facto blasphemy law but it would be a stretch I think.

  13. One of my favourite RD jokes: “Blasphemy is a victimless crime.”

    (Unless you happen to be the blasphemer, and depending on where did the blaspheming.)

  14. Blasphemy is one of the most ridiculous of religious whines, basically telling all its critics that it,will never allow any form of criticism.

  15. How is it that Denmark has prison sentences for this silliness? I always thought they were sensible people, and seemed that when I was there?

  16. The map shows Canada as having anti-blasphemy laws. I don’t think that is correct. You cannot say “kill all the gays” or “kill all the Jews”, but that is not what I would call blasphemy. I say rude things about all religions all the time without fear of the authorities.

    The Oxford defines it as profane or sacrilegious talk about god or sacred things.

    The Saudis are misusing the word to claim atheists are guilty of blasphemy when they have not said anything about god.

  17. At law the offence of blasphemy is essentially a libel or defamation of god.

    That is an interesting thought, but if the legislators have come up with a blasphemy law chances are that they aren’t completely rational.

    Following this article, and the upsetting colour my country bears in the chart, I’ve been informing myself and I don’t think you can use that as a defence, because the law in question is a bit of a deformed hybrid:
    -On one hand it is restricted to deities, that is: if you swear the saints you’re safe, because they ain’t gods. This seems to be compatible with the defamation hypothesis.
    -On the other hand, there are sentences that push the interpretation of the law toward the “let’s sanction the offence of other’s feelings”, which is a colossal absurdities but, sadly, whereas law should should be reasonable, the legislator often isn’t. Also, the “let’s sanction the offence of third parties” is such an unreasonable argument that has substantially no rational defence that I can think of -except exposing the unreasonableness of the offence argument itself, but that’s gonna be hard.

  18. Personally, I think lobbying, public demonstrations and other similar initiatives are going to be more effective than prayers but your agreement with the premise is appreciated.

  19. The EU Parliament promulgated a recommendation (#1805) back in 2007 that blasphemy should not constitute a crime. This was followed by the Venice Commission, that stated it’s not necessary to introduce a crime of “religious insults” (which is sadly present in the majority of EU member states) and that blasphemy laws should be abolished.
    Sadly, it seems very few ears were listening.

    The moment when the EU Parliament will have some actual power onto the member states will never come too soon.

  20. Teens are naturally rebellious. If you don’t get them then, they will be lost.

    Societies change because teens change, setting the new attitude. Then they age taking the new attitude with them. Adults almost never change. I saw this so clearly with gay lib.

  21. A man in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to weeks of daily lashing, simply for announcing he was atheist.

    I don’t mean to nitpick but I think the actual reason is that Raif Badawi made a snide comment about the Saudi religious police. So I think the reason for his being accused of blasphemy is as much political as it is religious in this case.

    About the lashing, he only got the first 50 and got exemptions ever since (2-3 weeks now) for “medical reasons”. Now I saw a leaked video of him getting flogged taken by someone in the crowd with a cell phone. Even though the view is blocked by the crowd most of time, it’s possible to see that…

    1- The man being flogged has his shirt and pants on which makes a HUGE difference in the harm inflicted.
    2- He is being flogged with a switch, not an actual whip which would be a LOT worse.
    3- Most of all, you can see that the policeman doing the flogging is utterly unenthusiastic and he is nonchalantly and weakly whipping the victim. The man being flogged never even flinches once which is also very telling.

    All of the above makes me wonder… It’s hard for me to believe the “medical condition” thing as being a reason for exemption…. especially after 3 weeks (which would have been plenty enough time to “heal” from that wimpy flogging).

    My hypotheses is that the Saudi government didn’t expect such worldwide support for Badawi and such bad publicity for them when they imprisoned him. After all, floggings are regular occurrences in Saudi Arabia but most of them go unnoticed.

    I think the Monarchy is simply trying to calm the international outrage while trying to save face all the while pandering to the religious police by not releasing Badawi. The religious police is so powerful in Saudi Arabia that the government probably fears them. They may even have ties with Al-Qaeda the same way the Pakistani Intelligence agency has ties with the Taliban.

    IMHO, Badawi won’t be released from jail but he won’t be getting the remaining 950 “lashes” either. I think this is the deal that was made in the back channels of power.

  22. I cannot imagine a better campaign to advance secularization worldwide than a campaign to end blasphemy laws. In spite of the dark days building from the current surge in Islamic fundamentalism, I am hopeful that the dynamics of the time are driving younger generations progressively toward neutralizing religious power, oppression and influence in the human community. Behind the inherent injustice, immorality and inhumanity of blasphemy laws, lies the monstrous consensus which carries out their cruelty. The tenuous monolith, in the face of mounting protests both in the west and within the Muslim world, is showing signs of cracking and eroding. Promising developments facilitated by global internet communication and social media, the momentum of secular education, especially in the natural and social sciences, and the aspirations of people to achieve western standards of living will combine first to protest and then extinguish the medieval superstition and barbarism of institutionalized religion.

  23. ….but I think we need to pray for a miracle, ….

    What ? You want God to alter His cosmic plan ? The one He thought up 13.8 billion years ago ?

  24. Holy books tend to be rather sizeable objects: they could use them as blunt percussive instruments, I suppose… but it’s way less effective.

  25. If you go to the site and click on Australia, it is explained why Australia is yellow: in three states, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria the ‘racial vilification laws’ have been extended to include ‘religious vilification’, basically intended as anti-hatespeech laws. It appears that in Victoria actual convictions took place…

  26. Canada has an anti-blasphemy law, albeit not enforced for decades. From the “End Blasphemy Laws” site:

    “[…] “296. (1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years (2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel. (3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.”

    Moratoria and “dead letter” lawsThere has been a de facto moratorium on the use of this law since the 1930s, and would probably be found unconstitutional if challenged. However, it remains on the books, and therefore perpetuates both the potential to chill free expression about religion, and poor international standards. […]”

    I agree they are a bit harsh on countries such as Canada and New Zealand for having unenforced, ‘dead letter’ laws still on statue.

  27. “This is probably going to rob some Saudi clerics of followers!”

    I suppose it might also help “push” many of those followers to more “radical” activities. (Not that we should blame the book, of course.)

  28. Jason: in his Voltaire lecture, Jim al-Khalili said that he’d been told that Quantum Mechanics are mentioned in the Qur’an.

    And I myself have been told by a Muslim that all the current and ongoing developments in science and technology were predicted in in his holy book.

    Religious leaders instil fantasies in the minds of the young and impressionable, and then punish them if they discover the truth.

    There’s no need to touch on their motivations for doing so, suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they don’t believe half of what they profess to, enjoy a tipple or two and kick over the traces in other ways as well.

    It seems to me that the principal products of religions are infantilization and hypocrisy.

  29. the background to all this is charlie. it brought to light that not everyone is like the CoE. some people take their religion very seriously. as do i.

    however, i dont think there is anything wrong with blasphemy laws, however, that doesnt mean that they are not misused by some regimes.

    some things are blasphemy. other things are not. atheism is not blasphemous, it is simply a statement of the lack of belief in God. However, to write poems suggesting Jesus was homosexual is blasphemous.

    I personally think the middle ages were an enlightened time, and that there is much to admire in medieval christianity. but we cant bring those days back. alas.

    i admire the muslims in some ways, despite the fact they follow a false prophet, because at least they stand up for their beliefs and are not cow towed as most christians are.

    the theory of evolution is a big lie, and denies the divine origin of humanity.

    altho christianity is dying in the west, let us admit it, it is growing in africa, asia, and latin america. the reevangelisation of England will come from those places, after this ‘atheist storm’ passes and everyone can see clearly the damage it has done.

  30. atheism and homosexuality used to be something a bit like drug addiction, something one keeps to oneself and not parade about in public. in the private sphere. they were better days.

    a nation needs a religion, and without one, there is no nation. the crisis of british identity is linked with the loss of christianity. the once great nation was built on the foundation of the church, and it was the bible that inspired its greatest.

  31. Samuel Feb 8, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    however, i dont think there is anything wrong with blasphemy laws, however, that doesnt mean that they are not misused by some regimes.

    They do provide a repressive response for those who can’t make an evidenced rational response in support of their views.

    some things are blasphemy. other things are not. atheism is not blasphemous, it is simply a statement of the lack of belief in God. However, to write poems suggesting Jesus was homosexual is blasphemous.

    How would anyone know? There is no independent contemporary witness of such a person’s existence, written within decades of the supposed events, let alone details of his sexuality.

    I personally think the middle ages were an enlightened time, and that there is much to admire in medieval christianity. but we cant bring those days back. alas.

    That must be why they are known as the “Dark Ages” where civilisation was dragged back centuries behind the levels of learning of the ancient Greeks.

    the theory of evolution is a big lie, and denies the divine origin of humanity.

    That’s the problem with scientific evidence. It debunks religious mythology, and replaces it with evidence based theory, detailed measurements and factual observations.

    Samuel Feb 8, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    the crisis of british identity is linked with the loss of christianity. the once great nation was built on the foundation of the church, and it was the bible that inspired its greatest.

    The initial “loss of Christianity” was when Catholicism was dumped by Henry VIII and the enlightenment began under the protestant reformation, but it was the reduction in theistic dogmatic dominance which allowed industry and intellect to flourish.

    Britain is now making further progress in advancing innovation and industry, as the failed “irrational faith-thinking” is being progressively replaced in a greater percentage of the population, with logical reasoning and scientific education.

  32. Unfortunately, abolishing blasphemy laws is not enough. In the UK, our beloved ex-PM Tony Blair abolished our antiquated blasphemy law only to replace it with new laws outlawing incitement of ‘religious hatred’ – a very vague term that can be interpreted to be anything. These new laws have teeth too, unlike the old blasphemy law that wasn’t used anymore. Presumably drawing the prophet could be interpreted as inciting religious hatred, as can burning a holy book.

  33. AndyB Feb 9, 2015 at 5:07 am

    Tony Blair abolished our antiquated blasphemy law only to replace it with new laws outlawing incitement of ‘religious hatred’ – a very vague term that can be interpreted to be anything.

    This is of course the inside-out backwards thinking of “faith”, which blames the victim of hate, on behalf of the religious haters.
    It is similar to the thinking which appointed Tony Blair as a highly paid “Middle-East-Peace-Envoy”, to follow up on the wars he helped Bush to start in that region!

  34. a nation needs a religion Samuel

    England has a state Church –the Church of England. Most people either prefer other religions or none at all. What would you do? Force them all out of Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, or secularism and into the Church? Or , perhaps you think any religion is better than none and would only discriminate against the non-religious.

  35. Why isn’t it against the law in all countries,that any parent who tells there children that they have to die for there god.as that is surely child abuse.2015 seems to be living along side the 14th century on this planet.

  36. Well, this is an eye-opening map, in that it’s actually quite alarming how many countries have such laws, even in Europe and Australasia (New Zealand was a big surprise) . Overall, I think the most surprising part is the lack of blasphemy laws in sub-Saharan Africa, given the countries there also tend to score highly in religiosity polls.

  37. I live in New Zealand and this was a total shock. There is no reason for this to be part of our criminal law anymore. Its embarrassing as a NZer.

  38. “the theory of evolution is a big lie, and denies the divine origin of
    humanity.”

    Can you please come up with some support for this statement. And, in support, bear in mind it is certainly not a “lie.” It may conceivably be in error, although I doubt it, but that does not make it a “lie.” It is not a “lie” to believe the Earth is flat. Wrong, yes, a “lie,” no.

    Arbitrary application of a pejorative diminishes your argument rather than offering it support.

    Denying the unproven and unprovable intervention of a divinity in human origin is not a workable argument against evolution, in that it draws an affirmative conclusion from a negative premise.

    Really, I could not give a stuff what you believe in, Samuel, but I just wish you would use the apparently God given brain you have a little better in how you go about reaching your conclusions.

    I personally think the middle ages were an enlightened time, and that
    there is much to admire in medieval christianity. but we cant bring
    those days back. alas.

    You mix two periods of European history separated from each other as much as a thousand years in one sentence without batting an eyelid. Again, logic does not stand a chance.

    Among the things “much to admire” in the middle ages would I presume, include the “Auto de fe'” and the immolation of people like Jan Hus, who actually could think, and stand for their principles. The medieval period did produce some lovely art and architecture, I concede, along with the wholesale slaughter.

    i admire the muslims in some ways, despite the fact they follow a
    false prophet, because at least they stand up for their beliefs and
    are not cow towed as most christians are.

    Who says he is false? There are an awful lot of them, maybe even more that your mob. How about putting it to a vote. And if publicly cutting off peoples heads and shooting up whatever you don’t like is “standing up for your beliefs,” don’t you think that those beliefs need to be questioned? Or would you secretly like to be no longer “cow towed” (I don’t like google auto spell either,) and feel free to cut a few heads off, too?

  39. atheism and homosexuality used to be something a bit like drug
    addiction, something one keeps to oneself and not parade about in
    public. in the private sphere. they were better days.

    Point the first: Atheism and homosexuality are actually nothing at all like drug addiction. Again, slapping a pejorative onto the end of a sentence does not make it true, especially not so in fact.

    Point the second: Which days exactly do you have in mind? The so much better days, when one of the brilliant, brilliant people, one who had a massive contribution in defeating German fascism, Alan Turing, who chose suicide over chemical castration following prosecution for homosexuality? Ah yes, that was better.

    Point the third: Atheists, Huxley, both of them, Wilde, and many others who were not backwards about coming forwards about the absurdity of believing in a fairy living in the sky who obsesses non stop about what they did with their clothes off, were perfectly public. Darwin’s debates with the Church and particularly Fitzroy, the Captain of the Beagle are simply those still remembered from a period when there was actually a robust God vs. no god debate.

    Point the fourth: The might of Britain at the height of the Empire is not something for which the Christian church can take credit. It was industrialists, inventors, some secular, some not. The list includes inventors like James Watt, and Joseph Whitworth, scientists like Pasteur and Faraday and on and on that made Great Britain the Empire building powerhouse that it was in the 19th century.
    There is not a single Archbishop in the list, (maybe one monk, Gregor Mendel,) and in fact through the period the Church faded into the bucolic rural non consequentiality well portrayed by Jane Austen at it’s practising end, while at the top end the hierarchy were in the public trough up to its elbows, and saying nothing at all about the appalling social conditions that came with the Industrial Revolution.

    Over to you Samuel, but please lets stick to facts, shall we.

  40. When I was a child and went to school, I was glad that I live in the modern world; when people discovered so many interesting things about the world and go on.
    But now sometimes there is a feeling that I live in the Middle Ages.
    There is a particular felt in Russia when i’m live. I work at state technical university and the desktop of our new head of the department of electronics lined with icons… It’s sad
    I read your comments and want live in a more civilized country.

  41. This is misleading. Even if this technically does exist on the books in Canadian law, it would be overruled by the Charter of Rights. Free speech is protected in Canada. Effectively this law, if it exists, is toothless. It can never be enforced.

    Do not confuse this with hate speech, or destruction of personal property.

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