The Puzzle of Blasphemy

April 25, 2006 | 37 comments
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In one of its fitful bursts of faux-oracular prose, the Supreme Court once declared that the U.S. Constitution knows no blasphemy. The gist of what the Court was saying was that the principle of free speech means that there can be no wrong in merely saying something. Of course, strictly speaking this has never been what the free speech clause has ever meant, but the aphorism does nicely embody the ideal of free speech.

Mormonism, of course, does know blasphemy. There are certain things that it is wrong to utter. Furthermore, I take it the blasphemy is different that pedestrian forms of wrongful speech such as threatening, lying, or false promising. The purest form of blasphemy is the original meaning of the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain, which literally meant that one should never vocalize the Tetragramaton of God’s name, except in special ritual contexts. To say the word, even when reading scripture out loud, was to blaspheme. (My understanding is that even today, when jews read the sciptures out loud in Hebrew they do not vocalize the Tetragramaton, substituting instead the word “adonai,” mean Lord.)

I think that the clearest examples of blasphemy within Mormonism would be associated with the temple. There are certain things about the temple that it would be blasphemous to say. Some of this has to do with covenants; we promise not to say certain things outside the temple. In a sense, these are the easy cases. After all, promising is a fairly familiar form of moral obligation. Imagine, however, that I was to re-enact the temple endowment on national television. I take it that this would also be blasphemous. Furthermore, I think that it would be blasphemous regardless of my motive. For example, it would be blasphemous to do so if the national television in question was the Daily Show, and my goal was to mock Mormons. However, it would also be blasphemous if I had benign motives — perhaps I just wanted to show people that Mormons really aren’t weird or perhaps I thought this a particularly effective way of bringing about some beneficial change in the Church.

A final claim: I don’t think that blasphemy is a matter of offense. To be sure, many will be offended by blasphemy, but I don’t think that this can account for why I — as a Latter-day Saint — ought to refrain from things that are blasphemous. First, I think that offense is an effect of blasphemy not its cause. People are offended by blasphemous statements because they are blasphemous. Statements do not become blasphemous because someone is offended. Second, some of the central beliefs that I hold as a Mormon are offensive to others, but I don’t think that this makes them blasphemous, at least not for me.

Blasphemy thus presents a very interesting philosophical puzzle. It makes a quintessential liberal freedom — the freedom to speak — into a wrong that cannot be conceptualized in terms of the classic liberal accounts of what makes a wrong, ie harm to others or violation of their rights. Why then is it wrong as a Latter-day Saint to say blasphemous things? How do I know what is or is not blasphemous speech? Does this rationale extend beyond blasphemy to other kinds of speech?

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37 Responses to The Puzzle of Blasphemy

  1. Bill on April 25, 2006 at 12:14 am

    “Second, some of the central beliefs that I hold as a Mormon are offensive to others, ” in some cases because they consider them to be blasphemous, although you do not. Similarly, you might consider the central beliefs of some other people as blasphemous (although they themselves don’t consider them such). Maybe this is why the Constitution, not taking a position on God, doesn’t have much to say about blasphemy.

  2. DKL on April 25, 2006 at 12:52 am

    I take the blasphemy to be a “peculiar people” type commandment, the kind of thing we’re supposed to do because it makes us different. It can’t possibly be the case that God cares what humans think or say about him.

    Bertrand Russell said,

    We should not think of studying an ants’ nest to find out which of the ants performed their formicular duty, and we should certainly not think of picking out those individual ants who were remiss and putting them into a bonfire.

    “formicular duty” — I love that. Anyway, there’s a lot of truth to this.

    The notion of using God’s name was that it should only be used to summon him, and for nothing else–as though God couldn’t ignore the extraneous usage. But nobody get’s stoned anymore for saying, “Jehovah” as is movingly depicted in The Life of Brian.

  3. One who served on April 25, 2006 at 2:13 am

    Well, we can offend God by refusing to see his hand in all things, and failing to keep His commandments (D&C 59). I believe that the first part of that statement has to do with our “respect” for God. I think acknowledging His primacy is what the scripture is about, and blasphemy is an expression of disrespect. So it is offensive to God. And a society which fails to demonstrate respect for God is a society which has lost its bearings, regardless of whether it is legal or not to express those opinions

  4. TMD on April 25, 2006 at 6:58 am

    DKL: never thought of Life of Brian as moving before…

  5. Adam Greenwood on April 25, 2006 at 8:15 am

    “It can’t possibly be the case that God cares what humans think or say about him.”

    I would say that it can’t possibly be the case that God doesn’t care what what humans think or say about him. But I’m not sure that’s what makes blasphemy. It’s more likely that using sacred things casually or to achieve some other beneficial end shows that one puts insufficient value on them in comparison with other ends, regardless of whether an offense was meant or taken. Just as I wouldn’t like to hear the details, say, of a couple’s sexual congress or of someone’s repentance experience with the bishop. This may also be why we’re told not to divulge the details of our own sacred experiences.

    It may also be that the problem is one of language. We all know that language imperfectly captures experience. The thought may be that certain kinds of experience (the temple, experiencing God, and so on) are so imperfectly captured in language that to describe them or to discuss them in too much detail is a kind of parody or mockery of the real thing, regardless of intent.

  6. Nate Oman on April 25, 2006 at 8:25 am

    “It can’t possibly be the case that God cares what humans think or say about him.”

    I don’t see why this is the case. Russell’s argument seems to be that God doesn’t care because he is big and we are small. But isn’t the whole point of thinking God’s love miraculous precisely that he does care about us, despite the fact that we are small. Why wouldn’t this extend to caring what we say about him?

  7. DKL on April 25, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Nate and Adam, you’re right that it’s an overstatement that needs qualification. Insofar as God’s mission is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, he has some vested interest in what men think of him. But Moses himself says that man is nothing. My qualification is that God’s vanity can’t possibly be so delicate that he takes it ill when mere mortals disregard the customary pleasantries.

    Also, the changing standards of blasphemy over time seem to indicate that it is on a level with a dietary code; i.e., it’s an elastic standard that is not on the level of eternal truth. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less of a commandment. It just means that there may be a court jester in heaven.

  8. Robert C. on April 25, 2006 at 11:20 am

    DKL (#2): “Formicular duty”? I don’t get it—care to expound this for those of us who are slow on the uptake? Is this just a made-up word based on “form”? Did he mean fornical based on fornix, meaning an arch-shaped structure?? Please forgive my complex as a younger brother that makes me hate it when jokes/comments that go over my head….

  9. Jim F. on April 25, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    DKL: God’s vanity can’t possibly be so delicate that he takes it ill when mere mortals disregard the customary pleasantries.

    But isn’t the point of blasphemy that not all things are “customary pleasantries”? Some forms of speech are, as it were, acts of rebellion, a refusal to confess God’s hand in our lives or a denial of our covenant relation to him.

    Robert C: I think that DKL misspelled Russell’s word. The ant family are called formicidae. I assume that Russell was making a word out of that: formicular.

  10. J. Stapley on April 25, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    Formicular is from the latin for ant, (e.g., formic acid).

    Isn’t blasphemy at least somewhat related to obscenity. That is, there are things that defy public presentation. For us, the Temple cerimony is a prime example. For the general population, sexual intercourse may be an example – this is something that is appropriate in some cases (often considered transcendent); but not appropriate publically.

  11. Jim F. on April 25, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    My apologies to DKL. I should have put on my reading glasses. He didn’t misspell “formicular,” I misread it–and I misread it in Robert C’s question as well. This will not inspire confidence in those whose papers I am grading today.

  12. MikeInWeHo on April 25, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Doesn’t the LDS understanding of deity stand in stark opposition to Russell’s view, anyway?

    It’s that same view of God (once a man, has a body, etc) that virtually all of the rest of Christendom finds, well, blasphemous.

    I’ve always thought of the B word more as an adjective than a noun, e.g., blasphemous theology, blashpemous painting, etc.

  13. Nate Oman on April 25, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    DKL: Why can’t a changing standard be an eternal truth?

  14. DKL on April 25, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    My point isn’t that it’s OK to poke fun at the temple ceremony. My point is that this has to do with the license that we are given as mortals, and that this license has been (over time) fairly elastic in many areas. I would guess that there is nothing wrong with poking fun at the temple ceremony per se, we’ve just been commanded not to. I doubt that celestial beings suffer the same restrictions (celestial beings can probably smoke, too–what’s the harm?). Hence, my speculation that there may well be a court jester in heaven.

  15. D-Train on April 25, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    Nate,

    This is just one example among many where we don’t see moral right in the same way as a liberal political philosophy would see it. More specifically, I suspect that God-fearing liberal philosophers might agree with you that blasphemy is a sin, but not that it is a sin with which the public sphere ought to be concerned. This is largely because of its inability to be defined as a bad deed within the liberal framework. Other examples of this might be inadequate charity, some sexual sins (Mill, at least, would agree), lack of faith, et cetera.

    I would say that blasphemy is only wrong (and, indeed, only blasphemy) when it encourages you or others to take sacred things less seriously than they ought to be taken. There isn’t really any need to try to reconcile that with a liberal society since the liberal society is, at bottom, only concerned with the sort of morality that takes place in and affects the public sphere according to the standards that you indicated. It does not deny the idea that there may be other morality, but it does emphatically deny that society doesn’t have a legitimate interest in locking you up for violations of it.

  16. Kevin Barney on April 25, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    The word “blosphemy” ultimately derives from the Greek blas + phemein, lit. “to speak against” and from there “to speak evil of.” The basic idea in Greek is to speak profanely of sacred things.

    There used to be blasphemy laws, most of which have long since been repealed, but a few are still on the books.

    Chapter 272 of Massachusetts’ criminal code states, for example:

    Section 36. Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

  17. M.J. Pritchett on April 25, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    I think that Kevin is on the right track–blasphemy is to attack God, to make fun of God, to question his power.

    When I have asked myself why it was a sin in Israel to deny God’s power and ability to protect Israel, my answer is that the proposition that Israel’s god was all powerful was not really all that well supported by the evidence, but it was nevertheless key to Israel’s institutional identity to believe that he was in fact all powerful.

    When you have principle that is essential to an institution’s “business plan”, which, is, in fact, subject to some doubt in the minds of many in the institution, to publically question this principle becomes a serious breach of the institution’s rules.

    I think Larry Summers was guilty of a similar sort of blasphemy at Harvard (compounded, of course, by being guilty of boorishness).

    Examples of blasphemy in today’s church would for a church leader to give a talk in church explicity questioning the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Another example would be to give a talk suggesting that polygamy is an eternal principal and we should pray for its reinstatement.

    Nate: Though I think you can make a colorable argument that temple disclosure is blasphemy, I think the real “cause of action” for temple disclosure would lie in “breach of covenant”.

  18. DKL on April 25, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    Kevin Barney, you know I live in Boston. Now you’re trying to land me in jail?

  19. Nate Oman on April 25, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Kevin: Sarah Barringer Gordon of _The Mormon Question_ fame has done some interesting research on the history of American blasphemy laws. Check out:

    Sarah Barringer Gordon, “Blasphemy and Religious Liberty in Antebellum America,” AM. Q. 52 (Dec. 2000).

  20. Robert C. on April 25, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    Thanks for explaining “formicular” to your tag-along little brother here.

    While I’m here, I would think “contempt of court” would be a better legal framework for thinking about blasphemy than classical liberal ideas. I don’t think it’s sensible to talk about blasphemy absent God, and so I don’t think secular institutions or secular philosophy are capable of defining blasphemy, or reverence, or sacredness. And I think the difference between blasphemy and irreverence is a matter of degree, not necessarily a fundamental difference.

  21. greenfrog on April 25, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    M.J.Pritchett wrote: When I have asked myself why it was a sin in Israel to deny God’s power and ability to protect Israel, my answer is that the proposition that Israel’s god was all powerful was not really all that well supported by the evidence, but it was nevertheless key to Israel’s institutional identity to believe that he was in fact all powerful.

    When you have principle that is essential to an institution’s “business plan�, which, is, in fact, subject to some doubt in the minds of many in the institution, to publically question this principle becomes a serious breach of the institution’s rules.

    Shouldn’t we be skeptical of any artificial barriers (whether labeled the sin of blasphemy or otherwise) that are erected to prevent inquiry into relevant questions of the nature of God and man’s relationship to God? With high enough barriers preventing such inquiry, we might find ourselves “believing” in the emperor’s new clothes because the little child would be jailed for suggesting there weren’t any. It seems to me that our beliefs are made of sterner stuff than the emperor’s new clothes, and so they ought to be resilient enough to withstand inquiry by persons of good faith.

    To the extent that “deterring inquiry” is the purpose of declaring blasphemy a sin, I think the sin should be repealed. However, I suspect that there are better reasons for such prohibitions, such as the instilling of reverence (which, itself, enables greater understanding); the creation of awareness (which, itself, enables greater perception and contemplation); and, to a limited extent, the protection of those unprepared to receive particular doctrines from the adverse effects of receiving such matters (or superficially believing that they have received them) in a state of unpreparedness.

  22. MikeInWeHo on April 25, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    RE: 17
    “Examples of blasphemy in today’s church would for a church leader to give a talk in church explicity questioning the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Another example would be to give a talk suggesting that polygamy is an eternal principal and we should pray for its reinstatement.”

    Wouldn’t those both heresy, not blasphemy?

  23. Dan Richards on April 25, 2006 at 5:37 pm

    Now that we’ve got formicular, I’d like to see an etymology of contumeliously.

  24. M.J. Pritchett on April 25, 2006 at 5:49 pm

    MikeInWeHo:

    The beliefs are heretical (at least the first one). Speaking these beliefs is blasphemous because it is speech that is punished because it mentions the unmentionable.

  25. Mark Butler on April 25, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    Speaking of sacred things in an improper context is not blasphemy, but rather something akin to the original derivation of the term obscenity, from the Greek term for “off stage”. So those worried about the concept of blasphemy limiting academic discourse should rest easy.

    Blasphemy is explicit disrespect or ridicule of God or something else held to be similarly sacred, more often used in a sardonic sense with respect to non-religious concepts of questionable sanctity than anything else these day. Of course there are grey areas – some people have a far broader definition of what is sacred than others. However, surely the core meaning is to mock God, the very idea of God, or the sanity of anyone who believes in God.

  26. Jim F. on April 25, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    Dan Richards: contemptuously, insolently. You don’t need the Oxford English Dictionary; Google is enough.

  27. DKL on April 25, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    Nate: Why can’t a changing standard be an eternal truth?

    I see truth as primarily a property of indicative sentences (or propositions, if you want to go that route). What makes it true is an open question, one that I prefer not to answer (hence, I adhere to the redundancy theory of truth). But some statements are more or less true forever only when qualified by a date (e.g., my car is grey today or this week or this month or what have you, or since the rise of the temperance movement in the United States, the Word of Wisdom has been a commandment by virtue of being a requirement for a temple recommend) and some statements are more or less true without being qualified by a date (e.g., the kinetic theory of gasses or Kepler’s laws of planetary motion). I consider the truths that are qualified by date to be temporally bound, and therefore not eternal. I reserve the notion of “eternal truth” for those statements that are not qualified by date, because they are not temporally bound.

  28. DKL on April 25, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Jim F: Some forms of speech are, as it were, acts of rebellion, a refusal to confess God’s hand in our lives or a denial of our covenant relation to him.

    Fair enough. But this kind of rebellion is a pretty trivial affair. If Hitler or Charles Manson or Ted Bundie had confessed God’s hand in his life would that have made him a better person? Are John Stuart Mill or Bertrand Russell or David Hume reprobates because they denied God’s existence? In the scheme of things, I can’t see how it’s even as bad as drinking a glass of iced tea.

  29. Jim F. on April 25, 2006 at 11:52 pm

    DKL: The comparisons you make are inapt. Confessing God’s hand in the world surely means more than saying “God works in the world.” Surely it means living in accordance with that recognition, even if imperfectly. I think that Hitler, Manson, and Bundy were more than just a little too imperfect to qualify. Mill, Russell, and Hume weren’t reprobates because they denied God’s existence. But they would be blasphemers if they, believing in God, exposed him to ridicule or, having made covenant with him, ridiculed or denied that covenant.

  30. DKL on April 26, 2006 at 12:37 am

    Jim F, what I meant to point out with my examples is something like this:

    Some sins are so severe that they preclude the sinner from being a generally moral person. An easy example of a sin this severe is mass murder. An easy example of a sin that is not so severe is failing to do home teaching, because I believe that there are many people who are quite moral but do not regularly do their home teaching (I, of course, am not one of them ;) ), even though we are obliged by covenant to do home teaching insofar as it is building the kingdom of God.

    There are quite a lot of these severe sins. For example, if you are an active con-man or bank robber, most people would agree that you are not a generally moral person. If you are a compulsive liar, many would consider you to not be a generally moral person, but this is getting into the grey area. There are obviously controversial examples like porn viewing. (This tendency of severe sins to trump all other righteous acts is, no doubt, the reason that the 10 commandments are so heavily weighted on the “thou shalt not” side.)

    Then there are things like alcohol which cut both ways. Most people who drink do so responsibly, and it has no bearing on their morality. But jails are full of people who committed crimes during a lapse in judgment due in no small part to inebriation.

    This kind of thing comes and goes with fashion. For example, most people nowadays believe that one can cuss like a sailor and still be a man of sterling character. Some amount of paternalistic racism was fairly acceptable 50 years ago, but just about any amount nowadays is enough to tarnish even the brightest souls.

    But whether they come and go with fashion, there are a great many sins that one may commit and still be esteemed a man of sterling character. In addition to the home teaching example, Nephi’s sin of getting angry with his enemies is an easy example.

    So my point with my examples on the blasphemy thing is that it seems to be on par with not performing home teaching or breaking the Word of Wisdom or getting angry at one’s enemies, and not on par with murder or thievery. (of course, God can tolerate no uncleanliness at all, but that doesn’t invalidate this as an exercise in casuistry).

  31. Jim F. on April 26, 2006 at 10:47 am

    DKL: And my point was thatwho a person is is absolutely relevant to the question of blasphemy. The answer to that question is what, in my mind, removes it from the realm of not performing home teaching or breaking the Word of Wisdom and puts it at a “higher” level. As I think someone else has already said, blasphemy is more like ridiculing your spouse in public or discussing the details of your intimate life in public. It’s worse for me to do that than it would be for someone else to do that.

  32. Kevin Barney on April 26, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    #23, contumeliously derives from Latin contumelia “an outrage, insult, reproach,” which in turn probably derives from contumax “haughty, stubborn,” which in turn derives from the intensive prefix cum- + tumere “to swell up.”

  33. DKL on April 26, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    Jim F, it seems a little novel to put God in that kind of a position; viz., that of a scorned spouse. I think that a fairer characterization would be that blasphemy is akin to poking fun at the substitute teacher. (Incidentally, I neglected to mention that I really that term inapt. It’s almost a back formation but almost an insult–very clever.)

    Kevin, Wow. That’s a pregnant etymology.

  34. Jim F. on April 26, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    DKL: Given the metaphors of marriage and sexuality we find in Hosea, Isaiah, the New Testament, etc., and the Jewish and Christian interpretation of those metaphors from at least the 4th century to the present, I don’t think it is all that novel to think of God as having a relationship to us like that of a spouse.

    I’m glad that “inapt” is only almost a back formation and almost an insult. I didn’t intend it to be insulting, and I’ll have to chalk any cleverness up to the language and not to myself.

  35. DKL on April 26, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    For some reason my verb didn’t make it into that last sentence of the 1st paragraph of comment 33, so that “I really like that term” turned into “I really that term” leaving only a vague impression of what I intended.

  36. Elisabeth on April 26, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    I feel like I’m about to be struck down from above for asking this question, but how in the world is God akin to “a substitute teacher”? I can see why Jim F. made the point that ridiculing God is similar to ridiculing a spouse or a close family member – because we experience God so personally and intimately (and also because of the references he points out in #34).

    But a substitute teacher?

  37. DKL on April 26, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    Elisabeth, there are a couple reasons why I conceive of God as a substitute teacher:

    (a) the dictates of etiquette are stricter with regard to people with whom there is some distance. Both the substitute teacher and God operate from a greater distance than other authority.

    (b) With a substitute teacher, there is no concrete notion of consequences, so that you can conceivably get into trouble, but it’s not in any immediate predictable way. With God, it’s the same way, so that sinning does not cause bankruptcy or leprosy (ok, well, it used to cause leprosy, but it doesn’t any more).

    I could probably think of more, but that’s all for now.

    And incidentally, you needn’t worry about getting struck down from above–Zeus is the guy with the lightning. Heavenly Father tends to prefer more earth-bound penalties like she-bears. But your implications about lightening remind me of something that Bertrand Russell said that contains, I think, a pretty prototypical example of how I think people conceive of blasphemy (I’ve been quoting him a lot lately. Perhaps it’s been too long since I actually picked up and read something that he wrote.)

    When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, the clergy, both in England and America, with the enthusiastic support of George III, condemned it as an impious attempt to defeat the will of God. For, as all right-thinking people were aware, lightning is sent by God to punish impiety or some other grave sin-the virtuous are never struck by lightning. Therefore if God wants to strike any one, Benjamin Franklin ought not to defeat His design; indeed, to do so is helping criminals to escape. But God was equal to the occasion, if we are to believe the eminent Dr. Price, one of the leading divines of Boston. Lightning having been rendered ineffectual by the “iron points invented by the sagacious Dr. Franklin,” Massachusetts was shaken by earthquakes, which Dr. Price perceived to be due to God’s wrath at the “iron points.” In a sermon on the subject he said, “In Boston are more erected than elsewhere in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.” Apparently, however, Providence gave up all hope of curing Boston of its wickedness, for, though lightning rods became more and more common, earthquakes in Massachusetts have remained rare.

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