Where is the line between criticism and blasphemy?

November 10, 2008

Where is the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable criticism of religion? How should the media cover issues that offend certain believers? These issues came up at last week’s Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome and in the public editor’s column in the Sunday New York Times. In both cases, useful distinctions were made. But I’m not sure how much agreement they will produce the next time someone finds a depiction of a religion, its beliefs or its symbols outrageous.

(Photo:Filipino Muslims protest outside Danish embassy in Manila, 15 Feb 2006)

The Catholic-Muslim Forum, an unprecedented meeting between Vatican and Muslim leaders and scholars, approached the issue as one of the rights of a minority religion, since cases they are concerned about — such as the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad — involved criticism of a minority faith by the local majority. They agreed that “religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices … and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.”

When I asked Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Catholic delegation, whether this meant the Vatican would support moves to limit criticism of religion that some western critics see as censorship, he said: “One must distinguish between a critical spirit, a spirit of criticism, and mockery. Freedom of speech means that we have the right to express opinions about religion, philosophy, philosophers and theologians and founders of religion. That is one thing. But deriding them and mocking them is something else… That impacts the values on which millions of people base their lives. That’s why we talk about mockery. I introduced that term… Mockery is very strong.”

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt took up the issue on Sunday in dissecting his paper’s review of a play portraying Jesus as a sexually active gay man. Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called it a vile play and said the Times liked it “not for artistic purposes but for its assault on Catholicism.” He urged his members to write to the public editor, and more than 150 did. While Hoyt found some of the protests over the top, he noted that the review was one-sided. It called the play “an earnest and reverent spin on the Jesus story, with some soft-spoken, gay-friendly politics thrown in” but never told readers why Christians might be offended. If the review had mentioned the fact that gay sex and same-sex marriage are against the teachings of the Church, the Times would have done its duty in presenting the pros and cons of this issue, he said.

(Photo: South African stamp for 2001 Durban conference)

We’re going to hear more about this issue in the months to come because Muslim countries are campaigning to have the United Nations approve a ban on published material that defames or promotes disrespect for religion. This will be a central issue at the April 2009 conference in Geneva following up on the 2001 Durban World Conference on Racism. Opposition to this has been gathering steam (see here and here and here).

Do you think the United Nations or any government can determine where the line between criticism and blasphemy lies?


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Christians in the west have long learned to live with criticism and mockery of our religion. This is freedom of speech. We have the right to criticize those who criticize us. We can choose to ignore criticism.

To squelch freedom of speech is ultimately to give in to radicals who criticize or even threaten others, but cannot abide any criticism or questioning of their own beliefs.

Posted by karl | Report as abusive

In order to legally distinguish between (approved) “criticism” and (non-approved) “mockery”, you must have some appoint person or group with political power to decide which acts fall into which category, then give them enforcement powers, then a budget… even if a group already in existence for other reasons, once appointed to this role, will find the role gradually taking over its overall identity (consider it a form of “mission-creep”). Also, once the focus becomes whether a given act falls into the “approved” or “non-approved” category, the more important points will be lost: was there an intelligent or cogent point made? Perhaps a good point, but awkwardly expressed?
It’s best to allow all philosophical ideas to exist in a truly public domain, which means no group owns the right to deny others use of them. For those fearful of crude mockery of their God, here’s a suggestion: any God capable of creating a universe like the one we all materially know, and life like that already known to exist on this planet, surely has the strength to withstand the attempted insults of any pipsqueak mortals in this generation. Do not dare to confuse your mere personal unease with any actual offense taken by any Creator worth worshipping. In fact, I’d find the thought that any God I consider worshipful could be insulted by human expression — itself an insult to such a God’s Power. Should I have the political power to forbid you from feeling (or talking about) such offense?

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

Religious leaders are obviously and desperately looking for ways to survive. And ways to maintain their influence on social sphere. Get a real job like everybody else!

Posted by xallow | Report as abusive

Tom, I have just discovered your blog and want to express my thanks for the excellent coverage you have given the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting in the Vatican. Your sources and interviews (especially with Cardinal Tauran) have opened up the event very well, and given a background upon which to understand the final statement. Keep up the good work!

Posted by David Schutz | Report as abusive

From what has been criticized as ‘blastfemy’ over the past years, one comes to recall a historical conversation between one Lord Balfour and Prinz Faisal ninety years ago.
The two were discussing ongoing ‘peace talks’ between various middle eastern factions. Each was asked to bring to the next conference a map showing his faction’s claim. They did! Each faction claimed not only its territory but also that of the others in the ‘peace’ conference. Other previous peace conferences ended similarly. And so it goes and has gone for over a hundred years of sponsored talks between groups that historically hate each other. I had an Egyptian friend whose family had spirited his father out of Egypt to prevent him being killed in a family ‘blood feud’ that had sucked the life out of every living male member of that family save..HIM! The middle easterners have been fighting since the beginning of history. Religion is not going to be any different. We will continually be asked to ‘move over for Islam’ until a modern Charles Martel slaughters enough of them and creates enough cemeteries to create peace. Not converting to Islam is enough to be considered ‘insulting Islam’ to many of that religion’s adherents. In the end there will be war, a fight to the finish between Islam’s faithful on one side and the whole population of the rest of the world on the other. They will continue to swarm over one nation after another until or unless this comes to pass. Today it is Nigeria, the Philippines, France, England, and possibly Germany and Kenya under the gun. Who knows about tomorrow? To retreat, morally or physically in the face of continual harassment and aggression from Islamists only encourages more sociopathic behavior from them. To ignore our own creed while Islamists openly practice polygamy, child marriage, and female mutilation is to cowardly flee from our own beliefs and our own self respect, devaluing and demeaning non Islamists in the process and paving the way for our own destruction. We punish so called mormon extremists! What is so different about the Islamists doing the same thing except that they have oil and nukes and a will that we do not possess.. the will to use them.
It is that cowardice that puts them above the law in many nations.

Posted by Alley | Report as abusive

I think positive religious criticism is acceptable as long as it does not constitute to undermining the views of different religious beliefs.

While I do not see the reason why one should criticize another person’s religion, if at all he does not subscribe to its teaching and ideals.

Religion is an individual’s way of knowing that there is a Supernatural Being watching over the actions of humans, but not a means of taking one to Heaven.

Constructive criticism is all an important step in demystifying the elements of ‘secrecy’ in world religions .

Posted by Solomon Mburu | Report as abusive

It is difficult to be pragmatic about religion without being insulting or offensive – period. However, I will endeavor to be as minimally condescending as possible. By definition, religion is a modern term for mythology without any credible evidence based in reality. It is primarily used to marginalize others (or worse) for the purpose of placating the unfounded fears of its beholden. How exactly is that deserving of any respect what-so-ever?

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

Rick: nice way to put it.

Religion is far too individual and personal of a concept to avoid criticism. From a dunking baptism to injesting hallucinogencis (sp?), this concept reveals the enormous variety of human thought and scope. It all seems to come down to how we view our fit into the universe and afterlife, if any. So who would have the authority to put limits on any of that? Like freedom and capitalism, pick your own concept of religion and then live it. Barring my own personal limits of murder and human sacrifice, leave others alone about their choices and ignore those who criticize yours. It’s a personal relationship: with Bhudda, Jesus, Mohammed, whoever. Leave other people’s choices alone and have enough faith in your own choice to ignore those who don’t like it.

Posted by Killy | Report as abusive

HEY REUTERS–isnt there more to blog about in this forum than Catholic/Muslim relations?? Too many posts on this topic.

Posted by pc | Report as abusive

There have always been limits to freedom of speech but to read these comments people don’t seem to know it. It is not permissible to yell “fire” in a theater. Is it permissible to yell “n____” in public? I think not, considering the publicly sanctioned punishment one would sustain for racism. The Supreme Court permits prohibition of pornography. Whispering state secrets to the enemy is a crime. In all these cases, restrictions on speech were imposed to prevent harm. Freedom of speech is a constitutional ideal to permit open and honest dialog, and never meant as a means to produce outrage and harm. That is the historical American treatment of this freedom (protection). Speech is only protected if it does not harm others. Pouring derision and contempt upon a religious figure sacred to over a billion folks, knowing that it will provoke dissension and outrage, is not and should not be within the bounds of free speech. It is nothing less than an intentional and mean-spirited attack on the sincere beliefs of a large part of the earth’s occupants. It is an attack meant to harm and deserves no protection. We need a return to civility and respect, and all of us should be held accountable for our treatment of others.

Posted by Bill Wood | Report as abusive

Why should religion be exempt from analysis and examination? Every other assertion in life and science must withstand these simple requirements. And yet religion is considered exempt. This blanket exemption serves only to perpetuate a system of stone-age beliefs which has demonstrated its desire to retard the progress of science and reason at every turn. I fully and whole-heartedly reject the impact that religion has had on modern life, particularly in the form of restricting the progress of medicine – which has cost the lives of countless individuals. There simply is no “god” determining such peoples’ fate, just self-important zealots who would prefer to prompt the deaths of other humans than to cede the grasp of their own pathetic superstitions.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Read the paper by the famous experimental psychologist BF Skinner: (B F Skinner (1948), “Superstition in the pigeon”, J.Exp.Psychol. 38:168-172)better known as “Religion in the pigeon”, because the behaviour mirrored religious behaviour.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

The UN must not try to be the authority on what is and isn’t acceptable in public discourse. Free speech is too important for it to be subject to an organization like the UN. The UN has no legal authority over the speech of free citizens of any country. It is better to accept freedom and its consequences than to try to have laws that define limits. Terms such as “hate speech” and “code speech” are too nebulous for legal limits.

Most of us are familiar with taunts and insults from childhood, and we learn early that the best defense is not to care. Words are only inflammatory if we allow them to be.

Here is an example. I am a Christian. I have been told many times that I am stupid for believing in God. I have heard people say things like “f*** Jesus.” I think those statements have no place in polite conversation. I know that the people who speak those words want to make me angry. However, when I ignore the words, the mockers usualy get tired and do something else. Even if they don’t, the only price I pay is hearing the sounds.

Nobody has the right to tell anyone what to believe. In fact, nobody has the power to make anyone believe anything. Each of us chooses what to believe. We should all be free to say what we believe and to expect that others who belive something different will treat our choices with respect. However, when someone does not respect my choice, I would rather listen to that rant or even the mocking disrespect than to deal with a law that limits free speech. When the rant transforms into physical assault, torture, or murder, every country already has laws against that, regardless of the motivation of the criminal. We don’t need to UN to try to define permissible speech. Most nations already have laws against libel and plagiarism. That is enough. Grow up already.

Posted by Katherine | Report as abusive

The free market place of ideas is the most important and powerful tool for social advancment. A responsible citizen needs to know the difference between mere insult and harm.

Posted by Nate | Report as abusive

This is an issue of both respect and morality, neither of which can be legislated in a truly free society.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

It is amazing to me that, a simple book of fiction written a few thousand years ago would continue to have such a huge impact on people in the age of science. There are more atrocities committed in the name of religion than anything. Most wars and riots,are based on religious intolerance of anything that doesn’t agree with their own doctrine, yet most would claim to be helping the downtrodden. Give me a break, believe what you want, but don’t try to sell me on any more Santa Clauses.

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

I find it more amazing that Christianity and Islam can’t find some common ground. In form, both profess almost identical virtues (i.e. donating money and goods to the poor); however, in practice, neither one live up to its claims. Both profess a belief in one god, albiet under different names because they come from different languages. (Even though “Yahweh” is used to refer to the “Jewish” god, english-speaking Christians call the exact same god, “God.”) Similarly, both religions suffer from rather turbulent histories. Most Christians that I know can talk at length about conflicts between various sects of Muslims. Very few could tell me how Bloody Mary got her name. Even fewer can recall that French Catholics and French Calvinists (Huguenots) spent a good deal of their time slaughtering each other (i.e. St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre).

The largest problem that I have seen with both religions is that they are ignorant of each other. This ignorance breeds fear, and people hate those things that they fear and don’t understand. Additionally, people are, in general, lazy, and they do not wish to spend the time required to understand other religions.

Posted by Robert D. | Report as abusive

I’m Catholic but I’m well aware of all the abuses of human rights that have been pertetrated by men in the Church in the name of “God”. It’s the “Spanish Inquisition” all over again. Never give these holy-rollers any power or they will abuse it. If you give the religious fanatics(Catholic, Muslim or PTL) an inch they will take your head and/or your wallet. I’ll mock who I want to mock. Seriously. Screw you if you want to control me exercising my right to voice my opinion. Freedom of speech is the thin line that separates democracy from facism. You and I can agree to disagree but who are you(any religious organization) to tell me how to live my life. The price of freedom is eternal vigilence against those that would try and manipulate us.

Posted by Pat | Report as abusive

isn’t it wonderful how two of the most regressive forces in the world, the vatican and the leaders of islam, can agree that their grip on their respective flocks is more important to them than liberal western values such as equality or freedom of thought? these two reactionary groups have a lot in common: their worldwide “holy wars”. the devaluing of women and children, and the murder of those they accused of heresy or apostasy.

since this forum was cast in the unfortunate mold of the danish cartoons, the moslem leaders in particular should start with a renunciation of violence and an affirmation of the supreme value of ALL human life. the very notion that ANY cartoon can justify the killing of another human being puts them beyond the pale of civilization.

their concern for minority religious rights would sound more genuine if they spoke out for freedom of religion: for minorities to practice their own religion (certainly not the case in most moslem countries), for freedom from proselytizing (both these groups engage in heavy missionary activity), and for the freedom to change one’s religion.

but clearly, this forum wasn’t really about “minority religious rights”.

Posted by tom klein | Report as abusive

Most comments here scorn religion and religious beliefs rather than serve as reasoned discussions of considerations involved in free speech conflicts. Fuming against wrongs of the past without considering the benefits of faith signals an unwillingness to engage in serious discourse about a real problem. There is too much contemptuous and vitriolic static from people who obviously don’t care that their harsh words offend others. We do know that names thrown at others do hurt as much as sticks and stones.

Posted by Bill Wood | Report as abusive

Freedom of speech is only an idealistic fantasy. The real question is how’you’ react when some says something harmful to you. Do you turn and offer him the other cheek or, do you take out his eye as well. The problem is that we should never forget the ideals of our religion (Christianity) even in the most peril of times. The best example of a good Christian is in practice and not in speaking – “it’s not what you say it’s what you do”. Keep in mind though, from the abundance of the heart the tongue will speak. In essence what you do and say will always be a true reflection of what you believe and not what you say you believe.

Posted by Hilton Howes | Report as abusive

Excuse me, but as I point out quite clearly in the book The Religion Commandments, in the USA, the issue of same-sex marriage is not a matter of religion laws. Religion laws are not civil laws. It is civil law which prevails in the USA in respect to actions.

The Free Exercise commandment in the First Amendment is not a license for religion actions outside the laws of the land. All actions are subject to the laws of civil society, regardless of religion.

First, religion shall not be established by law in the USA. Last, the free exercise clause plainly says the exercise of religion shall not be prohibited, which by definition means totally forbidden. If the words of the Constitution and the First Amendment mean what they say, it is speech, press, and peaceable assembly which shall not be abridged, which means reduced.

Understanding of the “exercise” of religion is not controlled by the word “abridging, as if religion actions cannot be abridged.

Beliefs and opinions cannot be abridged, that is, reduced, but all actions are subject to law and can be abridged. Religion is not above the law in the USA, except in matters of belief. When action in the name of religion conflicts with the laws of American society, the law prevails, otherwise we have anarchy under the name of religion. The wording of the Constitution does not allow anarchy for any reason.

If you do not like the laws in respect to actions, work to change them, but do not use the wording of First Amendment as a guarantee for religion action in violation of the laws of the land. The wording of the Constitution is not a license for anarchy in the name of religion.

The First Amendment is to be understood by its words. The men who wrote it were not dummies, and its wording is not in conflict. Speech, press, and peaceable assembly cannot be abridged, and “exercise” cannot be prohibited, which means totally forbidden.

Read my book for further understanding.

Posted by Gene Garman | Report as abusive