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Profane: Sacrilegious Expression in a Multicultural Age

Christopher S. Grenda
Chris Beneke
David Nash
Foreword by Martin E. Marty
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Humans have been uttering profane words and incurring the consequences for millennia. But contemporary events-from the violence in 2006 that followed Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed to the 2012 furor over theInnocence of Muslimsvideo-indicate that controversy concerning blasphemy has reemerged in explosive transnational form. In an age when electronic media transmit offense as rapidly as profane images and texts can be produced, blasphemy is bracingly relevant again.In this volume, a distinguished cast of international scholars examines the profound difficulties blasphemy raises for modern societies. Contributors examine how the sacred is formed and maintained, how sacrilegious expression is conceived and regulated, and how the resulting conflicts resist easy adjudication. Their studies range across art, history, politics, law, literature, and theology. Because of the global nature of the problem, the volume's approach is comparative, examining blasphemy across cultural and geopolitical boundaries.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95822-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    Blasphemers, profaners, and producers of the sacrilegious are to be found in most cultures, especially those that hold religion in high regard. Readers of this book will soon learn that attacks on and undercuttings of religions acquire many names, usually in terms of what they oppose, and what they oppose changes so often that the attackers are usually very busy people.

    Because I am a historian of religions, I had to ask why the editors and authors gave me the privilege of helping to introduce their volume. We scholars of religion don’t usually employ inflammatory words such asblasphemyor...

  5. Introduction: On the Modern Confluence of Blasphemy, Free Expression, and Hate Speech
    (pp. 1-24)

    A minor legal revolution occurred in 2008. That year, the United Kingdom decriminalized blasphemy as a common-law offence.¹ Though little debate preceded the move, which passed as a minor amendment to a broader bill for combating crime and disorder, this was no exercise in symbolism. Just a few years earlier, a parliamentary committee had affirmed blasphemy as an offense of “strict liability,” meaning that the intent of the accused was not relevant for prosecution.² An English newspaper editor was successfully prosecuted under this standard near the end of the 1970s, and in 1996 the British government surprised a filmmaker by...


    • Chapter 1 Thick-Skinned Tolerance: Satire, the Sacred, and the Rise of the Modern
      (pp. 27-56)

      Satire has a long history. Its epochs of wit have long tended to offend. The sixteenth-century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus invoked that history in prefacingThe Praise of Folly(1509): “But those who are offended at the lightness and pedantry of this subject, I would have them consider that I do not set myself for the first example of this kind, but that the same has been oft done by many considerable authors.” He cited distinguished forebears, such as famed authors of Greek and Roman antiquity, to whom he might have added Geoffrey Chaucer, whose satirizing of religious figures in...

    • Chapter 2 The Productive Obscene: Philip Roth and the Profanity Loop
      (pp. 57-81)

      By 1969, when Philip Roth published the staggeringly obscene effusions in our epigraph, he could do so with impunity.¹ The volcanic legal controversies about obscenity in literature, which had spewed so much sulfur from the turn of the century to the early 1960s, were a smoldering relic of the past.² The societies for the suppression of vice and the textual inquisitions that the Post Office led in the era of Comstock laws were losing steam.³ The undercover raids of bookstores in which police officers and district attorneys—two cohorts not renowned for the breadth of their humanistic erudition—raked the...

    • CHAPTER 3 Defaced: The Art of Blaspheming Texts and Images in the West
      (pp. 82-116)

      I have tried for more than two decades to find a culturally legitimate space for serious artistic purposes in the polemics of blasphemy. When I wrote my bookBlasphemyin 1992, I found myself using the language of exchange transaction; I argued that blasphemy marks a struggle to define community, both by those who would regulate blasphemy, thereby identifying who and what is to be marginalized, and by those who would challenge such regulation, thereby contesting a community’s cultural boundaries and normative conceptions of self. Blasphemy is thus most volatile and creative when opposing groups intuit degrees of affinity as...


    • CHAPTER 4 Blasphemy and Free Thought in Jacksonian America: The Case of Abner Kneeland
      (pp. 119-140)

      In 1834 a grand jury in Boston indicted Abner Kneeland for blasphemy. In 1838, after four trials and a final appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw upheld Kneeland’s conviction.¹ The prosecution and conviction resulted from three articles Kneeland published in his newspaper, theBoston Investigator.TheInvestigatorwas the first “rationalist” publication in the United States² and was aggressively hostile to organized religion, Christianity, traditional notions of God, and the existence of a hereafter. Although it was in his discretion to suspend Kneeland’s sentence, Shaw sent the iconoclastic publisher off to the Suffolk County jail...

    • CHAPTER 5 Secular Blasphemies: Symbolic Offense in Modern Democracy
      (pp. 141-166)

      On July 27, 1656, Baruch de Spinoza (1632–77) was excommunicated by the elders of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam for heresy. The text of the proclamation of banishment stated in part,

      We excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, . . . cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be...


    • CHAPTER 6 Muslim Political Theology: Defamation, Apostasy, and Anathema
      (pp. 169-188)

      Pakistan and Afghanistan are not only neighbors. In the first decade of the twenty-first century they are both epicenters of blasphemy-related violence, ranging from prosecutions and political mayhem to assassinations. And in Egypt, blasphemy-related prosecutions rose dramatically during the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, mainly against Christians and a few secular figures.¹ Anger over matters broadly identified as blasphemy frequently erupts in Muslim-majority countries in response to Western cartoons and media portrayals that are demeaning to Muslim religious figures. Malevolent acts of Qur’an torching or salacious films and novels that cast Islam’s founding figures and personalities in a negative...

    • CHAPTER 7 Protesting Sacrilege: Blasphemy and Violence in Muslim-Majority States
      (pp. 189-222)

      In September 2005, a Danish newspaper,Jyllands-Posten,published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. One showed the Prophet donning a turbanlike bomb, inscribed with the Islamic creed, with an ignited fuse. Another showed an anxious cartoonist sketching a portrait titledMohammadwhile nervously straining to hide his work from view. The cartoons unleashed a flurry of reactions in Denmark, including formal protests by ambassadors from Muslim countries; the severing of diplomatic ties by Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia; and judicial charges of blasphemy against the newspaper.¹ The cartoon controversy might have ended there had it not been for...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Indonesian Blasphemy Act: A Legal and Social Analysis
      (pp. 223-248)

      On April 19, 2010, I was present when the Indonesian Constitutional Court issued its eight-to-one decision upholding the country’s Law on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religion, also known as the Blasphemy Act. This legal decision confirming the legitimacy of blasphemy regulations and prosecutions was deeply disappointing for a modern democratic society such as Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world.

      The decision marked a major setback for freedom of religion and expression in Indonesia. The meanings of those concepts—religious freedom and free speech—are hotly contested today. Some suggest they are compatible with the criminalizing...

    • CHAPTER 9 Profound Offense and Religion in Secular Democracies: An Australian Perspective
      (pp. 249-280)

      In debates concerning the treatment of sacred objects, symbols, and figures in multicultural societies, questions often arise as to what it means to treat beliefs with respect. Responses from a Millian liberal tradition have generally argued that the idea of treating beliefs with respect is inconsistent with freedom of expression and that it is illogical to expect people to respect beliefs and practices with which they fundamentally disagree. This chapter explores this response in relation to an episode in which an Aboriginal Australian claimed that a book should be pulped for advocating that girls learn to play the didgeridoo. Drawing...

    • CHAPTER 10 Blasphemy versus Incitement: An International Law Perspective
      (pp. 281-314)

      Modern democracies harbor a fundamental contradiction at their core. On the one hand, they cherish the right to freedom of expression. On the other hand, they insist that citizens should be treated equally and protected from targeted discrimination and violence. States wary of written or spoken discrimination and violence may be inclined to combat forms of extreme speech. Indeed, some states have taken measures to outlaw sources of social unrest and hostility that are liable to upset individual feelings, notably religious feelings, by criminalizing speech through blasphemy, religious defamation, or hate speech laws. Critics of such policies respond that the...

  9. Afterword: Blasphemy beyond Modernism
    (pp. 315-334)

    When I commenced work on the history of blasphemy in 1992, it was a comparative backwater—largely forgotten, unstudied, and still less understood. As such, personal interest (and a lingering legacy of initial historical work on the Victorian secularist movement in Britain) spurred me on in what was lonely and, at this stage, arguably unpromising territory.

    The confluence of three partially related factors substantially caused this neglect. First, the legal community had every reason to believe that it had done its civilizing business to find ways of liberating and enfranchising all in the developed and democratic world. Moreover, the quest...

  10. List of Contributors
    (pp. 335-338)
  11. Index
    (pp. 339-350)