Blasphemy from antiquity to today

Blasphemy from antiquity to today

Symbolic image of religious freedom © Marina Danilenko (shutterstock)

Who blasphemes God, how and when, and with what consequences?? The history of blasphemy reveals much about social values and how they have changed, as historian Gerd Schwerhoff shows.

Blasphemy and hurting religious feelings can still cost you your life. The danger has actually become greater than smaller again in recent years, even in Europe.

The terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" in January 2015 is just one sadly famous example of this. At the same time, the phenomenon of blasphemy had already almost gathered a bit of dust; in increasingly secular societies, the "basis for business" seemed to be getting more and more lost.

Turning point 1989

The Dresden historian Gerd Schwerhoff identifies the turning point in 1989: when the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini published his death sentence on Salman Rushdie and all his supporters – because the latter had made a mockery of the sacred goods of the Muslims with his novel "The Satanic Verses. A little later Samuel P opened. Huntington's bestseller "Clash of Civilizations" (1996) launched a controversial debate about conflicting cultural and religious identities, the contrast between "the" Western world and "Islam".

In the following decades, the motif of blasphemy remained a focal point of the supposed cultural conflict between the Orient and the Occident, Schwerhoff states in his new book "Verfluchte Gotter" (Cursed Gods). The history of blasphemy".

In nearly 530 pages, the professor of early modern history at the Technical University of Dresden traces the arc from antiquity to the present – and closes a research gap with his comprehensive account. On the one hand, he shows that while the more recent blasphemy cases may be an expression of intercultural conflicts, many manifestations of blasphemy and disparagement of the sacred and religious follow familiar patterns. On the other hand, Schwerhoff makes clear what debates about punishment or toleration of blasphemers say in each case about contemporary power relations and collective mentalities.

Belief in a God

And it is monotheism, the belief in one God, that is gaining momentum with the blasphemy phenomenon. Schwerhoff explains, "It is not an exclusive feature of monotheistic religions, but in fact blasphemy gains its real meaning and poignancy from the unconditional claim to truth and fidelity of the one God."

There are clear words on this subject in several places in the Bible, most clearly in the Old Testament, in the third book of Moses: "Whoever takes the name of the Lord in vain deserves death; the whole community will stone him" (Leviticus 26:16).

Blasphemy, as Schwerhoff points out, also served as an "identity generator" in early Christianity by demarcating and disparaging other gods and religions. However, blasphemy accusations were also deliberately used within Christianity, for example to make a front against medieval heresy movements or later the Reformation.

At the same time, the "problem" emerged in the Middle Ages that blasphemous speech was a completely natural part of people's everyday lives. The technical term "sins of the tongue" appeared, and many a sinful tongue was publicly nailed to a beam as punishment, together with the sinner. "Occidental Christianity was more strongly colored by blasphemy than almost any other religion; to this day it differs greatly from Islam, for example," Schwerhoff states.

Borderlines between the sacred and the profane

Also noteworthy is the change in how the sanctioning of blasphemy has been justified by both church and secular authorities.

In 1675, for example, an English judge declared that religion must be protected against blasphemers because it is the foundation of the state and social order. The more modernity advanced, the more often blasphemy was seen as a legitimate form of criticism of power and domination.

Not least thanks to numerous illustrative examples, it is very enlightening to read with Schwerhoff the borderlines between the sacred and the profane through the centuries.

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