Blasphemy laws are harmful because

  1. They violate freedom of expression and deny equality, actively enforced blasphemy laws infringe on and violate human rights around the world; and passive blasphemy laws reinforce active blasphemy laws.
  2. They protect religious beliefs and practices, institutions and leaders, from legitimate and often necessary criticism; they are intrinsically bad, subjective, inconsistent laws; there is no “right way” to use them.
  3. They legitimise vigilantism, mob violence, and the persecution of minorities.
  4. They have invariably been used by a majority to suppress minorities and have never been a force for the public good.
  5. They are often used to eliminate political and business rivals and those who might expose unethical or criminal behaviour.

Further elaboration

(1) Blasphemy laws violate freedom of expression and deny equality.

Blasphemy laws have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws are often class and gender discriminatory, whereby less powerful individuals face the highest risks. Blasphemy laws are a species of libel with no real rules of evidence or proof, and for which the mens rea assumptions of guilt are difficult to establish (the establishment of intent). The legal criteria for recognition as a religious group are problematic in many jurisdictions.

(2) Blasphemy laws are used to infringe on human rights around the world.

Alleged blasphemy frequently leads to arbitrary arrest, detention, poor treatment in custody including torture, dubious legal procedures and poor application of justice; in several states, lawyers will refuse to defend an accused person through fear of prosecution themselves. Governments and religious leaders use blasphemy laws to silence political opponents, and to silence those who would expose corruption, sexual assault and rape, and the rape and sexual abuse of children; individuals fabricate charges against others, religious extremists use blasphemy laws to attack opponents, and religious authorities can impose religious orthodoxy with the sanction of the state.

(3) Blasphemy laws have been repudiated by international law and governance bodies.

In 2009, The Venice Commission advising the Council of Europe said that insult to religious feelings should not be a crime, and that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished and not be reintroduced. Since 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Committee has considered laws against blasphemy and defamation of religion to violate international law. The 2012 Rabat Plan of Action launched by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in February 2013 says blasphemy laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief and should be repealed.

(4) Passive blasphemy laws have the effect of reinforcing active, brutally enforced blasphemy laws.

Self-described Islamic states under the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) banner have been using the existence of western blasphemy laws (and particularly the Irish law of 2009) at the UN to defend and promote their own blasphemy laws. This is significant both in itself and also as a lobbying issue. Perhaps the main obstacle to getting archaic passive blasphemy laws removed in western democracies is the idea that they don’t matter.

Supporting statements

Numerous International and National bodies have called for the repeal of all Blasphemy laws. Below are just three examples. More information is available under “International” on the menu.

1. From the Rabat Plan of Action (2012) on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (2012). Conclusions and recommendations emanating from the four regional expert workshops organised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in 2011, and adopted by experts in Rabat, Morocco on 5 October 2012.

At the national level, blasphemy laws are counter-productive, since they may result in the de facto censure of all inter-religious/belief and intra-religious/belief dialogue, debate, and also criticism, most of which could be constructive, healthy and needed. In addition, many of these blasphemy laws afford different levels of protection to different religions and have often proved to be applied in a discriminatory manner. There are numerous examples of persecution of religious minorities or dissenters, but also of atheists and non-theists, as a result of legislation on religious offences or overzealous application of various laws that use a neutral language. Moreover, the right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international legal standards, does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule.

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2. From the 2013 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religous Freedom (USCIRF).

These [Blasphemy] laws are incompatible with international human rights standards, as they protect beliefs over individuals. In addition, they often result in violations of the freedoms of speech and religion, or at least a chilling of these rights, as they empower governments, majorities, and extremists to enforce particular religious views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters. Though often justified as needed to promote religious harmony, these laws in fact have the opposite effect, exacerbating religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence.

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3. From the 2017 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr Ahmed Shaheed.

Anti-blasphemy laws, which prohibit or criminalize the alleged “defamation” of religious beliefs and principles, or those which allegedly insult religious figures, have a disproportionate impact on members of minority religious communities and “non-believers”. Blasphemy, which is generally framed as a strict liability offence and based on vague and overly broad criminal statutes, is increasingly used against political opponents for their opposition to the Government. Blasphemy is an offence in at least 49 countries punishable with a prison term or in some cases with the death penalty. The Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment no. 34 (2011), noted that blasphemy laws were incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20 (2). It stressed that “it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers”, and that it would also be impermissible for such prohibitions “to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith”.

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