By Peter Olen

Peter Olen, University of South Florida

I. Introduction

Tensions between religious and secular groups in America and abroad are nothing new. Yet, at present, various cultures around the world are involved in internal clashes between competing beliefs that engage the attention of the public more often than not. Though a myriad of different issues, ranging from whether abortion should be legal to the role science plays in establishing truth, encompass debate between religious and secular groups, one must first inquire into the semantics behind both groups before dealing with the content of particular issues. Not a purely academic matter, the practical need for the clarification of concepts present in any group of inquirers allows one to focus on the debate between issues, as opposed to the possible mess of incommensurable vocabularies. This being the case, a key issue is where the boundaries of public discourse are set. In the course of analyzing such an issue, one interesting question must be answered: What does blasphemy against a sacred belief mean to a non-believer and what does blasphemy against a belief held as “sacred” by a secular group mean to a religious believer?

The point of this short paper is not only to inquire into the meaning of blasphemy across the board, but also to attempt to understand how blasphemy should be understood in public discourse and what practical difference this understanding makes. To this end, this analysis is situated against any argument that attempts to protect religious beliefs from blasphemous speech, while excluding the same protection from beliefs held as sacred to other groups – namely secular groups or individuals. First, I will outline a conventional definition of blasphemy and take into consideration what such a definition may mean to those on the opposite side of the fence (i.e., those who are not adherents to a particular sect, creed, or belief). I will also deal with various understandings of “the sacred,” as most definitions of blasphemy refer to a given belief as sacred. Second, I will explore how extending such a definition to secular culture would change the semantic landscape of the current cultural debates. Last, I will propose a modest solution to how one should view issues surrounding blasphemy and inquire into how such a solution affects one’s speech in public discourse beyond a strictly academic solution to a logical puzzle.

The basic argument is that the concept of blasphemy can be extended to the beliefs found in secular groups. Once the concept of blasphemy is extended to both sides of the debate, blasphemy more or less loses its mainly religious connotations. Once secularists, a group by no means unanimous in their beliefs, are allowed to consider speech against anything they hold sacred as blasphemy, the boundaries of public discourse become constrained to the point that communication, freedom of expression, and inquiry are severely curtailed. If I think the Packers football team is sacred, it would be considered “blasphemy” to speak out against this team. This line of reasoning brings one to absurd conclusions1 not only at the boundaries of public discourse, but in everyday life. Specifically, if speaking out against anything that is considered sacred is blasphemous, and blasphemous speech is not allowed, then the boundaries of public discourse will be given extremely narrow parameters. The conclusion of my argument focuses on the idea that the boundaries of public discourse must be interpreted as liberally as possible, unless one wishes to end up in an almost mute society in which people are forbidden to speak, think, and question freely.

It is important to point out that this inquiry is limited to speech acts while avoiding discussion of other acts that could be construed as blasphemous. One imagines the distinction is clear enough; conditions construed as blasphemous that are largely action-based may deal with entirely different issues. This is not to make an intellectual distinction, but a brute one: the act of blaspheming an object in a physical way literally interacts with the world in a way different from speech. A religiously motivated act that involves randomly sacrificing members from a certain set of individuals will involve a different kind of interaction with normativity, law, ethics, society, possible meaning, and any notion of discourse, as opposed to uttering statements against the religious or non-religious motivations behind such actions. This being the case, to limit the scope of this inquiry, my focus will be on one set of potential rules that are linguistic rather than physical ones.

II. A Conventional Definition of Blasphemy

Defining the conventional meaning of any concept, especially one that is up for heated debate between two or more different cultural groups, can never be exact. If one is interested in offering a definition of blasphemy that at least makes an attempt at accuracy towards the view held by the general population of a given community, one might adopt F.C.S. Schiller’s position that “in science and in practical life probability is all-important.”2 This is to say that the definitions analyzed in this specific instance do not assume to correspond accurately to the general consensus, but hope to share many similarities to a common conception of blasphemy rather than a strictly academic one. This being the case, a common dictionary definition of blasphemy may suffice as a starting point if one is willing to deal with the assumptions and challenges that may arise from the use of such a source.

One can define blasphemy in at least two different ways. First, one could understand blasphemy as “irreverent behavior toward anything held as sacred or priceless.”3 This definition may capture the general meaning of the term, yet a historical aspect seems to be missing. It would seem a safe assumption that most individuals, despite their collective variety of beliefs, associate the term “blasphemy” with speech against a specific religious belief or figure. This is not to say that a fixed definition of blasphemy must necessarily include some sort of religious reference (in fact, in this paper I am arguing otherwise), but that the commonly held conception of blasphemy is one that generally holds some kind of reference to religious belief. Historical accounts of blasphemy and blasphemous offenses express a similar viewpoint, acknowledging that the origin of the term is one of religious creation.4

This being the case, a more liberal definition of blasphemy might be “an impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things.”5 Admittedly, “sacred things” seems a bit vague, but the second definition is able to encompass what could be called both the religious and secular aspects of blasphemy through the disjunction of “God” with “sacred thing.” Without a reference to religion that one might understand as normally setting the context for that against which one is blaspheming, it would seem difficult to construe a specific definition of blasphemy coming close to the generally held conception of the concept. In fact, as previously mentioned, most if not all, histories which touch on the uses of blasphemy do so by either referring to a struggle against religion or within it.6 Despite this fact, there is one commonality that holds both definitions together and allows one to extend the same meaning of “blasphemy” to both cultural groups. The inclusion of “sacred things” into the definition of blasphemy seems to allow one to encompass both the religious and non- religious aspects into the concept without excluding either.

Yet, one may observe that this simply shifts the focus of the argument from what is meant by “blasphemy” to what is meant by “the sacred.” I assume that there are at least two different strategies for defining the sacred. On the one hand, one may insist that the term “sacred” must always be applied to a religious belief about a given object, text, or experience. This, however, simply seems to be an ad hoc move. There is no reason to think that only religious beliefs about x can be sacred, nor is there reason to think that secular individuals cannot hold a certain belief about x as sacred in the same way a religious individual can. As absurd as it may seem to suggest that the Green Bay Packers are somehow sacred to someone, there is at least no reason to think that this cannot be the case. Defenders of the idea that the term “sacred” can be applied only to beliefs about x of religious origin and appeal to the historical fact that such talk is usually associated with religion are simply depending upon tradition to prop up their position.

On the other hand, a more liberal definition of the sacred, much like the definition of blasphemy offered above, would be one that extends the notion to both sides of the debate. I am not concerned here to offer an exhaustive account of what it means for x to be sacred for a given individual. Such a project is both large and outside the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, for the current project, it seems sufficient to suggest that a belief about x being sacred means that the belief is tied to the identity of an individual or community and that it is generally assigned a high status of importance. This is to differentiate a sacred belief about x from an assortment of other beliefs and insist, in some way, that the belief plays some sort of important role for an individual or community.

Another strategy for defining the sacred might be to try to uncover what in an individual’s religious experience may offer a reason to construe a certain belief about x as sacred and determine whether such experiences could be found in the life of non-believers. Though a number of philosophical works exist that inquire into the complexities of the sacred, such as Paul Ricoeur’s Figuring the Sacred, it is important to point out that the kind of analysis I am offering is not the kind of hermeneutical project offered by Ricoeur. While there might be value in Ricoeur’s attempt to get back to the “originary expressions of a community of faith,”7 the level of language with which I am concerned is explicitly located in what Ricoeur calls “second-order discourse.”8 One could argue that returning to the phenomenology of religious experience may shed light on higher-level discourse. Even though I am not willing to rule out such an argument completely, it is unclear how that would change my current project. I am explicitly concerned with problems that seemingly arise only in sophisticated languages as social concerns, and I am skeptical that even if one is able to “get back” to the phenomenology of what makes a belief about x sacred that it would change the analysis and conclusion of this paper.

Might one still insist that religious assertions or beliefs are somehow different from concerns present within a secular culture? If so, it is not altogether clear, aside from their content, how religious beliefs are different from secular beliefs. What comes to mind is something closer to a circular argument that pleads for differing consideration. In one example, one may claim that there is something different about religious belief (say, its premise of an omnipotent God), that sets it apart from all secular beliefs. Yet, is religious belief different because of its starting premises or are its starting premises different because they are religious beliefs? This question seems to invoke similar issues one may find in Plato’s Euthyphro. In this case, it is not clear that this question is unanswerable, but the form of the belief leaves either answer seeming problematic. More to the point, even if one could escape the form of the previous question, one has not shown the structure of one’s belief is different, only its content – and there seems to be nothing about any belief’s content that would necessarily secure it from possible assault in the public forum. The commonality between a more historically-based definition of blasphemy and a more liberal definition – one that drops any mention of religious beliefs or propositions from its content or encompasses both the religious and non-religious connotations – may be the one factor that sets both kinds of belief on the same field – namely, x being held as sacred to y, for reason p.

The underlying assumption I am trying to overturn is that there is something inherently special about religious beliefs that should be privileged over certain beliefs held by secular individuals. It is not clear how, exactly, one can argue that the content of a given belief is more “special” or deserves to be “protected” simply because it is religious. Though I am willing to grant that belief in the sacredness of a given text, object, or belief may hold significant weight for the identity of an individual or group, there is no reason to think that the same kind of role is not fulfilled in secular culture simply by a different text, object, or belief.

Of course, the underlying assumption present in this viewpoint is that a public assertion of a “private” belief should be up for scrutiny by others. This, I think, is an uncontroversial point. It would seem that by the very nature of an assertion being publicly uttered that it is, within the context of contemporary American culture, open for analysis, rebuke, support, counter-argument, and even ridicule. If one is interested in claiming that the content of a given belief that is asserted publicly may protect it from reproach, it would seem a separate argument would need to be put forth prior to any reconsideration of this common assumption.

Before moving forward, one last assumption that is lurking behind this definition must be discussed – namely, the assumption that the term “blasphemy” can be, is, or should be extended to speech against certain beliefs of non-religious agents. Despite the usual correlation of blasphemy and religion, there seems to be no necessary connection between the terms. The only connection that seems necessary in both previously presented definitions of “blasphemy” is that in both cases, one is speaking against something that is considered sacred to someone or another. In short, the only necessary aspect of a given belief, statement, or object to be blasphemed in language is that an individual or group holds the particular belief, statement, or object as sacred. This “something” need not be religious in nature, only believed, in all seriousness, to be sacred – a belief that should not be publicly (or possibly not even privately) disputed according to those who hold some belief or thing as sacred.

A clear example of this, apart from religious concerns, might be that of a secular culture’s valuing of civil rights (though this is not to suggest that religious groups do not value civil rights as well). A common charge against groups rooted in a secular culture is that they construe civil rights as next to godliness, as sacred in and of themselves. This may or may not be true, but if it is the case then any assertion against civil rights could be construed as blasphemous to that group’s belief in the sacredness of the first, or any, amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Considering this, the interesting question to ask is how the consequences of extending blasphemy to both religious and non-religious culture affect public discourse.

Even though no specific concern seems evident on the face of the matter, one worry arises when considering how free speech should or should not protect speech construed as blasphemous. Once anything held as sacred can be blasphemed, the boundaries of public discourse begin to narrow quickly. If one were to take blasphemy against a non-religious group or individual’s beliefs seriously, nothing held as sacred could be spoken against – continuing to assume a situation where blasphemous assertions should be constrained in the public realm of discourse. This being the case, one can imagine both usual and rather unusual examples to how this would work. If an individual or group considers the United States Constitution, some facet of science, or our legal system, as sacred, critiques that attempt to speak against any of these beliefs, especially concerning traditional or entrenched beliefs, would be disallowed in public discourse in the same manner that blaspheming God or a variety of religious beliefs would be disallowed. To take this notion to its extreme would be to return to the example on which I touched in the introduction of this paper, where one would not be allowed to speak against the Green Bay Packers football team because someone somewhere believes the team to be sacred.

This describes, obviously I think, a social condition that no one would wish to see come to fruition. The question that must now be answered is how to deal with blasphemous speech if neither conclusion is acceptable. On the one hand, it would seem difficult to argue that religious beliefs must be protected against public acts of blasphemy because their subject matter is sacred, while excluding other sacred beliefs from the same protection simply because they do not hold religious connotations or origins. On the other hand, it also seems difficult to argue that all blasphemous assertions should be prohibited because public discourse would become so strangled as ultimately to suffocate.

III. The Conclusion and Consequence of Blasphemy

One possible solution to the problem is to allow public discourse a wide set of boundaries when considering a given assertion to be so blasphemous that it merits censoring. A group that takes a rather ascetic outlook towards a specific religion might find this horrifying, but it would seem a small price to pay if one considers the otherwise-devastated picture of public discourse that would result without such protection. Blasphemous speech, whether referring to a secular or religious believer, may just be a facet of public discourse with which one would be better off than to be without it. This is to say that if no argument can be made to show why a sacred religious belief should be more protected (or protected at all) in public discourse than a non-religious belief that some consider sacred, then no blasphemous speech against any supposedly sacred beliefs should be constrained.

Another option might be to take the Rortyian route when dealing with religious – or in this case, sacred – belief and drop any “reference to the source of the premises of the arguments.”9 Richard Rorty thinks that if every public discussion is couched only in shared premises, there seems little worry over what is or is not relevant (in this case, what is and is not blasphemous).10 Yet, this seems just as (or more) problematic as a picture of public discourse where no blasphemous utterances are allowed. In this case, it would seem public discourse runs the risk of being silenced once again. If one cannot speak out against sacred beliefs, and one must use only shared premises to debate publicly, it would seem as if most arguments would lose their ability to be convincing. It would be remarkably difficult to make claims about the history of a specific species if one was not allowed to reference evolutionary theory. It would seem just as difficult to make arguments for the primacy of one commandment over another without referring to some religious fact. If one takes seriously Schiller’s argument that every individual’s philosophical arguments are simply an inextricable extension of that individual, it is hard to understand how a Rortyian dropping of premises could be reasonable.

In all fairness, Rorty focuses only on religious conversation in public discourse when making the suggestion to drop premises. Once blasphemy is extended to both sides, however, it seems that anything sacred in secular circles would take on the semantic status of something sacred in religious culture. Even though Rorty’s solution to the problem of “religion as a conversation stopper”11 is aimed specifically at religious premises in public arguments, one could draw a parallel between Rorty’s treatment of these arguments and anything that is both non-religious and held as sacred. The commonality between the two is, again, that they are held as sacred. For Rorty’s purposes, the problem in public discourse is that not everyone shares the same starting point. Once the commonality of a belief being sacred arises, one is left with the same lack of shared premises in non- religious beliefs that Rorty finds in religious beliefs. This being the case, Rorty’s suggestion of dropping any premises that are not shared by all would have the same strangling effect on discourse as prohibiting all blasphemous speech. In fact, in an odd twist of thought, Rorty’s possible solution resembles the same kind of censorship utilized by those who wish to prohibit blasphemous phrases against religion.

Assuming one resides in a country in which free speech enjoys primacy over possibly offensive speech, the first solution might be the most probable solution. Though supposedly sacred beliefs on both sides of a public debate may be blasphemed, the solution, at least, allows discourse to run its full course rather than being stifled under narrow boundaries. This solution, however, is not without its own problems. Whether various social forces or power held by one group over another may stop a solution from ever getting off the ground is one obvious problem. Another problem is how to balance potential offensiveness held by a certain assertion compared with the value or cherished belief of another’s. Further, one may consider how communal standards might affect whether this is even an issue, and what an in-depth psychological inquiry into the distinction between a religious believer’s sacred beliefs may differ from a non-religious believer’s beliefs. Although these questions pose interesting and possibly problematic points concerning blasphemy, the point of this paper was only to show how the concept of blasphemy can extend to the beliefs of atheists or secularists, what the consequences of that extension are, and what some possible solutions might look like when implemented.

Another problem with my position might be that I am not drawing fine enough distinctions between the various kinds of speech. Public discourse, in this instance, is mainly referring to conversations and debates that take place in academic or political arenas. Debates over the appropriateness of certain philosophical and public policy arguments are two examples of this. I have purposely not dealt with other kinds of speech, such as sarcastic humor or private assertions, because they seem (like physical acts of blasphemy) to play by a different set of rules.

One may also take issue with the way I have been handling the concepts of belief and blasphemy. One counter-argument to my position may be to say that I have conflated one’s belief in x with x itself. This is to argue that there seems to be a significant distinction between one’s belief in x and x in and of itself. This, I think, is wrong. While it may well be true that I have conflated one’s belief in x with x itself, there seems to exist no problem with this conflation. It seems as if one cannot talk of blaspheming x without someone believing x to be sacred. Beliefs qua written documents or statues take no offense to ridicule or critique. Such concerns only arise when someone believes x to be scared. This being the case, it would seem that an individual believing x to be sacred is a necessary condition for the blaspheming of x even to occur at all. One may continue to insist upon the distinction between one’s belief in x as sacred and x being sacred itself, but it is not clear what work this distinction is supposed to do. Granted, one may offer blasphemies against a certain sacred object, but such speech could not be construed as blasphemous, or even as speech against something sacred, unless another holds the belief that it is sacred.12

So what difference, in practice, does this kind of conceptual analysis contribute when considering one’s everyday experience? To take extreme liberty with William James’s famous phrase, where is the difference in this conception of blasphemy that makes a difference in our lives?13 It seems that the easiest way to find more than intellectual value in this argument is to consider it on a small scale. One may understand the consequences of my position as a simple warning about the problems anyone would face in attempting to censor a given kind of speech because of supposed privilege allowed to a specific group’s set of beliefs. The point of this paper is only to show another example of how destructive censorship could become if one is given enough ammunition to hammer the boundaries of public discourse into quiet, narrow submission.



Chidester, David. “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coco-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock ‘N’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture.” In Religion and American Culture. David G. Hackett, ed. New York: Routledge, 2003. “1st and 4th entry under Blasphemy.” Accessed 1 Jan. 2007.

Heins, Marjorie. Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy. New York: New P, 1993.

James, William. Pragmatism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

Levy, Leonard. Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Levy, Leonard. Treason against God. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

Ricoeur, Paul. Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin, 1999.

Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott. Riddles of the Sphinx. New York: Green Wood, 1968.



  1. This example may not be as completely absurd as it seems. See David Chidester’s “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coco-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock ‘N’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture,” in Religion and American Culture, David G. Hackett, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2003) for an example of the similarities between religion and sports.
  2. Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, Riddles of the Sphinx (New York: Green Wood, 1968), 4.
  3., “4th Entry under Blasphemy” (accessed 1 Jan. 2007).
  4. Leonard Levy, Treason against God (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), xi.
  5., “1st Entry under Blasphemy” (accessed 1 Jan.2007).
  6. See Leonard Levy’s aptly titled Treason against God (New York: Schocken Books, 1981) or his Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred (New York: Knopf, 1993) and Marjorie Heins’ Sex, Sin and Blasphemy (New York: New P, 1993) as examples of this.
  7. Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 7.
  8. Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, 37.
  9. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), 173.
  10. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 171.
  11. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 168.
  12. This objection was raised during a second presentation of this paper to the Philosophy Graduate Student Organization at the University of South Florida in April 2008. I would like to thank both Mike Thompson and William Koch for their helpful observations and objections on this point.
  13. William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998), 30.

Peter Olen

Peter Olen is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of South Florida. He is currently working towards a dissertation on the History of Philosophy and Kantian epistemology in late 19th and 20th century philosophy centered on the works of C.I. Lewis and Wilfrid Sellars. [email protected]