Resources on Faith, Ethics and Public Life

Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie

February 1, 1995

In Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, Leonard Levy argues that what society considers blasphemy—a verbal assault against the sacred—is a litmus test of the standards it believes to be necessary to preserve unity, order, and morality. Looking across the centuries, Levy demonstrates that throughout history, prosecutions for blasphemy have been tinged with political considerations. He traces the varied meanings of the offense in Western law, from the ancient Hebrew crime of cursing God by name to the modern crime of ridiculing God or professing atheistic principles that insult the religious feelings of Christians. He explores the blurring of meaning that occurred as at various times blasphemy became nearly indistinguishable from heresy, idolatry, sacrilege, nonconformity, sedition, treason, profanity, obscenity, and breach of peace. He concludes with a discussion of the costs and benefits of free speech.

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