Blasphemy refers to abusive, irreverent or offensive language directed at God, or religious personages, artefacts, institutions, or religious believers in general. It is generally distinguished from mere criticism or disagreement with religious belief—it is the expression of that disagreement or criticism in an offensive way.
Historically, a number of countries (such as England) have had laws making blasphemy a criminal offense. In recent years, they have tended to go unenforced, including in cases in which many religious believers feel they should be enforced. In several cases, these laws have been worded or interpreted in such a way so as to only apply to blasphemy against the Christian religion, and not against other faiths; there is debate over whether these laws should be retained as is, expanded to protect against blasphemy of other religions also, or abolished altogether.
In Islam, blasphemy is a capital offence. There is an ongoing controversy in Pakistan, and other Muslim countries, over the use of this offence against non-Muslims, especially Christians, and also Muslims with liberal or unorthodox views. It appears the charge is often used against those who criticise Islam or Islamic fundamentalism, even in the politest of terms, as a weapon to use in disputes of an ultimately non-religious nature, or as a means of persecuting Christians and other religious minorities.
Some positions on whether blasphemy should be illegal:
- the state and its law should show respect for God by punishing those who show disrespect towards Him.
- attacks on the religions of others could offend or hurt the feelings of offended believers—the state should prohibit blasphemy to protect their feelings.
- attacks on the religions of others could cause them to react violently—the state should prohibit blasphemy to protect the public safety.
- the right to free speech should be paramount—it is more important than the feelings of the offended, and to prohibit criticism of something to avoid violence by those offended is to give in to terror.
- blasphemy prohibitions are often interpreted in practice, not just to prohibit offensive criticism, but any criticism at all. The right to practice one's own religion includes the right to say that others are wrong, and this is especially so in the case of religions such as Christianity that claims it is the only true religion, and that all other religions are false.