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What is Blasphemy?

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  • Written By: Bobby R. Goldsmith
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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Blasphemy is the act of failing to heed the reverence of a religion or failing to hold in high regard the tenants, practices or objects that are central or attendant to that religion. Every major religion in history has had some form of prohibition against blatant and explicit blasphemy. The term itself appears in the Bible's Gospel of Mark, verse 3:29 and literally means “lies told about the truth of God.” While nearly every major religion has been adversarial to acts of heresy, impiety and apostasy, the Judeo-Christian tradition has historically been the predominant force in combating such acts. Yet, blasphemy in contemporary terms is no longer confined to a religious context, as it is now a term that relates to any irreverence that goes against prevailing conventional wisdom.

Throughout human history, numerous religions have instituted laws against blasphemous acts in order to combat the threat borne from erosion of public belief. Today, there are a number of countries that have blasphemy laws explicitly punishing acts of apostasy, heresy, and impiety against a specific religion or religion in general. These types of blasphemy laws are most prominent in nations that have official state-sponsored religions or in nations that are administrated by theocratic governments. Some countries allow victims of blasphemy to recoup damages — both compensatory and punitive — by labeling certain forms of blasphemous acts as "hate speech."

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A number of religious orders and sects have made public acts of apostasy, heresy and sacrilege capital offenses punishable by execution. In Leviticus in the Bible, such acts against Judaism are deemed to be punishable by death — often without trial — and are among the highest offenses possible against the Jewish faith. Likewise, blasphemy against certain aspects of the Christian faith has been punished by death, torture and in milder cases by ostracizing the offending party. In the Bible, any act of blasphemy against God or the Holy Spirit is considered “the eternal sin” and is beyond redemption or absolution. In certain Catholic interpretations, however, acts of apostasy and impiety are forgivable so long as the offending party follows the prescribed penance and acts of contrition for forgiveness.

Despite its traditional use in matters of religious apostasy or heresy, the term blasphemy is also fairly prevalent in secular matters as well. The term is used in many colloquial forms to present intellectual or spiritual irreverence against the prevailing social, political or cultural mores of a given society. Many pundits and cultural observers make use of contrarian positions that rub against the prevailing grain of the societies in which they live. Often this irreverence is couched in satire or politically incorrect missives on any number of topics, and can ironically be a source of popularity and success.

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