What is Defamation of Religion?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 18 February 2020
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Defamation is speech designed to be harmful to a person or a group's reputation and is not able to be proven to be true. Defamation of religion, therefore, can be generally defined as speech directed at a particular religion that is negative, hurtful, and untrue. In the pursuit of peaceful relations and freedom of religion, the United Nations has passed several resolutions condemning what it considers defamation of religion. Many groups are concerned that this will undermine the right of free speech, while supporters say it will help to increase tolerance.

There is no legally binding definition of defamation of religion; the general working definition, however, pertains to false statements that are negative towards a religion and that have the potential to cause harm. This can occur using the spoken or written word, can include negative stereotyping, and is frequently inflammatory in nature. The United Nations has passed several resolutions condemning such behavior and would like to enact an international ban on the practice. These resolutions lacked universal support, with the U.S. and most western democracies voting against them.


According to the United Nations, acts of defamation of religion have the potential to cause violations of human rights, such as violent attacks against people or institutions associated with a particular religion. Unfortunate events such as the violent protests sparked by Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad is used as an example of the unrest that can arise. The United Nations has asserted that Islam is becoming increasingly associated with terrorism in the minds of many people around the world because of unjustified negative portrayals in the press.

There are numerous groups in the U.S. that are concerned that an international ban against defamation of religion will interfere with free speech. They argue that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, for example, protects all speech and was written with the express purpose of allowing people to speak out without fear of repercussions. Criticism of government or religion is protected under this amendment as is freedom of religion. Additionally, members of the press claim that it is almost impossible to report on world events without at times writing negatively about religion.

Those in favor of prohibiting defamation of religion argue that the practice increases tensions between various groups and promotes stereotypes. They feel that infringing slightly on freedom of speech is justified in these cases and that criticizing other religions in such a negative fashion is actually not legally or constitutionally protected speech anyway. They propose that eliminating stereotypes and hurtful verbal or written attacks can promote harmony and tolerance for religious diversity.


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Post 4

Free speech has no limits--especially when religion is concerned. I don't care whether you are insulted. Restrict free speech and you are declaring war against reformation values and western civilization, period.

Post 3

@pleonasm - Hate speech is harmful, whether people want to acknowledge it or not. Freedom of speech is fine up to a point but I don't think it should mean anyone can say anything, even one individual to another.

If it was a matter of an adult saying horrible things to a child, we'd all agree that was wrong because it causes harm.

And it has been demonstrated that when people constantly say negative things about a particular religious group, they are causing them harm, both directly and by prejudicing the people around them.

And it's systemic in a lot of places. When an attack occurs it's never seen as terrorism unless it was committed by someone who happened to be of the wrong ethnicity or religion. Otherwise it's seen as just the isolated act of a crazy person.

Post 2

@MrsPramm - That kind of insult isn't as much of a problem as negative images or stereotyping in the media. Defamation of religion can lead to a huge amount of backlash against people who practice the religion.

Freedom of speech is very important, particularly when it comes to religion and I think that individuals should be able to argue and say almost anything they want. But broadcasting a particular agenda without allowing opposition is harmful. Because if people don't have any other source of information then they are going to believe what they are told. And if they are told everyone of a particular religion is evil or vicious, then they are going to feel justified in overreacting.

Post 1

This is such a difficult topic, because you've got to consider the rights of everyone involved. Since religions are often designed to be exclusive, they can involve defamatory speech about other religions or people without religions. Which should be just as illegal.

And then you have the question of what defamation actually is. I know a lot of atheists who think every kind of religion is pointless and harmful and will say nasty things about people who worship "sky fairies". At what point does that become defamatory? I mean, from their point of view they are right and from a religious point of view they are being very insulting.

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