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Monday, 7 August 2017

Religious Freedom and Blasphemy Laws

The following article in Faith Initiatives  (no29 October 2013) is based on a talk I gave to a joint International Association for Religious Freedom/World Congress of Faiths conference in Horsham, Kent in August 2013. I am circulating it now four years on to make it more widely available.

Religious freedom is one of the challenges of the age as we seek to appropriately balance rights and responsibilities.  British Unitarianism is currently commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the achievement of its legal religious freedom with the passage of the Unitarian Relief Act. This highlights the concept of Blasphemy and the challenges it presents to religions and law-makers.  In seeking to explore the issue of blasphemy I have found the definition used by the Pew Research Centre is of value, namely “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine”.

Unitarians in Great Britain in July 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the passing of what is known as the Unitarian Relief or Toleration Act. It was only in preparing a worship pack (1.) on these events for the General Assembly that the significance of the long-standing Unitarian opposition to laws on blasphemy became clear to me. The legal penalties against those holding Unitarian views were grounded in the Blasphemy laws. The Blasphemy Act of 1698 explicitly held the denial of the Holy Trinity by someone who had made profession of the Christian religion as a crime. This was repealed by the 1813 Unitarian Relief Act.

Unitarianism had emerged as an intellectual movement within both the established Church of England and Dissent (Presbyterian, Baptist and Independents). The legal penalties were rarely pursued although Dissenters still faced limitations upon their liberties; two of the most important, the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act, which places restrictions on religious activities, were abolished in 1812. The Unitarian toleration Act built upon these moves and was spear-headed by Williams Smith MP, the leading Dissenter in the House of Commons. Indeed, the legislation was popularly known as “Mr William Smith’s bill” (2). William Smith was chairman of the Dissenting Deputies from 1805 to 1832 and a leading opponent of slavery. (As an aside he is perhaps now best known as the grandfather of Florence Nightingale).

Smith has been accused of accepting an Act which would protect “respectable Unitarians” leaving the “wilder Deists outside” (3.). This is a challenge for all liberals; are you prepared to give others the rights you desire? At the time Smith was challenged that he had not gone far enough. He justified his position by claiming that he had set himself a limited objective which if he had not restricted himself to it would not have been achieved. As he said the Act enabled every denomination of Christian to preach their respective tenets without let or hindrance, “none, legally daring to make them afraid” (4). He publicly acknowledged that his religion did not need the protection of Blasphemy legislation; “let Truth stand or fall as she is able to support herself”.

Laura Tomes has argued that the “criminalisation of blasphemy is, historically, the attempt to secure doctrinal conformity in speech. Laws against blasphemy maintain fixed parameters by which to locate the religious “other” and serve to demarcate the speech and practices of the other from that of “true” believers.” (5.). She argues that blasphemy is not an inviolate standard but a boundary that has shifted according to the various meanings invested in it by religious communities. As theological constructions, laws against blasphemy have therefore been adapted and re-interpreted to fit changing social and cultural contexts. She highlights that English canon law criminalizing blasphemy was seen as an extension of seditious libel – an act of violence against the King and government. With the Reformation, the 1697 Blasphemy Act “judged the refusal to adhere to the doctrines of the Church of England as an offence against the statutory law of the realm”. By 1813 it seemed that the Church of England was more relaxed about implications of accepting the existence of “Unitarian” thinking.  

In England and Wales prosecutions for blasphemy declined during the nineteenth century. It was re-defined from an act of sedition to one of incivility. In 1967 in a purge of obsolete offences it was further re-defined as purely a common law offence; indeed there had not been a prosecution since 1922. The remaining common law offence of Blasphemous libel, having been subject to debate from the 1970’s and some controversy (the private prosecution of Denis Lemon, Editor of “Gay News” over the publication of a poem), was abolished in 2008 as part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. Significantly this followed the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which legislated against hatred of persons on religious grounds.

Laws penalising Blasphemy, as well as Apostasy and Defamation of Religion, are widespread and are regularly in the news. Pakistan, India and Greece have in the past year pursued prosecutions. The Pew Research Centre’s Forum for Religion and Public Life has found that in 2011) 32 (16%) of the countries and territories of world have anti-blasphemy laws (6.). They found that such laws were particularly common in the Middle East and North Africa (13 of the 20 countries in that region). In Asia-Pacific (9 of 50 countries) and in Europe (8 of 45 countries) the percentage was less and in Sub-Saharan Africa it was only 2 of 48. It is surprising that in Europe these included what we would regard as “liberal” states (Denmark, Netherlands, Germany) as well as more “traditional” (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta and Poland).

Blasphemy legislation is used to violate religious freedom; which is, of course, guaranteed under article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A recently published report by the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom  entitled “Article 18 : an orphaned right”, whose launch event I attended on 26 June 2013, states that “While the UN has declared that everyone has a right to freedom of religion or belief, it has done relatively little to make this a reality”(7.).

It is used to harass political as well as religious dissent and also abused to settle personal disputes. Whilst there has been a lot of media attention of cases where those of other faiths are accused of blasphemy it is also used as a tool to suppress alternative, and also sometimes ironically, the majority traditions within a religion in a particular country. An accusation of blasphemy is particularly pernicious and dangerous. It is hard to refute and the legal system finds it difficult to address. The public can easily be inflamed by emotive rhetoric. Justice is rarely done even if the accused is cleared.

Unitarians are in many ways inheritors of the English Enlightenment tradition. It is therefore important to read defences of religious freedom from other perspectives. James Clark Kelly has gathered the views of Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers in his valuable book “Abraham’s Children” (8.).Those of each tradition were asked to write persuasively to those of their own tradition but also to those outside. I was particularly struck by the words of Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s first democratically elected President and who served as chairman of the world’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama for fifteen years, with the title “God Needs No Defence”:

“Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes, as we witnessed in the carefully manufactured outrage that swept the Muslim world several years ago, claiming hundreds of lives, in response to cartoons published in Denmark. Those who presume to fully grasp God’s will and dare to impose their own limited understanding of this upon others are essentially equating themselves with God and are unwittingly engaged in blasphemy”. (9.).

He argued that religious understanding is a process and that “anyone who is sincere in understanding his or her faith necessarily undergoes a process of constant evolution in that understanding, as experience and insights give rise to new perceptions of the truth”. Severe blasphemy and also apostasy laws has the effect of narrowing the bounds of acceptable discourse within the Islamic world. This was of course what took place within the Christian world.

I would argue that it is only from within a tradition that real change can take place and that religious liberals must work with and think critically about the religious tradition to which we belong. We must be careful and respectful when we address issues of deep theological sensitivity. This does not mean acquiescing whilst the human rights of individuals and collectively of peoples are trampled upon. It means engaging with the others in ways that reject stereotyping. This will not be without controversy as early Unitarian thinkers found when they critiqued the Christian tradition from which they emerged and found they could be accused of Blasphemy. Those of other faiths find a similar challenge. The position of atheists or those with no religious belief is equally to be acknowledged.  

Derek McAuley is Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches and a Committee member of the British Chapter of the International Association of Religious Freedom. He has recently been elected as a trustee of the Inter Faith Network of the UK. It is based on a talk to the IARF/World Congress of Faiths conference in Horsham in August 2013.


1. (2013) McAuley, Derek, “200th Anniversary of the Unitarian Toleration Act 1813”, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, London
2. (1971) Davis, Richard W. “Dissent in Politics 1780 – 1830”, Epworth Press, London, p. 190
3. Henriques, quoted in Davis (1971), p. 193
4. Norfolk Chronicle, 24 July 1813 quoted in Davis (1971), p.194
5. (2010) Tomes, Laura, “Blasphemy and the Negotiation of Religious Pluralism in Britain”, Contemporary British Religion and Politics, pp. 237-255
6. (2102) Pew Forum “Laws Penalizing Blasphemy, Apostasy and defamation of Religion are Widespread”, 21 November
7. (2013) All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom, “Article 18: an orphaned right”
8. (2012) Clark, Kelly James “Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict”, Yale University Press, New Haven and London
9. Abdurrahman Wahid in Clark, Kelly James (2012) p. 212.