The English word “blasphemy” is based on the Greek “blásphēmos” which meant “speaking evil or profane things.” This is also the origin of the English word “blame.” In some countries there are blasphemy laws which prohibit irreverence toward religious beliefs, religious customs, important religious people, and religious artifacts. There seems to be a tendency for monotheistic religions, such as Christianity and Islam, to want blasphemy laws to “protect” their religion from perceived heresies.
While there are many people in the United States, primarily conservative Christians, who feel that there should be strict laws against blasphemy to preserve the country’s Christian heritage, the Supreme Court has ruled that blasphemy laws are not constitutional. In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952), the Court ruled:
“from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.”In spite of the Supreme Court ruling, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania still have blasphemy laws on the books.
In some Islamic countries, blasphemy is regarded as a serious offense. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, blasphemy can carry a death penalty.
In 2008, the United Kingdom abolished its laws against blasphemy in England and Wales. In Ireland, blasphemy is prohibited by the constitution.
In 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommended that blasphemy should not be a criminal offense. While the European Union seems to be against blasphemy laws, the United Nations has been contemplating international blasphemy laws. Larry Wolff, professor of history at NYU, writes:
“One of the reasons to be wary of blasphemy laws, besides the limits that they place on freedom of speech, is that they tend to concede the legitimacy of religious outrage in all its fanatical fury, even though the charge of blasphemy has too often been manipulated for political motives.”Concern for blasphemy is a greater concern for monotheistic religions. Hinduism, unlike Christianity and Islam, does not have a concept of blasphemy and therefore India has not traditionally had blasphemy laws. However, under British control in 1860 the penal code punishes as hate speech insults against religion or religious beliefs which have a deliberate and malicious intention to outrage religious feelings. In theory this law is to be applied against all religions. Currently prohibits hate speech and this includes insults to religion or religious beliefs.