"None legally, daring to make them afraid" - Religious Freedom and the Challenge of Blasphemy

Presentation by Derek McAuley to conference on Religious Freedom and Responsibility convened by the International Association for Religious Freedom, World Congress of Faiths and Horsham Interfaith Forum, 21 August 2013


“Religious Freedom and Responsibility for Planet and People” is the theme if the IARF/WCF Horsham conference. As a body concerned with religious freedom the IARF has always sought to appropriately balance rights and responsibilities in this important area of human culture. This paper seeks to draw upon the history of British Unitarianism and the commemoration in 2013 of the 200th Anniversary of the achievement of legal religious freedom with 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 value, namely “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine”. Of course, how we might define “God” and the “divine” raises more questions for a Unitarian than answers.

The Unitarian Relief Act 1813

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 This was repealed by the 1813 Unitarian Relief Act.

In examining this period there is much learning about tactics and approach. 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 build 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).

His approach is instructive; he laid his foundations carefully. He considered slipping Unitarian toleration through in the Act of 1812 but having spoken to the Archbishop of Canterbury – an “open and friendly conversation” – agreed to postpone his move for a year to allow consultation within the Established Church. They met early in the next session of Parliament. The Archbishop was agreeable to change in so far as blasphemy remained a common law offence recognising that it should not simply be to deny the doctrines of the Established Church. He considered blasphemy as, as Smith wrote a few years later to the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. “the use of language and epithets in themselves reproachful, reviling and abusive, levelling immediately at the Majesty and Character of the Supreme Being” (3). Smith accepted that there was an argument for freedom of speech, however, that in this case this would not be necessary or even advantageous to the object, the pursuit of Truth. Having secured the acquiescence of the Church he easily achieved the backing of the Government as long as he pursued his goal as “quietly as circumstances would permit”. Unexpected opposition in the House of Lords was addressed and the legislation rushed through. The Blasphemy Acts affecting Ireland apparently went unnoticed and were thus left un-repealed!

Smith has been accused of accepting an Act which would protect “respectable Unitarians” leaving the “wilder Deists outside” (4). 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”(5). 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”.

Smith drew heavily upon the tradition of rational dissent whose views on religious freedom were set out by the philosopher, scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley. He argued that humankind was “pressing onward and upward” and therefore attempts to freeze humanity in its present state was contrary to the Maker’s design. He argued that the “duties of religion, properly understood, seem to be, in some measure, incompatible with the interference of the civil power” (6.). As he said if he was commanded by divine authority to “search the scriptures” and the civil authority forbad use of them, how could he discharge his duty?

Religious Freedom Today

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.” (7.). 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 (8.), 32 (16%) of the countries and territories of world have anti-blasphemy laws. They defined blasphemy as “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine”. 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).

It is argued that 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, whose launch event I attended on 26 June 2013, on “Article 18 : an orphaned right” argued 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”(9.).

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 as recent event in Mali has shown.

In Bangladesh, for example, in April the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected the demands by Islamists for a new anti-blasphemy law, with the death penalty, stating that existing laws were sufficient to punish anyone who attempted to insult religion. The Islamists called for tough punishment against those they described as “atheist bloggers”, who were also accused of making derogatory comments against Islam. She clearly stated: “This country is a secular democracy. So each and every religion has the right to practice their religion freely and fair. But it is not fair to hurt anyone’s religious feeling. Always we try to protect every religious sentiment”. (10.)

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.

The Challenge for Religious Liberals

For those of us in the West in thinking about the issue of Blasphemy it is easy to point the finger but as we know when you do that there are usually three pointing back towards oneself. My own Unitarian tradition has as its historic, and still used, after dinner toast; “civil and religious liberty the world over” harkening back to the rights claimed from the Enlightenment. This Enlightenment ethos underpins the approach of North America and Europe to religious freedom and tolerance.

In “On Liberty” John Stuart Mill noted:

“Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they are really about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale. In the minds of almost all religious persons, even in most tolerant countries, the duty of toleration is admitted with tacit reserves. One person will bear with dissent in matters of church government, but not of dogma; another can tolerate everybody, short of a Papist or Unitarian; another everyone who believes in revealed religion; a few extend their charity a little further, but stop at the belief in a God and a future state. Wherever the sentiment of the majority is still genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed.” (11.)

Such is the challenge faced by religious liberals. The public choice economist Dennis C Mueller has argued that “the growing strength of the pious, godly and devout poses a threat to liberal democracy” (12.). His view is that the extent to which religious beliefs are incompatible with liberal democracy and more generally with rational thought depends upon both the nature of those beliefs and the intensity with which they are held. (13.). If this is the case how do we promote respectful approaches to faith that support the tolerant society that we desire when high levels of religiosity can threaten the basis on that very society?

Another challenge is to recognise what Tomes sees as the social and cultural context within which blasphemy laws play their part. As mentioned above in relation to Bangladesh blasphemy laws are central to political controversy in many Muslim majority countries. Countries with laws against blasphemy (as well as apostasy or defamation) are also likely to have high levels of government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion. (14.) The latest Pew Forum research, published on 20 June 2013, has shown, somewhat surprisingly, that what is known as the “Arab Spring” has infact added to global restrictions on religion. (15.) Twelve countries in the Middle East and North Africa experienced increases in government restrictions since 2011; the largest increase being in Bahrain stemming largely from discrimination against Shia Muslims. Whilst restrictions remain high in Tunisia, they are considerably lower than in mid-2010 with more freedoms for conservative Muslims to express their beliefs without state interference.

The situation generally in Pakistan explains why blasphemy laws are attracting worldwide criticism. According to Pew Forum Pakistan was the first country to score 10 out of 10 points on either the government restrictions or social hostilities indexes. Indeed, Pakistan has the highest level of social hostilities in the world across the five years of their study. In September 2012 the World Council of Churches issues a communiqué on the misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan which has led to blatant violations of human rights. The law had “become the source of victimization and persecution of religious minorities….” (16.). Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Imam and Scholar of Muslim Theology and Assistant General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain and well known in inter faith circles, has recently written that the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan is a disservice to the religion of Islam. In a challenging article “In the Name of the Lord: Understanding Blasphemy laws” he concluded by asking “Now how much blasphemy against Islam are we Muslims guilty of every day?...Some Muslims have demonstrated violently against the burning of the Qur’an yet have never stopped to think that their behaviour is forbidden by the very book whose burning has so angered them” (17.) It is clearly important to understand the political, economic and social context as well as the theological, surrounding the situation in each country.

It is sometimes reassuring to read defences of religious freedom from other perspectives than those of the Western Enlightenment. Kelly James Clark has gathered the views of Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers in his valuable book “Abraham’s Children” (18.).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”. (19.).

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 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 however argue that it is only from within a tradition that change can take place and that as religious liberals our role is work with and think critically about the religious tradition to which we belong. We must be careful and respectful when we address issues of with 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. It means that those of us that inherit the western Enlightenment must acknowledge the myriad of origins of current human rights law. That the Qur’anic injunction “Let there be no compulsion in religion” anticipated Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by more than thirteen centuries is not without note. The contribution of the classical Muslim world to science and knowledge more generally, and how it underpinned the emergence of the Renaissance in Medieval Christendom is becoming more widely known (20.). 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 guilty of Blasphemy. Those of other faiths find a similar challenge. The position of atheist or those with no religious is equally to be acknowledged.


Unitarians are surely right to assert that the state should not involve itself in protecting particular forms of religious doctrine or practice. We have long argued that religious freedom needs to be nurtured in order that religious thinking can evolve and change in response to the changing nature of and demands of the society within which we live rather than be set in stone. This remains as relevant today in many parts of the world as it did in Great Britain in 1813. So let’s honour the past but pay attention to building a better future.

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.


1. (2013) McAuley, Derek, “200th Anniversary of the Unitarian Toleration Act 1813”, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, London http://www.unitarian.org.uk/docs/publications/2013_200_Aniversary_of_the_Unitarian_Toleration_Apr13.pdf
2. (1971) Davis, Richard W. “Dissent in Politics 1780 – 1830”, Epworth Press, London, p. 190
3. William Smith to Jeremy Bentham, 9 January 1818, quoted in Davis (1971) pp. 191-192
4. Henriques, quoted in Davis (1971), p. 193
5. Norfolk Chronicle, 24 July 1813 quoted in Davis (1971), p.194
6. (1771) Priestley, Joseph “An Essay on the First Principles of Government” in Mullan, David George (1998) “Religious Pluralism in the West”, Blackwell.
7. (2010) Tomes, Laura, “Blasphemy and the Negotiation of Religious Pluralism in Britain”, Contemporary British Religion and Politics, pp. 237-255 http://academia.edu/1516981/Blasphemy_and_the_Negotiation_of_Religious_Pluralism_in_Britain
8. (2102) Pew Forum “Laws Penalizing Blasphemy, Apostasy and defamation of Religion are Widespread”, 21 November http://www.pewforum.org/Government/Laws-Penalizing-Blasphemy,-Apostasy-and-Defamation-of-Religion-are-Widespread.aspx
9. (2013) All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom, “Article 18: an orphaned right”
10. BBC, 8 April 2013
11. (1859) Mill, John Stuart “On Liberty” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm
12. (2009), Mueller, Dennis C. “Reason, Religion and Democracy”, Cambridge University Press, New York , p. 366
13. (2009) Mueller, p. 419
14. (2012) Pew Forum p. 1
15. (2013) Pew Forum “Arab Spring Adds to Global Restrictions on Religion”, 20 June http://www.pewforum.org/Government/arab-spring-restrictions-on-religion.aspx
16. (2012) World Council of Churches “Communique on misuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan”, 19 September
17. (2013) Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Inter-faith Matters, Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association http://www.eifa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/InterFaith-Matters-April-2013.pdf
18. (2012) Clark, Kelly James “Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict”, Yale University Press, New Haven and London
19. Abdurrahman Wahid in Clark, Kelly James (2012) p. 212.
20. Mirahmadi, Hedieh in Clark, Kelly James (2012) p. 225.