Blasphemy laws are harmful because

  1. They violate freedom of expression and deny equality, actively enforced blasphemy laws infringe on and violate human rights around the world; and passive blasphemy laws reinforce active blasphemy laws.
  2. They protect religious beliefs and practices, institutions and leaders, from legitimate and often necessary criticism; they are intrinsically bad, subjective, inconsistent laws; there is no “right way” to use them.
  3. They legitimise vigilantism, mob violence, and the persecution of minorities.
  4. They have invariably been used by a majority to suppress minorities and have never been a force for the public good.
  5. They are often used to eliminate political and business rivals and those who might expose unethical or criminal behaviour.

Further elaboration

(1) Blasphemy laws violate freedom of expression and deny equality.

Blasphemy laws have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws are often class and gender discriminatory, whereby less powerful individuals face the highest risks. Blasphemy laws are a species of libel with no real rules of evidence or proof, and for which the mens rea assumptions of guilt are difficult to establish (the establishment of intent). The legal criteria for recognition as a religious group are problematic in many jurisdictions.

(2) Blasphemy laws are used to infringe on human rights around the world.

Alleged blasphemy frequently leads to arbitrary arrest, detention, poor treatment in custody including torture, dubious legal procedures and poor application of justice; in several states, lawyers will refuse to defend an accused person through fear of prosecution themselves. Governments and religious leaders use blasphemy laws to silence political opponents, and to silence those who would expose corruption, sexual assault and rape, and the rape and sexual abuse of children; individuals fabricate charges against others, religious extremists use blasphemy laws to attack opponents, and religious authorities can impose religious orthodoxy with the sanction of the state.

(3) Blasphemy laws have been repudiated by international law and governance bodies.

In 2009, The Venice Commission advising the Council of Europe said that insult to religious feelings should not be a crime, and that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished and not be reintroduced. Since 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Committee has considered laws against blasphemy and defamation of religion to violate international law. The 2012 Rabat Plan of Action launched by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in February 2013 says blasphemy laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief and should be repealed.

(4) Passive blasphemy laws have the effect of reinforcing active, brutally enforced blasphemy laws.

Self-described Islamic states under the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) banner have been using the existence of western blasphemy laws (and particularly the Irish law of 2009) at the UN to defend and promote their own blasphemy laws. This is significant both in itself and also as a lobbying issue. Perhaps the main obstacle to getting archaic passive blasphemy laws removed in western democracies is the idea that they don’t matter.