Calvin’s Geneva? The New International Discourse of Blasphemy

Illustration, Execution of Michael Servetus by Calvin in Geneva.

This is the first in a series of posts examining the concepts of blasphemy, “defamation of religion,” and freedom of religion, as they intersect with international human rights discourse and legislation—and as they affect individuals, communities and practices in varied contexts worldwide.

By Austin Dacey  

In Geneva, Switzerland, the copper-green spire of St. Pierre Cathedral rises from the hillside where it has stood ever since the church was the spiritual home of the Protestant reformer John Calvin. It was not far from here that the Spanish physician and theologian Michael Servetus was burned at the stake by the Geneva Council on October 27, 1553, along with a copy of his book attacking the orthodox idea of the Trinity. While favoring a sentence of beheading over burning, Calvin defended the execution, writing later that anyone who maintains “that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime.” This is not a question of man’s authority: “it is God Who speaks” and “due honor is not paid Him so long as we set not His service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.”

Up the slopes on the opposing side of Lake Geneva lies the Palais des Nations, the sprawling residence of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The purpose of the Council is to protect and promote the principles put forth in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which heralds “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” The Declaration was created to safeguard the fundamental freedoms of individuals, foremost among them the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the freedom of expression. These universal human rights are guaranteed by Article 18 and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR, a binding international treaty that came into force in 1976.

Here at the Council in October 2009, 456 years after Servetus’ execution, blasphemy was once again a burning issue. The so-called Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards was meeting on a mandate to address “gaps” in an international human rights treaty on racism and racial discrimination. The representative of Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, a 57-member intergovernmental group of self-described Islamic states, was proposing some draft language that would extend the treaty’s provisions so as to criminalize insults to religion and religious believers:

States parties shall prohibit by law the uttering of matters that are grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents to that religion;

States parties must enact legal prohibitions on publication of material that negatively stereotypes, insults, or uses offensive language on matters regarded by followers of any religion or belief as sacred or inherent to their dignity as human beings, with the aim of protecting their fundamental human rights;

States parties shall prohibit public insults and defamation of religions, public incitement to violence, threats against a person or a grouping of persons on the grounds of their race, colour, language, religion, nationality, or national or ethnic origin

The United States, the European Union member states, and a number of others could not go along with the OIC. They maintained that existing human rights standards already provide all legitimate protections of individuals from discrimination or violence based on their religion or conscience. And yet just months earlier, the Republic of Ireland had adopted almost identical language as part of its constitution, criminalizing the act of “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion.” In the latest bid to ban blasphemy under international law, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was approvingly citing the laws of Ireland.

Welcome to the new international discourse of blasphemy that prevails in Geneva, New York, and capitals around the world. No longer do the enemies of blasphemy speak openly of combating for God’s glory. They are combating “defamation of religions,” in the title phrase of resolutions successfully advanced by the OIC in the Human Rights Council from 1999 to 2011 and in the General Assembly beginning in 2005. Far from forgetting all humanity, the new discourse of blasphemy ostensibly aims at protecting the equal human dignity and fundamental rights of believers. And despite the mainstream media narrative of an alien theocratic notion encroaching on Western soil, the new discourse of blasphemy has deep roots in the political thought and culture of Europe. Laws criminalizing “insult” or “hatred” of people on grounds of religion are nearly ubiquitous in Europe. Well before the OIC began its campaign, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had vindicated anti-blasphemy statutes in European states and read into human rights law a “right to respect for religious feelings.”

How did blasphemy transform over the past five centuries? What lies in its future? These are among the questions I will try to answer in this series.


Austin Dacey is a representative to the United Nations for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He is the author of The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights and The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, and Dissent. In 2010, he created The Impossible Music Sessions, a forum in New York City for artists who cannot perform publicly due to censorship, political intimidation or cultural pressure.


With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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