Sacrilege: an excerpt from Austin Dacey's The Future of Blasphemy

We are pleased to feature an excerpt from our contributor Austin Dacey’s new book, The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights (Continuum, 2012, 206 pp.). With permission.


Chapter 2: Sacrilege


Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my words every one from his neighbor.

–The Book of Jeremiah 23:30

We do not know what the first blasphemer said. We do know that he was a stranger who came among the Israelites. Leviticus 24, the primordial text on the primordial trial for this crime in the Western tradition, tells us that the stranger “blasphemed the Name, and cursed,” but it does not tell us the words he used. Not sure exactly what punishment was priate for this stranger, whose father was an Egyptian, the Israelites took the man into custody and waited to hear what God willed to be done.

And the Lord said to Moses, Bring out of the camp him who cursed; and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And say to the people of Israel, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; the foreigner as well as the native when he blasphemes the Name shall be put to death.

Under Mosaic law, blasphemy was a direct verbal offence against the God. In the biblical Hebrew, the Leviticus text uses the words nakob, literally to enunciate or pronounce distinctly, and qillel, meaning to curse, with connotations of piercing, railing, repudiating, disrespecting, denouncing, insulting, and abusing. To restate the utterance would have been to repeat the insult, and to invite fresh wrath from heaven. In the later practice of Jewish law, even the witnesses at a trial for blasphemy were prohibited from recounting the offending words until the sentencing phase, when all observers were removed from the chambers. The judges would then hear the repetition of the blasphemy, stand and rend their own garments in grief, never to mend them.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, renders the verbs nakob and qillel with blasphemein, which takes its roots from “to hurt” and “to speak.” Blasphemein, to hurt by speaking, was opposed with euphemein, a more common Greek term useful in religious contexts. Euphemy, etymologically, “speaking well,” was the uttering of only apt words when performing sacred rites, which could mean uttering nothing at all, and instead keeping a holy silence.

A holy silence was, of course, at the heart of the first Abrahamic faith. Not even Abraham, who spoke with God personally, knew his name. God revealed himself to Abraham in Exodus 6 only as El Shaddai, or God Almighty. Throughout the Bible and Talmud, God is known under many divine epithets: Elohim—God, El Olom—God Everlasting, El Khai—The Living God, El Elyon—God Most High, Abir—The Strong, Kedosh Yisroel—Holy One of Israel, Tzaur Yisroel—Rock of Israel, Melekh—The Ruler, Adonay Tzivaot—Lord of Hosts, Adonai—Lord. The true name of God, the Shem Hameforash, or sacred Name, though it can be written in The Tetragrammaton of the Hebrew letters Yud, Hay, Vav, and Hay—transliterated as YHWH or YHVH, is too sacred to be vocalized. The traditionally observant would pronounce the Name aloud by saying Adonai.

The scope of this chapter is blasphemy in the narrow Greco-Hebraic sense as well as sacrilegious acts more broadly. Since sacrilegious acts are typically directed against representations or icons of the divine or sacred, they typically have an expressive dimension, if only implicitly. Iconoclasm and desecration communicate something about what an icon or a grave represents. I will often use “sacrilege” and “blasphemy” interchangeably, except where I want to refer to the biblical model or to a prohibition on “blasphemy” as such.

The history of sacrilege and the law is entangled with the history of normative authority. What counts as a reason for action? When do you defer to something in your thinking about what to feel and do? What has regulatory power over the country of your wants, impulses, fears, and intentions? These are questions of normative authority. Questions of normative authority are bound up with the problem of political legitimacy, the moral justification of the use of coercive force on the members of a community. In the history of the legal regulation of blasphemy in the West, three broad phases emerge: an ancient conception of blasphemy as a direct verbal affront to the divine; a medieval conception of a seditious challenge to the sanctity of law, the public order or common good; and finally a modern notion of an offence against the sensibilities, rights, or dignity of individual religious believers. These conceptions of blasphemy correspond roughly to three models of authority: the biblical model with God as the source of normativity, a medieval model of authority in the hands of a divinely sanctioned ecclesiastical or temporal ruler, and the modern model in which the individual person is the ultimate source of normativity.

The execution of Thomas Aikenhead, executed in Edinburgh, 1697, for blasphemy.


The oldest and most far-reaching argument for the legal prohibition of blasphemy assumes that one of the legitimate purposes of government is to prevent direct insult to the divine. Here the Mosaic law is paradigmatic. What is contrary to God’s will is a sin; what is a sin is a crime; so the pro- scription of abusing the Name is inescapable. There is a certain austere majesty to the Mosaic model, set in high relief against the desert skies. Yet it immediately looks less attractive if any of the following conditions fail to obtain: there is clearly one god, whose intentions are clear; this god intervenes in the world; and strangers are rare. In the subsequent evolution of the societies of Judeo-Christian heritage, lawmakers and citizens found that each of these assumptions came under severe pressure.

To consider the divine-intervention condition first: For centuries, the fear of direct divine retribution was for elites and ordinary people alike a powerful justification for criminalizing blasphemy. It might have turned out that we lived in a world in which God avenged the abuse of his name by providential intervention, calling down flood or famine or plague, turning black the tongue of the blasphemer. The reality of a thin-skinned and short-tempered deity participating in world events would have been sufficient grounds for a public policy banning blasphemy. However, with the passage of time and the growth of human knowledge, the providential worldview grew less, not more, plausible. In any event, what divine punishment there might be has not proven swift, unequivocal, or certain enough to serve as an effective deterrent.

Instead, the retribution was to come from secular power. But how was blasphemy to be punished? If it really were, as St. Thomas Aquinas argued in his 1265–74 Summa Theologica, a sin more grave than murder, how could anything less than death even approach proportionality between crime and punishment?  God was the most important entity in the world, and one could neither rob, nor maim, nor kill him. The worst thing that could be done to the most important entity in the world was to desecrate the Name. No human crime could compare with the desecrating of the most sacred name. Yet even a human murder could merit the ultimate sanction. So, the legal regimes that proliferated across Europe dealt death for the egregious blasphemy or repeat offender, often preceded by sentences of public humiliation and disgrace, the slicing of lips, the removal of lips, and the piercing and severing of the tongue. The punishments of shame and ridicule “focused both the opprobrium and laughter of the community upon the convicted individual” and “made communal opinion stronger than miscreants and their words.” The mutilation of the mouth is a symbolic approximation to the existential gravity of the sin—a disfig- urement of one’s very person by amputation of the voice.

The profanation by the stranger of Leviticus could have been a slip in judgment, a malapropism riding on a burst of enthusiasm. Most victims of Europe’s earlier blasphemy laws were not eloquent, spiritually motivated heretics, but common people who were caught in a momentary lapse of discipline or decorum. The tavern and the gambling hall were hotbeds in the medieval and early modern policing of speech as drink and boisterous conviviality loosened tongues.  And everywhere in the margins of medieval life were the permanent miscreants, the cretinous, the stricken, the insane, who through lack of cognizance or care could not be parties to the covenant. The Omnipresent One must hear every one of these indignities, but could the magistrate smite them all on his behalf? If only a smattering were to be smitten, how could enforcement avoid arbitrariness, and how could the punishment maintain its overawing aura of a sacral restoration of transcendent balance? The more common this garden-variety profanity, the more it called into question the tenability of civil prosecution for sacrilege.

The last person to be executed for blasphemy in Great Britain was a 20-year-old sometime student at the University of Edinburgh named Thomas Aikenhead, who fell prey to the moral panic of local Presbyterian ministers of the Privy Council and was hanged on 8 January 1697 for railing against God and the Trinity. The Aikenhead affair shocked the conscience of generations of European thinkers. If death seemed to be the only sentence proportionate to the crime of blasphemy, understood as the profanation of the sacred, it also stood out as grossly disproportionate as against the other sanctions of the criminal law. If the wrongness of blasphemy is its abuse of the divine Name, then its evil is unsurpassed, and no sentence would be too harsh. If, however, it is to be treated within a general system of positive law, it will inevitably be compared to other crimes of thought and speech similar in form and found its punishment to be unreasonably, or—so it seemed to many horrified observers of the Aikenhead execution—sadistically, excessive.

The appalling excesses of punishment could perhaps have been stomached if—contrary to conditions of the Mosaic scene—the interloping of strangers into the midst of the covenant people had been rare and exceptional, the occasional foreigner of Egyptian extraction wiped out in a spasm of divine violence. Instead, when the guardians of the descendents of Hebrew religion moved in from the deserts, up from the cellars and catacombs, eventually to take over cities, kingdoms, and empires, they found themselves overseeing worlds full of strangers. The condition of the unitary and univocal God, convenient to theocrats, was no less precarious even in the Sinai scenario. The Mosaic achievement fundamentally was the triumph of the one god over the many gods of polytheistic practice. What Moses could not have been prepared for was how the People of the Covenant would become a People of the Book. With the coming of the Word came the end of the holy silence around the Name. What began as a word from a mountaintop, became an avalanche of words, from the Septuagint to the Latin Vulgate Bible to the scriptoria of the monastic orders. Texts do not read themselves, and in countless individual readings by countless individual persons, apocrypha, ambiguity, and mistranslation invited constructive and creative reinterpretation. The text would be both a font of spiritual innovation and an alternative epistemic authority that could be held higher than the authority of Rome.

Out of the desert, in this teeming intellectual environment, the condition of the univocal and unequivocal God—the first, monotheistic condition of the Mosaic world—was increasingly difficult to sustain. Christian leaders had long been forced to contend with the presence of the Jews, who had lived in the midst of their communities in a condition of second-class citizenship with its origins in the fourth-century laws of Constantine. The Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Pope Innocent II in Rome in November 1215, concerned itself with Jews marrying Christians, Jews holding public office, and Jews whose very appearance in public on Good Friday could be taken as an affront by Christians in mourning: “we forbid most severely, that any one should presume at all to break forth in insult to the Redeemer. . . . we command that such impudent fellows be checked by the secular princes by imposing on them proper punishment so that they shall not at all presume to blaspheme Him who was crucified for us.”

Manichean icon; the ideas of the Manicheans were an early heterodox challenge to Christianity.

A dualistic counter-tradition had also haunted Christianity since its rise to temporal power under the Roman empire, when it was forced to compete with the expansionist Manichean religion—inspired by Mani, a third-century Syriac Aramaic speaker from Persian Babylonia. The Manicheans believed that the material world was not created by God but by an evil deity who had imprisoned them in flesh. Their ideas were disseminated among literate Christians by the writings of the Church Father, St. Augustine of Hippo—an adherent in his youth—and other anti-Manichean polemical texts.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries also saw the spread of fresh religious fervor among lay clerics and believers and with it the spread of new Christian counter-traditions and dissident practices. The distinction between heresy and blasphemy is not always clear in medieval thought, but heresy typically involved the adoption of heterodox belief on the basis of some principled theological or philosophical grounds. Blasphemy, on the other hand, could be a sacrilegious word uttered without any theological intent or counter-belief. Heresy embraced a lie, while blasphemy mocked a truth. The term heresy comes from the Greek haireisthai, to choose. Robert Grosseteste made recalcitrance in belief a necessary condition for heresy, which he defined as “an opinion chosen by human perception, contrary to holy scripture, publicly avowed and obstinately defended.”

Early in the twelfth century, Christian leaders and thinkers became fixated on heresy. In its early initial life, the charge of blasphemy was often an adjunct, a kind of aggravating factor, in the prosecution of heresy. The first major European law against blasphemy had appeared with the Town Ordinances and Privileges of Vienna in 1221. Emperor Frederick II and Louis IX followed suit, and by the late fourteenth century, the public infliction of blasphemy sentences was a spectacle common to the medieval city and town across the continent. With Reformation and Counter-Reformation came new waves of anti-blasphemy statutes struggling to contain the explosions of doctrinal diversity. In 1209 the Church launched a military campaign, the Albigensian Crusade, against a heretical sect that had become entrenched in the French province of Languedoc, the Cathars. While the Cathars considered themselves Christians, as a consequence of their Manichean-like dualistic metaphysics many believed that Christ had not become flesh but only inhabited it. Therefore, they adopted heterodox stances on the significance of the crucifixion and the reality of Holy Communion. In the wake of the Crusade, the Inquisition con- tinued the grisly work of excising the errant words from the tongue. One of the accused was Béatrice de Planissoles.

We do not know just what Béatrice said. She came to the atten- tion of the Inquisition in 1320 because of a report that she had made blasphemous remarks about the Eucharist, the sacrament of Holy Communion. Her Inquisitor was Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, who would later go on to become Pope Benedict XII. Fournier had made it his mission to stamp out the remaining pockets of the Catharism that still flourished in the southern village of Montaillou. Thanks to the Bishop’s meticulous record-keeping, we have an extraordinary chronicle of the trial of Béatrice. In June 1320, the Bishop took sworn testimony from a local rector of the church of Dalou, who reported a story a member of the congregation had told about Béatrice. Was it a joke? Fournier wanted to know. From her expression and her words, the rector answered, it seemed that she meant it. Brought to testify before Fournier that August and questioned about the story, Béatrice explained:

When I was a little girl and I was at Celles, about six years before marry- ing my first husband, the people were hurrying one day to see the body of Christ at the church of this place. I heard a mason (I don’t know his name but I think he was Oudin) ask where these people were going. They answered that they were going to see the body of Christ. He said, “They need not hurry so for that because if the body of Christ was as large as the [nearby mountain] Pech de Boulque, it would long ago have been eaten like a pasta!” And I sometimes repeat these words that I heard this man say, without believing them, and I told them at Dalou.

She claimed that she had only passed on a remark that she had once overheard. But incriminating evidence against her was found in the contents of her bag: “two umbilical cords of infants,” “cloth stained by blood which seemed to be menstrual blood,” “slightly burned incense grains,” “a mirror and a small knife wrapped in a piece of linen,” “the seed of a plant wrapped in muslin,” and “a dried piece of bread,” the last item signaling that she had participated in the Cathar ritual of breaking quotidian bread in commemoration of the Last Supper.  Béatrice explained that some years prior, a Jewish woman—since converted, or “baptized”—had told her that the menstrual blood, produced by Béatrice’s daughter, could, if ingested, prevent a husband from going astray, and that the umbilical cords, belonging to Béatrice’s grandchildren, would, if carried on her person, ensure victory should she ever face a legal suit. “I never had the occasion to verify their efficacy,” she observed.

The blasphemous joke had poked a hole in the Communion wafer, insinuating that an idolatrous error was being made in identifying it with the substance of the Savior. But it did so in larger service to a reverence for Christ. The denial of the host was an affirmation of the Lord of Hosts. Béatrice was found guilty, among other charges, of blasphemy, and sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to wearing a yellow cross on her outer garments for the rest of her days to signify her repentance and admission of error. While El Shaddai would have perhaps had her stoned as vengeance, his medieval viceroys wanted her kept alive to testify to the falsity of her former opinion. For Béatrice’s blasphemy was not defilement of the sacred Name as such but defiance of the earthly authorities who had installed themselves as the custodians of his truth. Béatrice’s judges did not rend their garments in lamentation at the injurious words. Instead they insisted on having them repeated and repeated until the tear in the communal Body of Christ could be sutured shut and orthodoxy restored.

Since the days of the Golden Calf, the criminalization of spiritual blasphemy also faced a serious threat from religious pluralism. There was more than one way to read the Word, more than one way to reverence the bread. Why, then, must we submit to the way preferred by king or bishop? The war against the Cathars, tragically, was anything but the last religious war in Europe’s history, as the Lutheran revolt and the splintering of Christendom unleashed cataclysms of violence to make biblical proportions seem quaint. With the proliferation of Christian subcommunities, the question loomed larger and larger. If there were many gods, many dogmas, which of them should enjoy the backing of earthly power? More fundamentally, on what grounds could such a determination be made? On what authority could anyone say that an exercise of coercive force is right or just?


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *