Sticks & Stones: Part 2, Exploring Blasphemy Sensitivity

The stimuli the students and I used to assess blasphemy sensitivity were mild compared to the tour of blasphemy we overviewed in the last post. For a few reasons:

1. No literature exists on blasphemy sensitivity. So, we didn't need to start big. Any exploration, even with mild stimuli, would be a novel contribution to the research literature.

2. Extremely offensive stimuli wouldn't create a variety of responses. We needed something that would "split" a group of average religious people into two broad groups, those more offended than not versus those more amused than offended.

What we did was to look for visual stimuli, the kind you might get forwarded as a joke through e-mail. We settled on two pictures of Jesus for our Christian participants. This was the first stimulus:

And this was the second stimulus (which you might have seen before as it was a bit of an Internet meme):

We asked our participants to look at each picture and rate how offended versus amused they were by the picture. As you might expect, these ratings were negatively correlated. The more offended you were by the picture the less humorous you found it. Conversely, the more humorous you found the picture the less offended you were.

The research question was: What kind of religious person would be most offended by the pictures? The students constructed the following profile for blasphemy sensitivity:

Devout (i.e., religion is "important" to the person)
Dogmatic (i.e., resistant to changing religious beliefs)
Anxiety about God (e.g., fear that God would reject/judge you)

These predicted associations are not surprising. They are commonsensical if you know religious people. However, as noted above, no one has ever gone out and measured/tested these associations. Thus, obvious or not, good science recommends that you empirically log even the most "obvious" data points to build the foundation for future research. And sometimes even "obvious" trends don't hold up. Surprises do occur.

In our study the predicted trends were confirmed. Persons who were older, orthodox, devout, dogmatic, and who were worried about God's judgment were the most offended by the stimuli.

I think these findings are interesting. I'm particularly struck by how a view of God (and worries about God's judgment) is implicated in blasphemy sensitivity. In my experience, the people most upset by religious issues are those who live with the fear of an angry God. God is irascible. A grumpy old man. This suggests that a great deal of blasphemy sensitivity is narcissistic. That is, the root fear isn't that you are in danger of God's judgment but that my association with you is putting me in jeopardy. As a consequence, I distance myself, push you away or, in extreme cases, kill you. You are a threat to God's feelings about me.

But there is another side to blasphemy sensitivity. Is nothing to be considered sacred? Can Calvary be a joke? Where is the line?

In sum, the study was an interesting start. Lots of questions, empirical and theological, remain.

Finally, just yesterday, I found the following stimulus that I think would have been perfect for our study:

Is this funny? Clever? Offensive? Blasphemous? You can join the exploration. Evaluate your own reactions and show the pictures to others and see what you find.

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20 thoughts on “Sticks & Stones: Part 2, Exploring Blasphemy Sensitivity”

  1. We label as "offensive" compared to whatever "standard" or value we measure by...and those "standards and values" are about identification factors...which as you point out, is narcisstic in forcus.

    But, just because one prefers and values some "standard" or value doesn't mean that choosing to base life choices on those are due to narcissism. One is only being true to personal convictions and values.

    One must understand what those "standards" or personal values one is ultimately committed to, and come to terms with what that means to them pesonally, before they can and will commit to a certain life calling or vocation...

    As a psyhologist, has there been any work done on how personal history does or does not "determine" one's values, or perspective?

    I understand how children and young adults value or see things through personal familial experience, but how does an adult come to terms in obviously different views or ways of understanding than one's familial upbringing?

  2. "In my experience, the people most upset by religious issues are those who live with the fear of an angry God. God is irascible. A grumpy old man. This suggests that a great deal of blasphemy sensitivity is narcissistic. That is, the root fear isn't that you are in danger of God's judgment but that my association with you is putting me in jeopardy. As a consequence, I distance myself, push you away or, in extreme cases, kill you. You are a threat to God's feelings about me."


    Oh, boy oh boy. That's a great succinct description. There's, like, 400 squillion blog posts in there.

    Now, okay. I laughed. Especially at the second one. And yet is the cross sacred to me? Yes. In fact, the longer I go on walking with him, the more amazing it becomes to me. And yet I still found that picture really funny. Perhaps it's just different personalities as well. I enjoy irreverency. But yes, I do find that a lot of the people who get offended are VERY narcissistic in their belief system.

    Funny, isn't it, how that happens? How "religious" people often take their self-centred narcissistic little lives and find a legitimate way to express all of that and be "godly" as well? Shame though that in the process you do thing like hold up "God hates fags" placards and the like.

    But still, babies are narcissistic in a way, aren't they? It's all just a matter of growth and development. And God seems very committed to growing us all up in his own timeline :)

  3. I think that our Source cannot be offended. How do you offend the ineffable? We, on the other hand, are constantly being offended by something or other. We are often offended FOR other people. Why we think we have to be so? I don't know. Why we think we have to defend the Source's honor? I don't know. Sue seems to have something there about our narcissistic tendencies. It is about US, not God.

  4. If I was going to be Freudian about this, I also think people who are easily offended are revealing how fragile their faith is. It's a defense mechanism covering up insecurities, at least in some cases.

  5. Some religious people are not to be "tampered with". I have tried and died trying to understand or "love" these. I don't want to anymore, unless they are part of my immediate family. And some of these I have to choose to allow "distance in the relationship", not becuse I want this, but because it is necessary.

    This is a rational choice to distance myself from the conservative religious, as some will not be changed, in belief or behavior. I have become prejuidiced about these fundamentalists. And it really doesn't matter how I am judged, as I have already judged myself. It will do nothing to alleviate my prejuidice to see further "cross bearing" because of idiotic (pardon my emotion) beliefs.

    Fundamentalists and some other religious people want to prove a point, not have a relationship. And I have become defensive to any "correction" that might come my way from their camp, because that is all I have gotten from their camp.

    (I'm "sure" some "well-meaning" anthropologist/social scientist would like to teach or train me "out of prejuidice" and "into "love" by determiing my life's continued exposure to such fundamentalists. But, this would be short of cruel. Have these "paid the costs" of such experience in their pasts?

  6. Richard,

    A generalization. It seems to me that cultures where purity/impurity, shame/honor, profane/sacred are highly emphasized socially that blasphemy sensitivity is universally high. Where those characteristics have been modernized, that is, personalized and individualized, one finds a range of blasphemy senstivity variations. The joining or association of non-congruent images may provoke a variety of humorous responses on the one hand (e.g double entendre)and scandalous ones on the other ("Piss Christ").

    Biblically, we find the prophets blaspheming and mocking idolatry and those who practice it. St. Paul's "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. . ." establishes a social dynamic that is still at work today--an extention of the incarnation if you will--which associates the sacred with the profane.

    If we go into any "Christian" bookstore and look around, we'll find all kinds of Christian items--key chains, fish jewelry, crosses, sentimentalized statuettes and crockery, placemats, etc. Are these things blasphemous? I don't know, but I know that in one of my creative entreprenurial moments during church I sketched out on the back of my preacher's sermon answer sheet my proposed "Jesus toilet" with the motto: "Flush for Jesus and dump on the Devil." Ain't cognitive dissonance fun!


  7. I laughed out loud, each example becoming progressively funnier.

    If you took a snapshot of my "spiritual" life no more than 7 years ago, I probably would have been offended by the 3 examples. I certainly would not have laughed.

    Random thoughts:

    1. It could be history's biggest irony - the Pharisees and religious leaders of the time plotting vehemently to have Jesus executed. Their accusation - blasphemy.

    2. This morning, the front page of leads with the following article entitled "The End of Christian America". It's a 4 page read:

    It relates to much of what we talk about here.

    There would have been a time I would not have bothered to read the article, dismissing it as
    another "anti-Christian" commentary from a prominent "secular" national magazine.

    3. A response from Dr. Beck on
    the last article:
    "If I can enter the world of a paranoid schizophrenic or a manic AIDS patient then I think I can understand how your average Democrat of Republican sees the world. That is child's play, empathically speaking".

    I'd be very interested in hearing
    you share what you observed and learned in that environment as it relates to everything discussed here (confidentiality where needed of course) - perhaps a series dedicated to that experience. I might guess that it was very defining in regards to your personal view of God, "sin", good vs. evil, salvation, grace, compassion, love, the lack of mercy/charity from the "church", and the sea of humanity at large. For all we know, it played a very huge role to inspire the making of "Experimental Theology".

    Thank you again!
    Gary Y.

  8. I stumbled upon your blog about a month ago and have been utterly fascinated ever since! Great stuff!!!

    I would consider myself a "devout" Christian, and found all three of these examples rather amusing. I wouldn't say funny, but they gave me a brief smirk. Especially the urinal. I think I've seen a few of those in real life before.

    For me the issues lies within the intent of the images. The images in your previous post, to my knowledge, were done in ways to attempt to insult or injure the person or cause. I think the hatred or anger that fuels those things is what leads them to the "blasphemous" state.

    I do believe there are things that need to remain sacred in this world.

    But I'm a rather odd ball anyways since I was the kid listening to Christian Rap when it was first getting onto the scenes and people were considering that to be blasphemous. 8^D

  9. I might add to the mix a book I recently read that I recommend.

    "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation" by Christine Wicker, a former evangelical. Her statistics used in the book come from evangelicals themselves, not from her own research. Her website is:

  10. I'm not offended by the images but I can understand how some people would feel uneasy about them.

    This unease is about offending others. There is a place for humour and satire. It's OK to see these images here but it wouldn't be OK to send them to people who you know might find them difficult or to go out of your way to show them to such people just to get their reaction, for example.

    I guess I'm a little weary of the old renegade Christian/Catholic chagrin games. Maybe this isn't that but it has a whiff of it.

  11. Your question(s) are really interesting. About the photos: I didn't feel offended by the first one, but didn't think it was funny either.

    Hate to admit it, but it took so long for me to figure out the second one. When I finally got it, I laughed and laughed. That's clever. Of course older people would not think it was funny because most of them would never get it. And a joke that has to be explained . . .

    The third one bugged me, and I wondered why. I finally decided that it bothered me to think that (I'm presuming) someone thought that up and actually produced it. That's mildly irritating to me. But I don't know why.

  12. To Richard and the group: So much depends on perception and context that it is difficult to comment. The urinal picture is the odd one out so to speak. I am sure I have seen this many times in reality and just didn’t notice it until it was presented as an unmistakable image here. Now, I find my self thinking meta-cognitively speaking and wondering about the intent of the designer and manufacturer.

  13. Fascinating post. I don't think I've been offended by these kinds of things for years. But I take my faith seriously and have a deep love for Christ. In fact, because of this I am curious about cultural/sociological aspects of Christianity and religion. That's one reason why your posts fascinate me. I would love to have been involved in your group's discussions.

    I also had some similarly strong reactions to one of my posts exploring popular images of Jesus. I wrote about the response here.

    Sometimes I thing such vehement responses are a way for individuals to turn their feelings of fear and helplessness into feelings of strength and righteousness. In my opinion it is a false strength and false righteousness.

    I still don't know how to respond.

  14. Hmm, Tucker, yes, I wonder if there is something in that, false strength and false righteousness. A defensive attack out of the ego, at a perceived "enemy". Us and them. An attack at someone or something on "your team", and therefore a personal attack on you. Maybe that's brushing too broad a stroke, I'm not sure. I don't think people are wrongly compelled in this way, it's just that when the compulsion comes out of that sort of defense mode of seeing things (which Christianity is, ironically, famous for) then you get this creepy "defending God's honour" sort of thing. Which is all the stuff that the cross dispels, for mine.

    Does God care about his/her own honour? I know he cares for his name, but is that the same thing? Just thinking out loud here.

  15. Fascinating post... but I do wonder, if it was my wife, my child, or someone I loved that died in such a horrible way as Christ did--and someone made light of that death in such a fashion-- would you laugh? Would you be offended if someone did? Would you consider me a narcissist if I was offended?

    Many feel a strong desire to protect those we love, and I guess I'm not jaded enough to believe yet that any person disturbed by such an image is responding to a slight against "my beliefs" or a dig against "my team" as a Yankee fan might mock the Red Socks. Couldn't love, real love for Christ to the point one views him as closer than a family member, possibly have something to do with it?

    Secondly, even non-dogmatically religious cultures, the Japanese in particular, have strong notions of "honor" that extend not only to self, but to family. Under your theory, is that something different, or is it a culture waiting for another culture--our Western society for instance-- to lead it from its immature tendencies toward our notions of maturity?

  16. Annonymous,
    You brng up some good points...what our "honor" is attached to, in reltionship...or identification.

    Since faith "development" understands "Christ" as "representative" or symbolism of "ideals" that are understood in a theological frame, those who have come to understand this, might be able to use "humor" in "religious" ocntexts...

    "Honor" is reputation, or "name", which is character....when one's honor is reviled by what we identify with, then we are offended...if that means our "connection" to "self", family members, friends, or "Chist".

    Anger at another's disregard for those we love, is a normal human reaction or response. So, defending another's honor is a good character trait, as this is defending "just" causes. And it was understood in covenantal terms in religion.

    But, what of "chirst" making himself of "no reputation? Isn't that a "dishonoring God", since those who crucified christ were bringing humiliation on God by christ's identification with God? Or was christ willing to bear the "dishonor" of the cross because of "hardness of heart"? We cannot "force" another to see or honor or identify with what we do, because if we force another to honor or accept what we accept or honor, then we do disservice to "justice". Therefore, we must bear the 'cross' of another's insensitiviy....

  17. Dear Angie...Your point on Christ bearing "dishonor" on the Cross is well-taken, and an excellent analogy. However, this is also the same Christ who drove the money-changers out of the Temple for "dishonoring" the Temple-- the home of his Father (yet another example of defending the honor of those we love). Although it is surely defensible to reach the interpretation you have reached, the other example of Christ lends credence to a different conclusion. I'm not advocating that we go around threatening cartoonists or requiring non-believers to refrain from the use of "Oh My God." But seriously, shouldn't we show some passion for the honor of one we purport to love, at least in our own lives.

    The example from the Temple suggests that the honor of Christ is something Christians should take seriously, and while we show grace those outside the faith, perhaps we should stand up for the honor of Christ more diligently within our own Christian family. God is, after all, the father of us all.

    -(Anon) :)

  18. Annonymous,
    Point well taken, but as I pointed out, when one understands that Christ is a symbol of the sacred, there is not personal offense, as to Christ, but for what is "just" in any situation. There should certainly be no distinction between sacred and secular as to ethics and law...if some "sect" wants to define their community in a narrower way than the laws of our land, then that is their perogative.

    So, as to chasing out moneychanagers, where do we begin? All we can do is address what is before us in our own personal situations, and the things we encounter that we find "wrong".

    Therefore, we should not be about such shrill confrontational and offensive behavior that we make others run away from us....perhaps, it depends on what one's strengths or weaknesses are and what moderation is needed to bring balance and gentleness into one's life...I find that i loose my audience with "passion"...unless the "other is just as passionate, and then, there is danger of over-riding others because of a cause, which isn't appropriate the long run...

    The things that bring "passion" in my life now, are our country's freedoms, and the values of our Founding our form of government.

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