Sticks & Stones: Part 1, The Social Cost of Blasphemy

Last week it was my privilege to present research with ten amazing students at the annual Southwestern Psychological Association conference. The students presented three papers in a symposium entitled Sticks and Stones: The Psychology of Insult. What I'd like to do in the next few posts is walk through some of the more interesting aspects of this research.

The first paper I'd like to discuss was entitled Defending God's Honor: The Relationship Between Religiosity and Blasphemy Sensitivity. The student authors were Mary Walrath, Elena Kua, Nathan Sharp and Anne Weaver. The symposium theme was insult psychology and this particular paper examined feeling insulted on behalf of God, usually in the face of a stimulus that is considered to be blasphemous.

Blasphemy is generally defined as "irreverent behavior toward anything held sacred." In the face of this irreverent behavior certain religious persons or populations respond in extreme ways. In short, reactions toward the blasphemous have a social cost. Often a high social cost. The students walked through four recent examples.

The first example is Westboro Baptist Church whose website is

The "Pray for More Dead Soldiers" and "God Blew Up the Shuttle" might need some explaining. Members of Westboro believe that God is judging America for her tolerance of the gay community (among other things). Thus, American deaths from things like the Shuttle explosion or military casualties are symptoms of God's judgment upon America.

Relevant to our research, Westboro justifies its hate speech by positioning itself as the defender of God's Honor in the face of a blaspheming nation.

A second example from Christianity was the outrage generated by Andres Serrano's Piss Christ:

Piss Christ is a picture of a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist's urine. When displayed publicly in 1989 a storm kicked up, public and Congressional. The debate around Piss Christ centered on the proper role of art and the use of public funding to support art such as Piss Christ. Regardless, the public outrage surrounding Piss Christ (and work like it) swirls around the notion of blasphemy, the proper treatment of the sacred.

Turning to Islamic outrage, the attacks of 9/11, the defining event of the first part of the 21st Century, was crucially linked to the blasphemies Osama Bin Laden and his followers perceived in American culture:

For example, in 2002 Bin Laden wrote in a "Letter to America": "You are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind: You are the nation who, rather than ruling by the Shariah of Allah in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord and your Creator." In short, America offends the Honor of God.

A final example cited by the students was the outrage in 2005 generated in the worldwide Islamic community by the publication of political cartoons in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten:

As you can see, many of these cartoons depicted the prophet Muhammad in an unflattering manner. The worldwide protests produced more than 100 deaths. Again, the central issue is blasphemy.

These four examples were presented by the students to illustrate the social costs of defending God's Honor. Blasphemy impacts everyone. Blasphemy, and responses to it, is a prime mover in human affairs. Depressingly so. Consequently, the goal of the research was to try to begin to systematically explore what we called blasphemy sensitivity. Who is most likely to be offended by blasphemous stimuli?

More on that question in the next post. In the meantime, be careful who you say "Oh my God" around...

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 thoughts on “Sticks & Stones: Part 1, The Social Cost of Blasphemy”

  1. This is why in a diverse culture such as ours, we allow for difference, without uniformity. And this is the mantra of the secular humanists and atheists for free speech. Without free speech, we are headed for a domination of some kind.

    On the other hand, diplomats, humanitarians, and religious universalists seek a way to help understanding, buffering difference, etc. But, this cannot be done at the demise of freedom. Otherwise the "highest sensitive conscience will dominate".

    Just recently, Gert Wilder was to go to England to present his documentary on Islam, only to be "dis-invited" by the British government. It is supposed that his "dis-invitement" was due to fear of radical Islamic backlash. Should the West be acting in fearful ways because of Islam's intimidation tactice? We cannot submit to such "outrageous" behavior.

    Others believe that education is the "way to bring about change" to these radicals. But, naitevete' does noting tho change what is factual. Hirshi Aryan Ali writes in her book, 'Infidel" how after her engagement in the West through obtaining education and serving on the Durch Parliament that she struggled against her religiou brainwashing. She is now an atheist, working in the States.

    So, in all of our efforts to transform society, are we being realistic or basing "hope" on 'idelistic dreams"?

  2. Oh, I forgot to add, that Obama's message to Iran does NOTHING to help our cause, but to affirm their cause of becoming acknowledged as a "republic" without coming to terms with "real history". Sending a message of approval to someone's "insanity" is not the way to approach those who do not respect weakness. And many cultural and diplomatic experts said that this was a "bad message" to send to the "mullahs" for the West, as it sent a message of "submission" and gives them the "upper hand" in "table talks".

    Of cours, I hear the new appointee to the DOS is a transnationalist from China! So, the postmodern globalist is "winning the day"...

  3. Hi Richard,

    I've been reading along through the previous series but wasn't ever able to comment. It was great, and I was wondering if you have read or heard of Elizabeth O'Connor's Call to Commitment, about the Church of the Savior in D.C. They embodied (in the 70s and 80s) the third place mentality you discuss, including running their own free-wheeling conversation coffee shop.

    While I'm at it, I also wanted to thank you for modeling how to respond to commenters. I recently had a piece published on a "for real" movie/TV blog -- where many more eyes read than in my native blog land! -- and I felt my inner Richard responding kindly and patiently to them rather than angrily or dismissively. You probably have one of the best comments communities in the blogosphere, and I appreciate learning the trade from you, if indirectly.

    Looking forward to this new series. Thanks, as always, for the good work.

  4. Angie,
    You make a good point. I doubt we can tiptoe around wingnuts, letting them dominate the conversation. I think Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens would make the point that religious outrage is suppressing reasonable discourse.

  5. Brad,
    I had not heard of that book. Thanks for the recommendation. Yet something else to read! I'm sure you can identify.

    Thanks for your kind comments. I don't know if I deserve the compliment. I think it's largely a matter of good fortune. The people who read this blog are very kind and very open to alternative viewpoints. I do my best to drive them away with long, technical posts. They are gluttons for punishment I guess.

    I think it also helps that I don't talk about politics. The entire very exciting election cycle of 2008 came and went and I had nary a thing to say about Obama, McCain, or Palin. And I was riveted by the election. But few people know how to disagree about politics. So I stay away.

    But here is my greatest secret. Things are controversial when both sides have good points. Things are controversial when two competing goods are in a tension. Because if something is obviously good then most reasonable people agree.

    This means that I can generally find the good in a person's argument even on the most controversial topics. It can be just war, abortion, stem cell research, or the merits of theism. I can see good points on each side. In fact, if we are fighting about it there HAS to be good points on each side. Otherwise we wouldn't be fighting. It's kind of my rule of thumb: If people are fighting they both are right.

    (And we can even fight over this rule of thumb to illustrate the point. Is it true that both people ALWAYS have good points? What about a debate with Hitler? See. Every fight has good points on both sides. Even the fight about if every fight has good points on both sides.)

    I think it might also be easy for me to take another's perspective in that a large part of psychotherapy is perspective taking, trying to see the world from the perspective of the client. I worked for four years as a therapist at a psychiatric hospital and I think that experience helped me see human behavior at its most extreme. 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.

    But at the end of the day, all the credit goes to the people who take the time to read my very long posts and who make the effort to leave thoughtful and intelligent comments. Like you.

  6. Thank you, thank you for revealing your secret. When I'm accused of being oppositional and I'm feeling wishy-washy and fearful I might not have strong principles maybe I'll breathe a little easier, remind myself I am human and ask for the grace to be the essence of Christ.

  7. I recently had a pen pal of several years break off all communication with me, because I don't see Scripture exactly (no wiggle room btw) HER way. Well, I wasn't trying to change her mind, but I did exert that I may see things a bit differently, and that should be okay. No big deal. Her emotional, volatile reaction to my just not agreeing with her sort of goes along with your post. Seems that when rationality and emotions get divorced in a religious person, only one or the other gets custody of that person's body and decision-making processes. And the more emotional/zealous, the more of a control freak he or she can be.

  8. I think that we all can become emotional when it becomes personal. Or, at least we see it that way...

    Religion, as defined in conservative evangelical terms, or fundamentalist's terms or any religious traditn, can become "hairy". It is the "meaning" of their tradtion to them personally, as they are dependent on the tradition's giving of value to their life. Their personal value has no meaning apart from their understanding of their tradition. Thus it is an emotional issue because "self' is outside of "self", because authority does not reside within one's own reasoned way of understanding life, but in an authorial source....

Leave a Reply