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Blasphemy isn't a dirty word. It simply means voicing doubts about supernatural religious claims. That's normal for intelligent, science-minded people. They merely express their honest conclusions about alleged magical, invisible spirits.
Yet doubting gods has caused executions, murders, stonings, burnings and other horrible punishments for millennia. Believers are so touchy about their dogmas that they sometimes kill questioners.
The Bible mandates death for criticizing the holies. "Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death," Leviticus 24 commands. "All the congregation shall stone him." Even Jesus taught that blasphemers must never be forgiven.
For centuries, ridiculing religion, or writing any skepticism, could be fatal. In 1766 at Abbeville, France, a rebellious adolescent, Francois-Jean de La Barre, was accused of marring a crucifix, singing irreverent songs and wearing his hat while a holy procession passed. He was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, be beheaded, and his body burned.
Voltaire was outraged and tried to rescue the youth but the punishment was inflicted, and Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary was nailed to his body on the pyre.
Numerous American colonies had laws against blasphemy, along with Europe and elsewhere. John Adams wrote in an 1825 letter to Thomas Jefferson:
"There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny, or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. In most countries of Europe, it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself, it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker."
Good grief insanity prevailed two centuries ago in Europe. And that same insanity still blights the Muslim world today.
Currently, 13 Islamic nations decree death for atheism, and charges of blasphemy trigger horrors. Some examples:
In 2009, a young Christian mother of two, Aasia Noreen (or Bibi), was picking berries in a field alongside Muslim women in Pakistan. The latter refused to use an "unclean" drinking cup touched by the infidel Christian, and a bitter argument ensued. The Muslims went to a cleric and said Noreen had uttered blasphemous remarks about the Prophet. She was quickly condemned to death. The case caused an international uproar and produced a book, Sentenced to Death for a Sip of Water.
Noreen / Bibi spent almost a decade in solitary confinement, awaiting execution. A federal minister who spoke up for her was assassinated. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer visited her and vowed to soften blasphemy laws. He was murdered by his bodyguard, who went to prison but was hailed as a public hero. When she finally was freed by Pakistan's Supreme Court, Muslim holy fatwas called for believers to kill the Supreme Court judges. She and her family fled to Canada to escape death.
In a different Pakistani village in 2014, rumors spread that a young Christian couple, Shahzad and Shama Masih, had desecrated a Quran. Holy men issued a fatwa decreeing that the couple should be "burned in the same way that they burned the holy book". The command was announced at a mosque, where loudspeakers urged the faithful to avenge the Quran. A mob went to a brick kiln where the pair worked, beat them savagely and burned them alive in an oven.
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