Survey shows softening attitude on blasphemy

Fr Merv Duffy, SM, is surprised and saddened by the survey results.

A softening of attitudes among New Zealanders towards blasphemy, evident in a survey on offensive language on radio and TV, has surprised and saddened a New Zealand theologian. 

A 2021 survey of 1505 people aged 18 and over conducted for the Broadcasting Standards Authority showed that an expletive expression involving the Lord’s name was considered the twelfth most unacceptable in all broadcasting contexts of the 31 offensive words or phrases suggested. 

This was a drop from being the third most offensive in a similar survey in 2018.  

In the 2021 survey, 46 per cent of respondents considered the phrase involving the Lord’s name as totally unacceptable in all contexts. This was down 10 per cent on the figure for the 2018 survey and down nearly 20 per cent on the figure in a 2013 survey, according to a report on the BSA website. 

The BSA stated that this research helps track evolving public views on offensive language in broadcasting. The results are used by the BSA and broadcasters to help ensure programmes and BSA decisions reflect current community attitudes, the BSA website stated. 

Theologian Fr Merv Duffy, SM, who teaches at Te Kupenga – Catholic Theological College, told NZ Catholic that he is “surprised and saddened by the survey results”.  

“I knew that New Zealand society was becoming less influenced by religion, but this indicates the speed of the change,” Fr Duffy said. 

This is something Christians in this country should be concerned about, he added, because a softening attitude towards blasphemy “goes hand in hand with a diminishing respect for the sacred”.  

Fr Duffy noted that “this blasphemous expression”, as used in the survey, “was the only religious phrase to be surveyed, [and] for the over-65 age group it was among the three worst expressions in the list, but for younger New Zealanders their taboos are more related to race or gender than to religion, dropping it to twelfth overall”.  

One difference from the 2018 survey was that the terms “God” and “Jesus Christ” were not included among potentially offensive terms put before survey respondents in 2021. 

Fr Duffy said the Catholic Church “should and does encourage respect for the name of God”.  

“It does it by teaching the Ten Commandments,” he said. 

The second commandment is stated in Exodus 20:7: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (New International Version). 

“Reverence and respect are things which can and should be taught,” Fr Duffy said. “The role of the domestic church is particularly important here – the language patterns developed in the home affect a person’s whole life.”  

“We need to be shocked by bad language, and to curate the language we ourselves use so that we treat the holy as holy. Everyone’s name is important because of their dignity as a person, and the names of the divine persons are supremely important.” 

But in New Zealand, religious things are used in advertising and branding (for example, Hell Pizza), and many New Zealanders consider this to be funny. 

“New Zealanders are regularly surprised that the rest of the world care strongly about their sacred things,” Fr Duffy said. 

Several years ago, a New Zealand man spent several months in a jail in Myanmar after he posted an irreverent image of the Buddha online. 

New Zealand’s Parliament took the offence of blasphemous libel out of the Crimes Act in 2019. There had only been one previous attempted prosecution under this provision, in the 1920s. 

An explanatory note in a supplementary order paper connected with this stated that “the overwhelming opinion of churches and religious groups is that faith does not need statutory protection of this kind”. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that respect for “[God’s] name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes”. (CCC 2144). 

The BSA survey also found that the Christians questioned were less accepting of most of the offensive terms suggested than were respondents of other religions or those with no specific faith. 

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