Semantics for Blasphemy (Oxford Studies in Phil Religion IV)

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Abstract: Use of divine names is strictly regulated in the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Unlike most ordinary names, “God,” “Jesus,” and “Allah,” have a particular moral significance for the faithful. Misuse of the names constitutes a form of blasphemy—a sin. Tomes have been written about the origin of holy names in these traditions and the role that they play in devotional practices. I have no such grand theological ambitions here. Instead, in this short essay I will raise a few more narrow questions about the sin of blasphemy from the standpoint of contemporary philosophy of language. Until we have good reason to think otherwise, we should assume that the best semantic theory for ordinary proper names like “Obama” and “Aristotle” extends to names for God. In particular, I think we have reason to assume some causal theory of reference is true of divine names, since some version of it seems true of most every other name. From this assumption I will argue (i) that there are some puzzles for the sin of blasphemy as it is traditionally conceived, and (ii) that we can make progress toward answering the puzzles by acknowledging that divine names are vulnerable to a special kind of reference drift.
Meghan Sullivan,
Nov 13, 2013, 10:02 AM