Not even Bill Donohue goes this far. You do have the right, he concedes. You should simply decline to exercise that right in the interests of social harmony.

Do Americans agree?

Fusion surveyed 1,502 Americans and asked a single question:  Do Americans have the right to blaspheme religion? We got 1,105 responses, and the results were not very impressive: only 37% said yes, while 32% said no, and 31% said “I don’t know.”

Among women, the results were even worse: just 26.5% said yes, while 36% said no, and 38% said “I don’t know.”

The problem with a question like that is that it’s not clear to what extent it reflects people’s views of whether you should have the right. Taken literally, “Do Americans have the right to blaspheme?” is merely a probe of people’s civic knowledge. It could be that little more than a third understand that they do, in fact, have that right — which is embarrassing but not surprising given the state of civic education in America more broadly. The fact that nearly a third answered by saying “I don’t know” suggests that a lot of people saw this as a quiz on the state of the law, not what they think the law should be.

On the other hand, it could be that some people took it as more of a moral question than a legal one. Do you have the right, morally, to insult a fellow citizen by denigrating his God? It could also be that some understood it as asking a legal question but, not knowing the answer, substituted what they thought the law logically should be, which would give the poll more normative significance than a basic test of civics would have. I’m thinking there has to be an element of that given the size of the gender gap. Here’s the male/female split on whether Americans have the right to blaspheme:


“Yes” is easily the least popular answer among women but the most popular answer among men, with a spread of more than 20 points. There’s no reason I can think of why we’d see a split that huge if this was a straightforward test of civic knowledge. On the contrary, there are more women in school nowadays than there are men; if this was a simple matter of education, women would probably come out ahead. What’s really happening here, I think, is that women, for whatever reason, are less comfortable with blasphemy and offending religious sensitivities than men are. Look no further than yesterday’s YouGov poll on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons for evidence. I’d guess that roughly two-thirds of men and women honestly didn’t know the answer to whether blasphemy is a right and so they fell back on their own moral inclinations to take a guess. For men, that inclination is towards blasphemy. For women, it’s away.

The age split is interesting too. The group most likely to say that Americans have a right to blaspheme is young adults:


The group least likely to say so? Seniors:


If this was a basic test of civics, I would have guessed just the opposite. Seniors, who’ve had a lifetime to learn and who famously take their civic duty to vote very seriously, would know the nuts and bolts of blasphemy law whereas young adults, less educated and more apathetic (or so the stereotype goes), might not. Instead, this. That makes me wonder, again, whether normative views on blasphemy are creeping into people’s responses. Seniors, who lean conservative, might look askance at mocking religion while young adults, who lean liberal, would not.

Exit question one: How come so many Americans are unsure of their right to blaspheme? Is it basic ignorance at work, or are they taking a cue from our lousy media that some topics must be verboten lest more “excitable” religions get a little too excited? Exit question two: What explains the gender gap on blasphemy? I’m tempted to revert to stereotype here too and assume that women are simply less comfortable being “insensitive” to others, but that seems lame. It probably has more to do with the fact that women are more religious than men. Logically, if you’re a believer yourself, you’re more likely to see the virtue in discouraging blasphemy than if you aren’t.