Is It Sinful To Swear?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 20 2012 4:59 PM

Thou Shalt Not Have a Potty Mouth

Does God hate swearing?

swearing.
Salamworld, a Facebook-style website designed for Muslims, will take down posts with swear words

Photograph courtesy iStockphoto.

A Turkish businessman is preparing to launch Salamworld, a Facebook-style website designed specifically for Muslims. Moderators will take down offensive content, including posts with swear words. The Old Testament and other religious texts prohibit taking the Lord’s name in vain, but do the gods have a problem with words like s--- and f---?

Some gods do. The Quran doesn’t directly address vulgar language, but the Prophet Mohammed made his opposition to it clear in the Hadith—statements attributed to the prophet with varying degrees of reliability. According to one of Mohammed’s contemporaries, he once said that “Allah does not like obscene words or deeds,” while another acquaintance reportedly observed that “the prophet was not one who would abuse (others) or say obscene words.” These anti-obscenity provisions appear regularly in the Hadith, making Islam the sole Abrahamic religion with a clear prohibition in its sacred texts on obscene language.

The Bible is hazy on vulgarity. In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon counsels, “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.” It’s not entirely clear what constitutes a wholesome tongue, and, in any event, Solomon’s vague and toothless prohibition is weak by Old Testament standards. To put it into perspective, Jehovah ordered death by stoning for those who took his name in vain.

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In the New Testament, Paul the Apostle tells the Colossians to “put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.” The New International Version translates the key phrase as “filthy language,” but many scholars think both interpretations are incorrect, and the ancient missionary was probably referring to false prophesying rather than naughty words. In fact, St. Paul himself worked blue in his letter to the Philippians, in which he wrote that the earthly things he had sacrificed for Christ amounted to skubala, in the original Greek. The King James version translates this as dung, while the New International Version goes with the less colorful garbage. Some modern scholars, however, think the closest English equivalent is shit.

The Book of Mormon likewise lacks any clear prohibition on obscene language, but leaders of the LDS church have consistently opposed dirty words. In an 1887 letter, the church’s governing body called profanity “offensive to all well-bred persons” and “a gross sin in the sight of God.” Joseph F. Smith, nephew to the Mormon prophet and sixth president of the church, called on the Saints to “stamp out profanity and vulgarity.” Successive presidents have issued similar proclamations, which explains Mormons’ much-mocked preference for old-fashioned expletives like gosh and golly.

The deeper question is why many modern religions and religious people have taken a stand against vulgarity. One hypothesis is that religion insists on mankind’s special status as the children of God, while profanity lays bare our essential similarity to beasts of the field. Most of the dirty words on George Carlin’s famous list describe the decidedly animal-like functions of copulation, urination, and defecation. To take one example, f--- strips sex of its love and spirituality, which some believe to be uniquely human concepts, leaving nothing but the mindless humping on display in any barnyard.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F Word.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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