As prehistoric tribes evolved into early civilizations, tribal shamans were succeeded by elaborate priesthoods claiming to represent hundreds of magical gods. Priestcraft became a complex profession and gained enormous power over societies. One way to guarantee the high status of priests was to inflict severe punishment on anyone who might question their supernatural connections. Thus blasphemy laws were born.
In ancient Greece, some of the first scientific thinkers were accused of “impiety” punishable by death. The list includes Socrates, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Alcibiades, Andocides, Diagoras, Theophrastos, Prodicus and even Aristotle. Stilpo of Megara, charged with saying that Athena was “not a god,” joked at his trial that she was a goddess instead. Aspasia, brilliant mistress of ruler Pericles, was charged, but Pericles tearfully won her acquittal.
In medieval times, the Holy Inquisition tortured and burned thousands for heresy and blasphemy. Thinking unapproved thoughts could bring violent death.
The arrival of The Enlightenment gradually erased the church’s power to kill people. But blasphemy laws still sent nonconformists to prison. For example, a Massachusetts law declared: “Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, His creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost … shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year.”
The last person jailed under this law was Abner Kneeland, a radical minister who lost his faith in divinely revealed scriptures and was imprisoned in 1838. Kneeland espoused controversial causes such as birth control, racial equality and women’s rights.
A historic deadlock — a standoff between two irreconcilable worldviews — was created in the 1790s when America adopted the Bill of Rights assuring individual freedoms. The First Amendment guarantees free speech, free press and freedom of religion. It’s the heart of democracy, letting everyone voice any view, including criticism of religion. It’s in direct conflict with blasphemy laws that mandate punishment of those who doubt the supernatural.
Even after the Bill of Rights was law, some states continued to outlaw criticism of religion. In 1879, a Maryland law asserted: “If any person, by writing or speaking, shall blaspheme or curse God, or shall write or utter any profane words of and concerning our Savior, Jesus Christ, or of and concerning the Trinity … shall be imprisoned not more than six months.”
A famous case involved P.T. Barnum before he became a circus tycoon. As a teenager, he started a weekly Connecticut newspaper, The Herald of Freedom, that denounced Calvinist “blue laws” against Sabbath work. His attack on church elders caused a libel prosecution that put him in jail for two months. Upon release, the budding showman staged a welcome-home parade for himself.
England’s laws have historically required all officeholders to swear a religious oath “on the true faith of a Christian.” Freethinker Charles Bradlaugh, president of the Secular Society and publisher of a skeptic newspaper, was elected to Parliament in 1880, but refused to swear this oath. He was jailed briefly and expelled from the House of Commons, then won subsequent re-elections, and finally was seated in 1886. Previously, he and secular colleagues fought various blasphemy charges.
Today, many Western democracies are scuttling blasphemy laws — but Muslim lands still enforce them brutally.
The clash between free speech and blasphemy prosecution cannot be easily resolved. It’ll end only when religion fades so much that too few believers remain to be outraged by questioning. Witty British writer and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1905: “Blasphemy depends on belief and is fading with it. If anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.”
Just like Thor, blasphemy will hopefully soon be confined to comic books.
This article is adapted and updated from a piece that originally appeared on Oct. 31, 2017, in the United Coalition of Reason newsletter.