Blasphemous Britain

Blasphemy in Modern Britain
四月 2, 1999

Blasphemy is a difficult subject. Historians of religion tend to avoid it, except as an inconvenient aspect of heretical discourse; historians of free thought tend to avoid it, except as an untypical symptom of the struggle against the authorities. Yet the expression of, and reaction to, offensive material about religion reveals much about religious and anti-religious activity and about ecclesiastical and political authority.

David Nash, a senior lecturer in history at Oxford Brookes University, has produced a useful addition to the limited literature on the subject. Its scope is restricted to Britain in the past two centuries, though the introductory material includes a summary of heresy and blasphemy in general and a longer account of the legal shift from the former to the latter during the century following the Anglican settlement. The main text consists of essays on six major episodes of the painful relationship between militant representatives of rising unbelief and falling belief.

First comes Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason , whose publication in the 1790s revived the Deist controversy of the early 18th century and whose persecution into the 1820s prompted the emergence of the formal freethought movement. Then come the cases of founding freethinkers such as Richard Carlile and G. J. Holyoake in the early 19th century, the case of G. W. Foote, whose paper The Freethinker was the occasion of the most dramatic confrontation in the late 19th century, and the cases of open-air free-thought propagandists in the early 1900s.

These are followed by the campaigns to change the blasphemy law - by restriction, extension or both - from the first to the second world war, a parenthetical account of the attempt by political and religious extremists to prevent the International Freethought Congress in London in 1938, and the Gay News case in the late 1970s. The conclusion includes The Satanic Verses and Visions of Ecstasy cases in the early 1990s.

The result is more a contribution to the historiography than the history of blasphemy in Britain. Only the Freethinker and Gay News cases are described in detail, and the treatment of most episodes consists of a critical commentary rather than a narrative or analysis. Blasphemy is compared and contrasted with some other forms of objectionable behaviour, but not integrated with other forms of free-thought propaganda. Nash feels constrained by professional etiquette to add a tedious chapter on "Blasphemy and theory".

The research is impressive, especially when Nash makes use of Home Office papers, but the result is often puzzling and even irritating. It is not as specialised as most of its academic predecessors; it is not as vitiated by theory as the books by David Lawton and Joss Marsh; it is not as biased as the polemical tracts by Richard Webster and myself; it is not as thorough as Leonard Levy's US book Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie (1993), which has not been published in Britain. Nash shows much interest in his difficult subject, but little empathy with the dramatis personae.

The book is marred by misspellings, misprints and some serious errors and omissions. It is a pity to reverse the message of George Meredith's description of Foote as one of "the true soldiers", in Heinrich Heine's phrase, and to say nothing about the International Freethought Congress after describing the opposition to it.

The impact of the text is blunted by the author's oblique and sometimes opaque style. One cannot help wondering whether the academy is the right place for the appreciation of the non-academic and often anti-academic material involved in so-called blasphemy and in free-thought propaganda generally. And one hopes that the price is another misprint.

Nicolas Walter is secretary, Committee Against Blasphemy Law, and author of Blasphemy Ancient and Modern .

Blasphemy in Modern Britain: 1789 to the Present

Author - David Nash
ISBN - 1 85928 023 4
Publisher - Ashgate
Price - £45.00
Pages - 300

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