Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie

Overview

What society considers blasphemy - a verbal assault against the sacred - is a litmus test of the standards it believes to be necessary to preserve unity, order, and morality. Society has always condemned as blasphemy what it regards as an abuse of liberty. Looking across the centuries - from Moses to Salman Rushdie - at writings and speech that societies have and have not tolerated, Leonard Levy demonstrates that throughout history, prosecutions for blasphemy have been tinged with political considerations. ...
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Overview

What society considers blasphemy - a verbal assault against the sacred - is a litmus test of the standards it believes to be necessary to preserve unity, order, and morality. Society has always condemned as blasphemy what it regards as an abuse of liberty. Looking across the centuries - from Moses to Salman Rushdie - at writings and speech that societies have and have not tolerated, Leonard Levy demonstrates that throughout history, prosecutions for blasphemy have been tinged with political considerations. Socrates, Aristotle, Jesus, Michael Servetus, Giordano Bruno, George Fox, William Penn, Thomas Paine, Edward Moxon, Roberto Rossellini, Martin Scorsese, and the 1976 editor of the British journal Gay News are among those whose "blasphemies" Levy examines in their historical contexts. Professor Levy traces the varied meanings of the offense in Western law - from the ancient Hebrew crime of cursing God by name to the modern crime of ridiculing God or professing atheistical principles that insult the religious feelings of Christians. He explores the blurring of meaning that occurred as at various times blasphemy became nearly indistinguishable from heresy, idolatry, sacrilege, nonconformity, sedition, treason, profanity, obscenity, and breach of peace. He shows, too, how frequently and ferociously Christians have persecuted each other for blasphemy, with Catholics pursuing and killing one another over differences of interpretation, then Protestants - all of whom once seemed blasphemous to Catholics - turning on each other, and the more established denominations punishing Unitarians, Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians. We see how in the United States, where blasphemy was initially denounced in sermons and statutes, prosecutions became less frequent and more isolated as people grew increasingly indifferent to aberrant beliefs and First Amendment freedoms were expanded by the courts. Although prosecutions ceased entirely in 1971 in America and in 1979 in England,

Distinguished legal historian Levy traces the varied meanings of the offense in Western law--from the ancient Hebrew crime of cursing God by name to the modern crime of ridiculing God or professing atheistical principles that insult the religious feelings of Christians.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Socrates, Jesus, Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno, Quakers George Fox and William Penn, Daniel Defoe and Thomas Paine were all condemned for blasphemy. In a tour de force of lively writing and keen historical interpretation, prolific legal historian Levy shows that the charge of blasphemy has served as a means to besmirch opinions or people held objectionable to those in positions of authority. For centuries the Catholic Church persecuted blasphemers and heretics for their divergent views. Protestant reformers adopted the epithet ``blasphemer'' to castigate dissidents within their own ranks. Proceeding from fifth century B.C. Athens to medieval persecution of the Jews to the ``hysteria'' over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, this work is both an essential casebook and an outspoken, feisty, important study of the struggle for intellectual and religious liberties. History Book Club alternate. (Sept.)
Aaron Cohen
The Constitution notwithstanding, blasphemy laws still exist in the U.S., for although virtually comatose, they've never been overturned by the Supreme Court. In England, church and state have never been fully separated, and only 14 years ago the House of Lords upheld the blasphemy conviction of the publishers of London's "Gay News". Such startling revelations about the persistence of antiquated decrees in modern, presumably secular democracies indicate the importance of Levy's new study. Almost unbelievably thorough, it covers famous trials of long and not so long ago as well as lesser-known cases that reveal, for instance, much about colonial America. Levy vividly conjures the excitements of his more outlandish examples; his portrayal of seventeenth-century Britain's anarchistic Ranters is especially provocative. In addition, although defining "blasphemy"--when the term has so often been mixed up with "heresy", "profanity", and "treason"--is no easy task, Levy proves able to straighten out its semantic evolution. Since Salman Rushdie is still in hiding, Levy's opus is, however recondite it may seem at first blush, all too pertinent to the close of the twentieth century.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679402367
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/17/1993
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 688
  • Product dimensions: 6.67 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.93 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface
1 Origins of the Offense 3
2 The Jewish Trial of Jesus 15
3 Christianity Transforms Blasphemy 31
4 Compelling Heretics 46
5 Protestantism Rediscovers Blasphemy 58
6 The Fires of Smithfield 75
7 Socinian Anti-Trinitarians 101
8 The Ranters: Antinomianism Run Amok 136
9 The Early English Quakers 168
10 Christianity Becomes the Law of the Land 205
11 Early Colonial America: Gorton and the Quakers 238
12 America from 1660 to 1800 260
13 England's Augustan Age of Toleration 272
14 Blasphemy and Obscenity 296
15 The "Age of Reason"? 320
16 Eaton to Carlile: Deism for the People 339
17 Carlile's Shopmen and Free Expression 368
18 Early American State Cases 400
19 England Reconsiders the Law of Blasphemy 424
20 English Prosecutions of the 1840s 442
21 Bible Burning and a Debate Revived 463
22 Bradlaugh, Foote, and Coleridge's Decency Test 479
23 The Age of John W. Gott 495
24 The American Middle Period: 1880-1940 506
25 Modern America 522
26 The Gay News Case 534
27 The Rushdie Affair: Should All Religions Be Protected or None? 551
28 Conclusions 568
Notes 581
Index 661
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