United States citizens may not be familiar with blasphemy laws. They are laws limiting irreverence towards or criticism of religion, and people, beliefs and customs associated with religion. In many instances, it can prevent the free exercise of religion for individuals who do not belong to a dominant group. Members of religious groups that depart from the mainstream views might be charged with blasphemy. The punishment for the seventeenth century Quaker, James Nayler was to
be put in the pillory in the city of Westminster for the space of two hours, on Thursday next, and then be whipped by the hangman through the streets from Westminster to the Old Change, and there be put in the pillory again from the hours of eleven to one on the following Saturday. He shall then have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron, and be branded with the letter B, and sent to Bristol, where he shall be paraded through the city on horseback, with his face backward. From Bristol he shall be brought back to London and sent to the Tower, there to be kept to hard labour by order of Parliament, and be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and have no relief but what he can earn by his daily labour.
The Ranter John Robins avoided prosecution for blasphemy by recanting his former beliefs.
It may sound like a medieval concept, but the last successful prosecution for blasphemy in the UK occurred as recently as 1977. The Gay News had published a poem by James Kirkup that portrayed Jesus as gay. They were both convicted and fined and Kirkup was given a suspended sentence.
After Salman Rushdie, a respected author who has won many awards, published the book The Satanic Verses, the British Government was petitioned “No charges were laid because, as a House of Lords select committee stated, the law only protects the Christian beliefs as held by the Church of England.”
In another case:
Michael Newman, a secondary school science teacher and an atheist, was arrested under England’s blasphemy law for selling Wingrove’s blasphemous video, “Visions of Ecstasy” in February 1992 in Birmingham.
Finally, in 2008, the law was abolished.
Less than a decade later, however, at least one Labour MP seems to think it would be a good idea to not only reinstate the law, but to extend it to other religions as well. From an article published in Al Arabiya News on November 13:
A MCB conference held in London on Wednesday, entitled ‘Terrorism and Extremism – how should British Muslims respond’, also heard debate over potential blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom.
Keith Vaz MP, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, told Al Arabiya News that he would have “no problem” with blasphemy laws being reintroduced, under certain conditions.
“It should apply to all religions. If we have laws, they should apply to everybody. Religions are very special to people. And therefore I have no objection to them… but it must apply equally to everybody.”
Although people who advocate for such laws will surely invoke more plebian art forms such as cartoons and comics, we must forget that more genteel forms like literary novels and even possibly works of history will be affected. Not only professional purveyors of outrage like Katie Hopkins will be affected, but more sober and serious critics of religion and religious figures as well.
Update: Here’s a link to a short YouTube video about Wingrove’s Visions of Ecstasy.