Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The offence of blasphemy

On 8 May 2008, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales, with effect from 8 July 2008. Parliament cannot abolish the 3rd Commandment so easily as they would think, however, and as 'the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain' so will he not hold guiltless those that have abused their delegated power to protect and reward the evil doer in this way.

The Blasphemy Act 1698 declared it illegal for any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, to state the following:

- a denial that the members of the Holy Trinity were God.
- an assertion that there is more than one god.
- a denial of the truth of the Christian religion to be true.
- a denial of the Holy Scriptures to be of divine authority.

Those denying the Trinity were already deprived of the benefit of the Act of Toleration by an act of 1688. The first offence resulted in being rendered incapable of holding any office or place of trust. The second offense resulted in being rendered incapable of bringing any action, of being guardian or executor, or of taking a legacy or deed of gift, and three years imprisonment without bail.

It was rarely applied: an excessively short statute of limitations allowed for a very short time after the offense for lodging a formal complaint; a similar limitation applied to bringing the case to trial. It followed from February 1698 when a committee of the house of Commons requested William III to suppress 'all pernicious books and pamphlets which contain in them impious doctrines'. By the law of Scotland, as it originally stood, the punishment of blasphemy was death, a penalty imposed on Thomas Aikenhead in Edinburgh in 1697. By an act of 1825, amended in 1837, blasphemy was made punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. The last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843 but technically the law remains in force in Scotland.

The English act (exactly 310 years old) was directed against apostates at the beginning of the deist movement in England, particularly after the 1696 publication of John Toland's book, "Christianity Not Mysterious." "The reasonableness of Christianity" by John Locke was also in view. Both books were burnt by the public hangman. It was said that Toland's book took out all the mystery and left no Christianity at all. Momentum for action had been building since the 'Proposals for a National Reformation of Manners in 1694 'All men agree that atheism and prophaneness never got such an high ascendant as at this day. A thick gloominess hath overspread our horizon, and our light looks like the everining of the world.'

Daniel Defoe commented on the climate of skepticism: 'No age since the founding and forming of the Christian Church was ever like, in open avowed Atheism, blasphemies and heresies to the age we now live in'. One deist wrote that if Jesus Christ was responsible for founding churches 'I think the old Romans did him right in punishing him with the death of a slave'.

Francis Atterbury gave a similarly gloomy assessment:
'Heresies of all kinds, scepticisim, deism ahd atheism itself over-run us like a deluge...the Triinity has been...openly denied...a,ll mysteries in religion have been decried as impositions on men's understandings, and nothing is admitted as an article of faith but what we can fully and perfectly comprehend'

Another assessment shows the similarity of our age to the latter end of the 17th century 'we are fallen into those dregs of time wherein atheism and irreligion,seidition and debauchery seem to divide the world between them'. How much more is this the case now, and how much more proportionately do we need a blasphemy act to be retained.

The Criminal Law Act 1967 abolished the offences of the Blasphemy Act 1698,
and blasphemy became a purely common law matter. Lord Denning said 'we
all thought it was obsolescent'. In 1976 Mary Whitehouse, started a private prosecution of a blasphemous homosexual poem. During the House of Lords appeal Lord Scarman said that "I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in modern law. (...) The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom." The conviction was followed by a endeavours to abolish the crime of blasphemy.

We ought to take special note of the reasons that are annexed to the third commandment. The Larger Catechism identifies these as:
'these words, The Lord thy God, and, For the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain, are, because he is the Lord and our God, therefore his name is not to be profaned, or any way abused by us; especially because he will be so far from acquitting and sparing the transgressors of this commandment, as that he will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment; albeit many such escape the censures and punishments of men'. The last two clauses should be clearly emphasised in the light of current events.