Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie.
About twenty years ago Leonard W. Levy published the first volume of his study of blasphemy, entitled Treason Against God. It covered only the period up to about 1600 C.E., and dealt largely with blasphemy in the Bible. His book met with a cool reception, and a second volume was never published. Now, after much additional time for reflection, Levy has produced an improved effort. The present 688-page book synopsizes the first volume of long ago, then gives us about 400 pages on more modern cases.
Levy gives us a history of the "offense" of blasphemy (a truly victimless crime), showing how the definition of the offense varied over time and place. He commits a number of minor errors (d'Holbach did not call his book Ecce Homo--that was a later publisher's title--but rather [in French] A Critical History of Jesus Christ. He also has the magazine FREE INQUIRY confused with the Free Inquirer!), but the book is generally a piece of careful scholarship. Yet, Levy does have his limitations. He seems to think that anything written by an atheist is unreliable or "crazy." He overlooks the fact that probably haft of all scholarly books are written by undeclared atheists. A number of freethinking atheists are called deists. (Then again, Levy has the definition of atheist wrong.) Thomas Paine is usually called "Tom" in the book, a form used as an insult by Paine's enemies.
The vast bulk of the material that Levy has reported is mind-boggling. To think that so many people have been prosecuted so many times for the "crime" of blasphemy, when no media or general historical coverage of this fact has been made available to the layman, says something about how history is taught. Levy's book will help to fill in the gaps left by standard histories.
One impact of the book is the realization that the religious liberty of us all hangs by a slender thread. The state can always find ways to abridge that liberty, especially when it thinks that its special interests are threatened. Most blasphemy prosecutions were not done (at least in modern times) for religious reasons, but rather for political or economic reasons.
The laws against blasphemy in the United States and the United Kingdom arc not just historical remnants; they remain on the books in at least five states, and in the United Kingdom, where there have been recent prosecutions. That is something worth working to resolve.