This post by James McDonald originally appeared at heretication.info.
“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
—S. G. Tallentyre’s summary of Voltaire’s attitude to Helvétius.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of Christians imposing their views on others is censorship. Pope Gelasius issued a list of prohibited writings as early as AD 494, though there had been specific prohibitions before that. It was not until a thousand years later that the system of thought control really flourished.
In 1557 Pope Paul IV established the Index Liborum Prohibitorum, a list of prohibited books, usually known simply as the Index. A vast range of books was put on this Index, scientific, philosophical, religious, and artistic. Jewish books were placed on the Index under Pope Clement VIII in 1596. Specific authors whose works have been put on it include most of the great names of western literature and learning. Amongst them have been Galen, Chaucer, Bacon, Erasmus, Milton, Dante, Montaigne, Rabelais, Copernicus, Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Voltaire, Goldsmith, Locke, Gibbon, Hume, Rousseau, J. S. Mill, Darwin, and Victor Hugo. Also placed on the index were writings which told the truth about the forged documents that the Church had produced to support papal claims and, more recently, books about family planning. On the other hand works such as Mein Kampf have never been prohibited. The Index was abolished in 1966. Now the Church has to be content with censoring the writings of its own priests. Their work is reviewed by censors and given an imprimatur only if the sentiments conform to the current official line.
Uncomfortable public statements continue to be suppressed. Father Leonardo Boff for example was banned from making public statements by the Vatican in 1985. Some Roman Catholic countries maintained their own equivalent of the Index. The Irish Free State, as then was, for example banned all of the works of Synge and Yeats, along with other dangerous books such as Modern Utopia by H G Wells, The Origin of Species by Darwin, and a book about fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle. In Eire, the successor to the Free State, the Irish Censorship Board, assisted by the Catholic Truth Society, continues to uphold the faith. Though regarded as a figure of fun in educated circles, its decisions could still cause offending authors to lose their jobs at the end of the twentieth century. Christians in secular states have often managed to ban respectable works, again well into the twentieth century: Webster’s Dictionary for example was banned in Arkansas because of its entry on Darwinian evolution. Information about family planning and birth control has been banned in many Christian countries.
Over the centuries the Christian Churches have burned countless thousands, perhaps millions, of books of which it disapproved. The Protestant record may not be quite as bad as that of Roman Catholic’s, but it is not much better. English Parliaments and juries were keen book burners, and the Public Hangman was kept occupied burning political and religious “naughty writings” as well as their naughty authors. The Commons had them burned, the Lords had them burned, bishops had them burned, judges had them burned and magistrates had them burned.
Some writers destroyed their own unpublished works, fearing the consequences of discovery. Thomas Hobbes, who had been lucky to keep his life after publishing Leviathan in 1651, is known to have burned some of his papers while under threat. Even sceptical ecclesiastics were vulnerable. Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, destroyed an incriminating manuscript in the early 1730’s. Theologians sometimes published posthumously for fear of the consequences. The atheist curé Jean Meslier left manuscripts to be published after his death. Extracts were published by Voltaire, but the work was not published in full until the nineteenth century.
Philosophers were also obliged to publish posthumously or anonymously, for fear of the consequences. Blaise Pascal published his Lettres écrites à un provincial secretly and anonymously in 1656-7 because they exposed Jesuit morality. Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise which attacked Christian supernaturalism was published anonymously in 1670. In France, Denis Diderot (1713-84) had his rational encyclopaedia suppressed, and he himself was imprisoned in 1749. His Pensées Philosophiques had been burned by the Paris Parliament in 1746 and he felt obliged to publish his Pensées sur la Religion anonymously in 1763. Some of his work (e.g. Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream) were published only posthumously.
Voltaire ridiculed conventional Christian ideas in his novel Candide and other works. His Letters Concerning the English, published in France as Lettres Philosophiques, were burned by the public executioner and an order was made for his arrest. Fearing Christian retribution from a number of countries he lived on an international border, so that he could escape, whichever authorities proceeded against him. David Hume (1711-76) worked for 25 years on his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a critique of the religious Argument from Design. Because it was likely to be regarded as seditious it could not be published during his lifetime. It was published, in the teeth of fierce opposition, three years after his death.
It is more than likely that contributions from other philosophers were suppressed or destroyed by Christian friends and relatives to avoid posthumous criticism from the God-fearing classes. All manner of existing works needed tailoring to meet Christian sensibilities. The devout Dr Thomas Bowdler, produced an expurgated version of Shakespeare’s works in 1818. He also bowdlerised Gibbon’s monumental work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, probably the best researched, well written, and authoritative history ever produced. He expurgated all the religious material, judging, perhaps correctly, that Christians would not wish to learn the truth about the early history of their faith. In the USA Noah Webster was more considerate still. He produced an expurgated version of the bible. It is mixed blessing that he could not have done this in England. In England he would have needed a special license from Parliament to publish a translation of the bible.
Because of contemporary Christian mores, Dr James Murray felt unable to include a number of ancient English words in the Oxford English Dictionary, so marring one of the greatest works of English scholarship ever undertaken. The omissions had to be rectified in supplements by Dr Robert Burchfield in the twentieth century. In the USA the position is the same as it was in England. Webster’s Dictionary omitted these words, and still omits them. Even at the end of the twentieth century there is only one American dictionary that included what publishers call the “big six” four-letter words. Christian extends to many areas of life. The Bishop of Wakefield burned Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure because it did not support the Church’s current view of the sanctity of marriage. Not until well into the twentieth century that it was possible freely to publish works describing abortion or birth control. In England, as elsewhere, books on the subject were regarded as pornographic and those involved in their publication could be, and were, prosecuted under obscenity legislation. In Catholic countries offending books were placed on the Index, and sympathetic governments like Hitler’s suppressed them by force.
In England all conventional media have been controlled at one time or another. Plays for example were strictly regulated. By the fourteenth century the only performances permitted in England were religious ones such as morality plays, miracle plays and mystery plays. By the sixteenth century the monopoly had been broken, and to the Church’s irritation it was possible to stage public plays. Theatre censorship was introduced in 1551, but this was not enough. In 1642 Puritans closed the London theatres altogether. They opened again in 1660 when the Puritans had fallen from power. From 1843 the law required new play scripts to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, who would issue a licence for public performance only if the play was deemed suitable. Many playwrights had to amend their work in order to get it staged. Bernard Shaw for example had problems with a number of plays, including Mrs Warren’s Profession (1894). Ensuring suitability often involved sanitising history. For example a play in 1966 was denied a licence unless it was amended to include a favourable view of the papacy’s wartime record with respect to the Jews. This prior censorship, as it was called, ended two years later. By then the unfortunate Lord Chamberlain had become a laughing stock to all but the keenest moralists.
Books had also been subjected to prior censorship (i.e. review and possible suppression before publication). The first notable essay arguing “for the liberty of unlicensed printing” was Areopagitica, published by the Unitarian John Milton in 1644. His ideas were espoused by the philosopher John Locke. On Lock’s advice Parliament repealed the Licensing Act in 1695, so ending the practice of prior restraint. It was possible to push through this repeal largely because the then Censor, one Bohun, had already become a figure of fun – just as the Lord Chamberlain was to become a figure of fun for the same reason almost three centuries later. Cinema films have been subject to prior censorship since 1912 and still are, having been joined by video films in 1984. For many years the American film industry was constrained by the US Production Code, the infamous Hays Code, inspired by God-fearing Christians. So it was that from 1934 to 1968 cinema storylines had to have “moral” endings, kisses could not last more than three seconds, and people were allowed onto a bed only in the most innocent circumstances. By 1968 the Hays Code had become such a joke that, like the British Lord Chancellor’s rôle, it had to be abandoned, despite vocal Christian protestations.
In the late Middle Ages the Christian authorities had been keen to prevent unauthorised translations of the Bible getting into the hands of the public. Secret printing was heavily penalised, but public demand ensured a thriving black market. Printers’ apprenticeships were strictly controlled. Printing was limited to Oxford, Cambridge and London. Laws were introduced to permit the search of imports for concealed bibles. But none of it worked and bibles became ever more common. Once the Bible battle was over the censors’ focus changed to political and religious sedition; and when that battle was lost too, it changed again to sex. The traditional Christian obsession with sexual matters resulted in prosecutions for obscenity against not only books about birth control, but also respectable literature and even books on psychology. Amongst the victims of obscenity prosecutions have been Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Norman Haire’s Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge. Christian morality suffered a setback in 1961 when D H Lawrence’s last book Lady Chatterly’s Lover was published in paperback. Innocuous as it now seems, it caused outrage at the time, selling three million copies to top the best seller lists thanks to the publicity. So too, Hubert Selby’s Last Exit To Brooklyn incurred the wrath of Christians and landed his British Publishers in court, though they won the case on appeal. In 1968 a play called The Romans in Britain was prosecuted for obscenity. In 1977 a piece of poetry by Professor James Kirkup, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, was found to be criminally blasphemous.
Christians still seek to impose their views on others. Because of Christian sensitivities the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned by some local authorities in Britain when it was released in 1979. It was also banned by the IBA so that it could not be shown on British commercial television. The film’s subject matter is not explicitly Jesus or Christianity, so it is not clear why Christians should be so sensitive about it, but in any case people are being prohibited from seeing a film that they want to see, not only in Britain but in other Christian countries around the world. Neither is this a lone example. In Britain and the USA attempts were made to ban Martin Scorsase’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it appeared in 1988. In 1989 a 20 minute video Visions of Ecstasy was banned in Britain because it was held to be blasphemous, although it was based St. Theresa of Ávila’s own accounts of her visions. Eastern Churches have similar attitudes. For example when Theodore Angelopoulos started shooting The Suspended Step of the Stork a local bishop condemned the film, inciting violence against the set and crew.
Since it has become impossible for Christians to deny the existence of atheists, they have taken to denying the possibility of atheist morality. Many Christians seem to be offended by the idea that atheists might be capable of leading fulfilled and morally upright lives. In 1955 the BBC decided to allow rationalists a voice. Margaret Knight, an eminent psychologist, gave a talk in which she suggested that people can lead honest and meaningful lives without the aid of religion. The reaction from Christians was powerful. Mrs Knight was attacked for immoral and seditious teachings. Since then, the BBC has never again dared to give rationalism a fair hearing, preferring a safe diet of religion produced by its Religious Department. Not only the BBC favours Christian preferences. In 1961 advertisements by the Family Planning Association were removed from the London Underground because of Roman Catholic sensitivities.
Even television advertisements are censored because of Christian sensitivities. Tunes which happen to resemble Hymn tunes seem to cause especial offence. In 1988 Volkswagen had to redub a television commercial because it had used an Alan Price song, Changes, the tune of which also features in the song What a Friend We have in Jesus. An advertisement for Quality Street chocolates had to be withdrawn because of its tune sounded like that of the hymn When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There. Cardinal Basil Hume’s office felt compelled to report the Tattler to the Press Council because an advertising feature, based on a genre of 1950s Italian films, included religious artefacts. Christians also routinely complain about television advertisements for condoms and tampons, which have been permitted on British television only since the late 1980s.
European television of course has never benefited from the distinctive brand of Christian morality characterised by the Anglo-Saxon Low Churches. Christians in Britain are now concerned that satellite television might allow those who want to see European television programmes. Similar Low Church attitudes are popular in the USA. In some areas the USA is well ahead in religious inspired censorship. Fundamentalists in California have managed to ban schoolbooks which deal with a wide range of subjects, including the theory of evolution, race relations, nuclear war, sex discrimination, human sexuality, birth control, and the Holocaust.
Because of its history, book burning is generally regarded with horror in the West. But many Christians still regard it as acceptable. After the Scopes trial in 1925 a Christian High School superintendent in Meridan, Mississippi organised a public bonfire of pages torn from text-books dealing with evolution. Following public burning of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in the 1980s an Iranian Fatwah was issued calling for the killing of the author. All secular opinion concurred that this was intolerable. The only influential Western voices raised against Rushdie and in favour of censorship, came from the Christian Churches.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church
By James McDonald
Garnet Publishing (1 November 2009)
“You Can’t Print That!” Conversations with George Seldes
Gore Vidal on the Christian God and Christianity
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