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Blasphemy, Heresy, And Atheism

Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.E.) was put to death in ancient Greece for introducing new gods, among other charges. Later, the main religions introduced doctrines of blasphemy and heresy as justifications for censorship. For the Jews blasphemy meant insult to God and was closely related to idolatry. The Christians expanded the meaning to include insult to Christ, and they tended to confuse blasphemy with heresy, or theological error. There is little evidence that blasphemy was a major concern in early Islam, but in 1989 a fatwa in Iran called for the death penalty against the author Salman Rushdie (1947–) for blasphemy. The same year, Hindu fundamentalists issued a death threat against the historian M. M. Kalburgi for blasphemy.

In the widest meaning of heresy, the beliefs of every sect are heresies to every other sect, but it is usually the dominant orthodoxy that gets to define the heretical for practical purposes. Censorship of heresies can begin with prohibition of expression and develop through excommunication and punishment up to the death penalty. Atheism is a heresy to most religions and is sometimes considered worse than mere adherence to a mistaken religion. In ancient Greece, Anaxagoras (c. 500–c. 428 B.C.E.) was prosecuted for denying the existence of the gods.

The Catholic Church developed the most sophisticated early censoring apparatus in the form of the Inquisitions and Index. In 1231 the Dominican and Franciscan orders were charged with inquiry into the spread of heresy, an undertaking later known as the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was instituted in 1478, and after various experiments with local inquisitions, a centralized Roman Inquisition was set up in 1542 to root out heresy. Lists of banned books were published in Paris (1544), Lucca (1545), Louvain (1546), and Venice (1549). In 1559 the first Index of Prohibited Books was issued at the Council of Trent, and a separate papal Congregation of the Index, set up in 1571, continued to issue an Index every few decades until it was abolished in 1966. Enforcement of such efforts at censorship depends in part on the climate of public opinion: in the eighteenth century, for example, sale of the Index was banned in Austria because people were buying it to use as a guide to reading.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to ChimaeraCensorship - Blasphemy, Heresy, And Atheism, Political Subversion, The Netherlands And England, From Bayle To Constant