Smith explains some tactics that early freethinkers used in the attempt to avoid punishment for blasphemy and other religious crimes.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In last week’s essay I discussed Shaftesbury’s defense of ridicule in matters of religion. We all have basic beliefs, whether in religion or in other areas, that we regard as so important—or “sacred” in the broad sense—that we may become deeply offended when others use wit and sarcasm to indicate that they do not take our beliefs seriously. But we cannot expect our personal beliefs to be taken seriously by others unless we are willing to defend those beliefs with rational arguments.

To become so apoplectic when our beliefs are ridiculed that we demand the punishment of our critics is to exhibit an unwillingness to engage in rational discourse. Truly reasonable beliefs will withstand ridicule and thereby command widespread respect, whereas irrational beliefs will be unable to withstand ridicule and thereby lose credibility in the public eye. Thus, according to Shaftesbury, ridicule is not an unfortunate byproduct of freedom of speech and press; on the contrary, ridicule serves a positive social function by helping us to distinguish beliefs that should be taken seriously from those that should not. Over time, as some beliefs prove their mettle and become widely accepted, they will become less subject to ridicule.

Shaftesbury made additional observations about the effects of legal restraints on the freedom of speech and press. In an age of blasphemy laws and other types of censorship, when religious and political dissenters were not free to say what they really thought, those dissenters often resorted to various literary devices to avoid punishment. As Shaftesbury put it:

If men are forbid to speak their minds seriously on certain subjects, they will do it ironically. If they are forbid to speak at all upon such subjects or if they find it really dangerous to do so, they will then redouble their disguise, involve themselves in mysteriousness and talk so as hardly to be understood, or at least not plainly interpreted, by those who are disposed to do them mischief.

This was more than speculation. Long before Shaftesbury wrote this passage, freethinkers had attempted to avoid legal penalties by using literary devices that might conceal their true opinions. One such tactic was to write dialogues with two or more fictional characters. A dialogue permitted the villain of the piece to express unorthodox beliefs, which the orthodox character (the ostensible stand‐​in for the writer) would then refute. But when freethinkers used this tactic, their unorthodox arguments were typically stronger than their orthodox refutations, and this could cause some readers to become suspicious.

A famous example of this tactic—one with tragic consequences—occurred with an Italian freethinker named Giulio Casare Vanini (1585–1619). Vanini traveled extensively throughout Europe and wrote a number of Latin treatises that expressed highly unorthodox religious beliefs, but he always provided supposed refutations of those scandalous doctrines. In one book, for example, he explained in considerable detail the “problem of evil”—an argument against the traditional concept of God that was first expressed by some ancient Greek skeptics. True, Vanini then replied to that important argument, but his counter‐​arguments lacked the clarity and logical force of the initial presentation.

The same problem appeared in Vanini’s discussions of personal immortality. Vanini admired both Aristotle and the Renaissance Aristotelian Pietro Pomponazzi, and he incorporated some of their arguments against personal immortality into his works. Of course, Vanini proceeded to refute those naturalistic arguments and to defend the immortality of the soul; but, again, his refutations invariably left much to be desired. Nevertheless, this tactic permitted Vanini to pose as a champion of Christian orthodoxy.

This ruse caught up with Vanini in his last book, the final section of which includes a dialogue between two major characters: “Julius Caesar”(who was supposed to represent Vanini’s own beliefs) and “Alexander.” At various points heretical and skeptical views were injected into the conversation while being preceded with qualifications like “If I were not a Christian,” or “If I were not instructed by the Church,” or “If I were not a believer,” I would say….And the deception became even more obvious when a third character, the “Atheist of Amsterdam,” entered the scene. This atheist would make outrageous comments, such as the claim that the Christian martyrs were probably mentally ill, only to be met with weak retorts.

One exchange in particular clearly illustrates Vanini’s tactic. Here is a passage that he attributed to the Atheist of Amsterdam.

According to the Bible, one would assume that the Devil was stronger than God. Against the will of God, Adam and Eve sinned and thus perished the human race. The Son of God, coming to remedy this fault, was condemned by his judges, incited by the Devil, to an ignominious death. So, according to the Bible, the satanic will is stronger than God’s. Lo! God wants all men to be saved; but he saves only very few. On the contrary, the Devil wishes all men damned and their number is infinite. Out of the vast world, only those people who live in Italy, Spain, some districts of France, Germany, and Poland have any chance for salvation. If one deducts from these candidates for redemption Jews, secret heretics, atheists, blasphemers, simonists, adulterers, and sodomites who are not likely to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven scarcely a squad remains compared to the millions who will be damned.

As illustrated in this passage, Vanini often injected wit into his presentation of heretical opinions; but, witty or no, it was unthinkable that the blasphemies of the atheist should be allowed to stand without a crushing rebuttal. So how did Julius Caesar respond to the Atheist of Amsterdam? Well, Julius conceded that Satan won the first round with God (in the Garden of Eden), but noted that God won the second round (with the mission of Jesus). Julius also pointed out that the huge number of people in hell would generate an enormous amount of labor, trouble, and aggravation for the demons who managed that place of torment. After hearing several other feeble refutations, the Atheist of Amsterdam praised Julius for his powerful arguments, calling him “the world’s leading antagonist of atheism.”

It scarcely took a genius to understand what Vanini was up to in his dialogues, but his book initially passed inspection by papal censors, who declared that it contained nothing contrary or repugnant to the Catholic faith. Whether those censors were afflicted by bureaucratic laziness or stupidity, or both, it is impossible to say, but more intelligent Catholic persecutors eventually caught on to Vanini’s game. On the 9th of February, 1619, the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome convicted Vanini of “atheism, blasphemies, impieties, and other crimes,” and sentenced him to be executed the same day. The sentence read as follow:

[Vanini shall] be delivered into the hands of the executioner of justice, who shall draw him upon a hurdle, in his shirt, with a halter about his neck, and bearing upon his shoulders a placard with the words ATHEIST AND BLASPHEMER OF THE NAME OF GOD; he shall thus conduct him before the principal entrance to the metropolitan church of St. Stephen, and being there placed on his knees with head and feet naked, holding in his hands a lighted wax‐​torch, he shall ask pardon from God, from the King, and from Justice for his said blasphemies; afterwards he shall bring him into the Place of Salin, and, bound to a stake there erected, he shall cut off his tongue, and strangle him, and afterwards his body shall be burnt at the stake‐​fire, there prepared, and the ashes thrown to the wind.

As Vanini was taken from prison to be placed on the hurdle, he cried out, “Let us go, let us go joyfully to die, as becomes a philosopher!” Vanini spurned the crucifix offered to him, and he refused to confess any guilt. Then, after being bound to the stake, he refused to extend his tongue so it could be cut off, so the executioner wrenched his mouth open, pulled out his tongue with iron pincers, and then used a knife to finish the job. At this point, with blood flowing, Vanini screamed in pain—a sound that one pious observer gleefully compared to the bellowing of an ox that was being slaughtered. Strangulation and burning quickly followed.

Another literary tactic popular among freethinkers was to criticize pagan beliefs and practices that resembled those of Christianity, while disingenuously claiming that such criticisms did not apply to Christianity. Many deists used this tactic to avoid punishment, but I shall confine this discussion to how it was employed by Charles Blount (1654–1693), one of the most radical and influential anti‐​Christian deists of his era.

Consider Great is Diana of the Ephesians (1680), Blount’s thinly veiled attack on Christian rituals, dogmas, and clergy. Blount’s stated purpose was to criticize ancient heathen religions, which, under the auspices of self‐​serving and ignorant priests, had become encrusted with absurd dogmas and rituals. Blount, proposing to examine those heathen religions critically, wrote:

Now most religions (excepting ours), being tainted with the Interest of the Clergy, [we] must examine and consider them accordingly: For if a Porter should come and tell me, he had brought me such a Letter from my Father, and the first part of the Letter should teach Obedience to Parents, but the latter part of it should command me to give the said Porter half my Estate; in this case I should (notwithstanding the Testimony of his Brother Porters), without some further demonstration, believe the Letter a Counterfeit; as also that the first part of it, which taught Obedience, was only to make way for the second and principal clause, the giving the Porter Money. Now most of the Heathen Priests were such Porters….

To debunk the “mysteries” of heathen religions may have seemed unnecessary when addressing Christian readers, but Blount’s subtext was clear to any reader who was half‐​awake, despite disclaimers like this: “what I have here written concerns [Heathenish Religions] only….” Again, while commenting on heathen sacrifices, Blount noted that his criticisms might seem to apply to Moses as well, but he reassured his audience in a not‐​very‐​convincing fashion.

Now if any Hypocrite to glorifie his own zeal, should pretend that a discourse of this nature does through the Heathen Sacrifices, reproach those of Moses, which resembled them in outward appearance, he must retrieve himself from that error, if he rightly apprehends the difference….

Just what was the difference between heathen sacrifices and those commanded by Moses? It was this: Heathen priests concocted sacrifices as a means to hoodwink and bilk their followers, whereas Moses was directed by the “true God.” This is all that Blount said on this matter, so little wonder that pious readers rightly suspected him of duplicity. Christianity, not heathenism, was Blount’s real target—but that target, protected by law, could not be aimed at safely, without fear of punishment.