Smith explores Shaftesbury’s defense of ridicule and satire in matters of religion.

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 English prosecutions for blasphemy, which extended well into the nineteenth century, prosecutors typically applauded England for its freedom of speech and press. But this freedom, they went on to say, had its limits; it did not include the right to treat the Christian religion with contempt and ridicule. Criticisms of Christianity were legal but only if done in a serious, respectful manner. And since ridicule was a common tactic of freethinkers, this virtually guaranteed their convictions. For example, G.W. Foote, liberal editor of The Freethinker, delighted in publishing satirical essays and cartoons that lampooned Christianity, and these efforts earned him a year in prison in 1883. (The salesman and printer of The Freethinker were also prosecuted. For Foote’s account of his trial, see his Prisoner for Blasphemy, 1886.)

Foote’s Comic Bible Sketches, which were published regularly in The Freethinker, played a major role in his prosecution. (A collection of these cartoons may be found here.) Foote was straightforward about his reason for publishing the sketches, which were quickly reprinted by French freethinkers.

We honestly admit that our purpose is to discredit the Bible as the infallible word of God. Believing as we do, with Voltaire, that despotism can never be abolished without destroying the dogmas on which it rests, and that the Bible is the grand source and sanction of them all, we are profoundly anxious to expose its pretension.

It is difficult to explore Foote’s offensive cartoons and the controversy they provoked without recalling the recent massacre of the twelve cartoonists and staff members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Both cases provoked debates about whether freedom of speech and press may be carried too far, as when satirists deliberately offend Muslims by making fun of their sincere religious beliefs. As with most other controversies, however, this controversy is nothing new—except in earlier centuries it was Christians who argued that their religion should be exempt from public ridicule and that offenders should be silenced by legal means.

Early freethinkers constituted the shock troops in the campaign to remove all legal liability for freedom of speech and press, including the ridicule of Christianity and other religions, however offensive their buffoonery may prove to be. Some freethinkers paid heavy personal prices in this campaign. In the early nineteenth century, for example, the English freethought publisher Richard Carlile served over nine years in prison; and his wife, sister, and many dozens of his workers, in an early display of mass civil disobedience, were imprisoned as well. (I shall discuss the details of the Carlile prosecutions in a later essay.)

The foremost defender of ridicule in every area, especially religion, was the freethinker and deist Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671–1713), who is better known as Lord Shaftesbury. In the first two parts of Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times—a collection of previously published essays, first published in 1711 and subsequently expanded—Shaftesbury, a classical liberal, presented a fascinating defense of the personal and social benefits of ridicule and satire, and his remarks profoundly influenced later freethinkers. I shall discuss Shaftesbury and his influence in this essay and in the one to follow. (I also discussed Shaftesbury in an earlier essay.)

Shaftesbury repudiated the notion that some doctrines are so important or sacred as to render them exempt from any and all ridicule. Any such claim is bound to foster pretentiousness.

There can be no impartial and free censure of manners where any peculiar custom or national opinion is set apart, and not only exempted from criticism but even flattered with the highest art. It is only in a free nation, such as ours, that imposture has no privilege and that neither the credit of a court, the power of a nobility, nor the awfulness of a church can give her protection or hinder her from being arraigned in every shape and appearance.

But what if ridicule is pushed too far? Is it wrong to ridicule beliefs that many people hold as sacred? Shaftesbury pointed out that we are apt to become offended when our own beliefs are ridiculed, even though we may not hesitate to ridicule the beliefs of others. “But who shall be judge of what may be freely examined and what may not, where liberty may be used and where it may not? What remedy shall we prescribe to this in general?” Freedom itself, according to Shaftesbury, is its own remedy. Trial and experience will eventually reveal when ridicule is appropriate and when it is not. Many religious believers will claim that their beliefs are so sacred and beyond reproach that anyone who ridicules them should be punished. “‘Oh,’ say we, ‘the subjects are too grave.’”

Perhaps so, but let us see first whether they are really grave or no, for, in the manner we may conceive them they may peradventure be very grave and weighty in our imagination, but very ridiculous and impertinent in their own nature. Gravity is of the very essence of imposture….Now what rule or measure is there in the world except in the considering of the real temper of things, to find which are truly serious and which ridiculous? And how can this be done unless by applying the ridicule to see whether it will bear?…

Mirth, for the most part, cuts through weighty matters with greater firmness and ease than seriousness.

Like other classical liberals of his time, Shaftesbury compared freedom of discussion to free trade. Just as free trade will bring about an equilibrium between supply and demand, so free discussion will eventually discredit (at least among serious thinkers) “scurrilous buffoonery” that is inappropriately crude: “by freedom of conversation, this illiberal kind of wit will lose its credit.”

For wit is its own remedy. Liberty and commerce bring it to its true standard. The only danger is the laying an embargo. The same thing happens here as in the case of trade. Impositions and restrictions reduce it to a low ebb. Nothing is so advantageous to it as a free port.

Freedom of discussion is the foundation of civil discourse.

All politeness is owing to liberty. We polish one another and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amicable collision. To restrain this is inevitably to bring a rust upon men’s understandings. It is a destroying of civility, good breeding and even charity itself, under pretence of maintaining it.

Shaftesbury called attention to the hypocrisy of many religious zealots who engaged in debates with “our modern free‐​writers” (i.e., deists and other critics of Christianity). While appearing to engage in open discussions with religious skeptics, these “Janus‐​faced” champions of Christianity were quick to call on government to enforce blasphemy laws and other oppressive measures to silence their adversaries: “Having entered the lists and agreed to the fair laws of combat by wit and argument, they have no sooner proved their weapon than you hear them crying aloud for help and delivering over to the secular arm.” Shaftesbury’s mention of the “secular arm” was probably a tacit reference to Catholicism. Since the Catholic Church was technically forbidden to shed blood, it turned heretics and blasphemers over to the “secular arm” for punishment, with the clear understanding that they would be put to death. John Milton and other liberal Protestants had condemned persecution as a uniquely Catholic policy, one that Protestants should not emulate. Thus in referring specifically to the “secular arm,” Shaftesbury was following suit. To link a policy directly to Catholicism was to discredit that policy among many Protestants.

Shaftesbury had many other interesting things to say about the benefits of free and open public discussions. Consider his reply to the objection that unrestrained debates about religion will often generate an uncertainty that may lead to disbelief or skepticism. Reasoning is mental labor, and, as with other kinds of labor, people will not engage in serious reasoning unless they find it agreeable in some way. The unrestrained freedom to use wit and raillery provides this kind of incentive.

It is the habit of reasoning alone which can make a reasoner. And men can never be better invited to the habit than when they find pleasure in it. A freedom of raillery, a liberty in decent language to question everything, and an allowance of unravelling or refuting any argument without offence to the arguer, are the only terms which can render such speculative conversations any way agreeable. For to say truth, they have been rendered burdensome to mankind by the strictness of the laws prescribed to them and by the prevailing pedantry and bigotry of those who reign in them and assume to themselves to be dictators in these provinces.

Shaftesbury’s defense of wit and ridicule bore fruit among freethinkers. Although Voltaire is the best‐​known example of a freethinker who used ridicule and humor in his criticism of Christianity, he was far from the only freethinker who used this tactic. Consider the case of Thomas Woolston (1669–1733), a Cambridge graduate admired by Voltaire, who was the most vilified of the deistic critics of orthodox Christianity. Critics did more than respond to Woolston’s sarcastic criticisms of a literal belief in the Bible; they accused him of insanity—“poor mad Woolston, most scandalous of the deists,” as the nineteenth‐​century historian Leslie Stephen put it in History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876). According to Stephen (who was himself an agnostic), Woolston attacked the Gospel narratives as “preposterous,” and this “would have been sufficient of itself to raise doubts of its author’s sanity.” He was “a mere buffoon jingling his cap and bells in a sacred shrine.” Even Stephen admitted, however, that there are “queer gleams of distorted sense, and even of literary power, in the midst of his buffoonery.” (A good deal of abusive sarcasm may be found in the writings of eighteenth‐​century critics of deism, but none of those respectable Christian writers, so far as I know, was ever accused of being insane.)

Woolston believed that “hireling preachers” were conspiring against him—another indication of his paranoid insanity, according to Stephen. Yet Woolston’s fear of persecution proved well founded. In 1729 he was convicted of blasphemy, fined 100 pounds, and sentenced to a year in prison. Then, unable to pay a security of 2000 pounds to insure his future good conduct, Woolston is reported to have spent the remaining three years of his life in prison. (Voltaire, who was in England at the time, disputed the claim that Woolston died in prison. “Several of my friends have seen him in his house; he died there, at liberty.” The great historian of freethought J.M. Robertson attempted to reconcile these conflicting accounts by suggesting that Woolston may have been under some kind of house arrest during his last three years.)

A contemporary critic charged Woolston with “scurrilous buffoonery and gross raillery,” a charge that has been echoed by modern historians. For example, in Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century (1964), G.R. Cragg called Woolston’s criticism of the Bible “hysterically abusive.” But few if any historians mention the reason for Woolston’s “abusive” tactics. In a passage that reads like a less sophisticated version of Shaftesbury’s arguments in favor of ridicule, Woolston said:

I am resolved to give the Letter of the Scripture no Rest, so long as God gives me Life and Abilities to attack it….And how then is such a Work to be performed to best Advantage? Is it to be done in a grave, sedate, and serious Manner? No, I think Ridicule should here take the Place of sober Reasoning, as the more proper and effectual means to cure Men of their foolish Faith and absurd Notions. As no wise Man hardly ever reprehends a Blunderbuss for his Bull, any other way, than by laughing at him; so the Asserters of nonsensical Notions in Theology should, if possible, be satirized and jested upon, or they will never…desert their absurd Doctrines.