Arnfred Olsen and G W Foote

One silver lining

Norway has scrapped its longstanding blasphemy law, meaning it is now legal to mock the beliefs of others, in a direct response to January’s brutal attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The proposal to rush through the change was made in February by Conservative MP Anders B. Werp and Progress Party MP Jan Arild Ellingsen, who argued that the law “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection”.

“This is very unfortunate signal to send, and it is time that society clearly stands up for freedom of speech,” the two wrote in their proposal.

Quite right. To an American it seems strange to see a Conservative proposing it – conservatives here want to force their religion on everyone every chance they get. Or rather, some of them do, but the ones who don’t vote for the ones who do, because taxes, baby.

But the change will be largely symbolic.

The last time anyone was tried for blasphemy in Norway was back in 1933, when the writer Arnulf Overland was prosecuted for giving a lecture titled “Christianity, the tenth plague” to the Norwegian Students’ Society. He was acquitted.

The last time anyone was actually convicted was in 1912, when the journalist Arnfred Olsen was taken to court for an article criticising Christianity in the radical magazine Freethinkers.

Oh yes? Snap. G W Foote, The Freethinker:

Charles Bradlaugh, then the leader of the secularist movement, soon recognised Foote’s abilities and allowed him to play an increasingly important role in the British freeethought movement. Foote contributed many articles to Bradlaugh’s National Reformer and in 1876 founded his own magazine, The Secularist. This was followed by his major publishing success, The Freethinker, which began in 1881 and is still in existence today.

In 1882 Foote was charged with blasphemy for having published a number of biblical cartoons in The Freethinker. These had been modelled after a series of French cartoons that had appeared earlier.

Eerie, isn’t it.

And I have the honor of writing a column for that same The Freethinker. Last month’s was about Garry Trudeau and Charlie Hebdo.

After a series of trials Foote was found guilty in 1883 and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment by Justice North, a Catholic judge. (“The sentence is worthy of your creed,” Foote responded.)  The Freethinker carried the banner headline “Prosecuted for Blasphemy” during this period, probably increasing its sales.

Yes, persecution will do that.


  1. iknklast says

    And in this country, we had the Comstock laws, which were ostensibly about “obscenity” (as Comstock defined it, which was very broad) but were often used to punish blasphemy. D. M. Bennett fell afoul of Comstock for his “Open Letter to Jesus Christ”. When he wasn’t able to jail him over that, he ordered a copy of a birth control tract through the mail, Bennett obligingly sent it to him, and voila! Arrested for “obscenity”, because all discussion of birth control was obscenity. But it was really the “Open Letter” he was angry about, because blasphemy. Because apparently God’s feelings are easily hurt. Or something.

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    It is eerie how opposition to Islamism is twisted by parochial concerns. If a Democrat had been in office on 9/11, would there be quite so much cringing about offending the downtrodden jihadists?

    I Reagan and Bush I hadn’t subsidized the proto-Taliban, would the American Right have insisted they were our allies against Communism?

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