Banned Books:
Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds


In 1989 an edict from Tehran brought a shocking reminder of religious censorship, regarded by many as a spectre from the distant past of the Inquisition and the burning of heretics. The Ayatollah Khomeini's death decree against author Salman Rushdie and the widespread banning of Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, for blasphemy against Islam was a startling example of a phenomenon that is as old as history and, with the current wave of religious fundamentalism, as recent as today's headlines.

Censorship has existed in every society to protect the prevailing moral and social order. Book censorship in Western culture can be traced to the earliest years of Christianity, when the church began to suppress competing views as heretical. In the second century, the Council of Ephesus burned superstitious works and prohibited the Acta Pauli, a history of St. Paul, and in the fifth century, the pope issued the first list of forbidden books.

The flood of unauthorized Bible translations and religious tracts that followed the invention of the printing press in 1450 and the rise of religious dissent during the Protestant Reformation motivated the church to expand its censorial functions. In 1559 Pope Paul IV published the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books). The Index, sometimes referred to as the Roman Index, was administered by the Roman Inquisition. It was binding on all Roman Catholics, who represented most of the population of continental Europe, and was enforced by government authorities. At the same time, similar Indexes were also prepared by theological faculties in Paris and Louvain and by the Spanish Inquisition.

As church and state in Europe began to separate in the 16th century, national monarchies instituted their own mechanisms of religious and political censorship to supplement or substitute for that of the church. In the areas where they had political control, the new Protestant faiths began to ban the writings of Catholics or dissenters.

From the earliest times religious orthodoxy and politics have been intimately connected. To be a heretic was often to be considered a traitor, subject to punishment by secular authorities. And manipulation of religious sensibilities for political purposes has a long and sordid history, with recorded examples dating to the trial of Socrates in 399 B.C.

As Europe became more politically fragmented and means of communication more sophisticated, state censorships were rarely thorough enough to prevent forbidden books from circulating. By the 18th century, the proliferation of underground publishing, as France's book censor Malesherbes said, meant that "a man who had read only books that originally appeared with the formal approval of the government would be behind his contemporaries by nearly a century."

It is impossible to discuss religious censorship of books without referring to the Index of Forbidden Books, described as the most successful censorial device of modern times, undoubtedly the most enduring. Sixty-one of the 100 books discussed in this volume, many subject to multiple forms of censorship, were listed on the Index. When it was finally abolished by the Vatican in 1966 after four centuries of existence, however, it had outlived its effectiveness. The church had long before lost the authority to enforce it and the list was widely viewed as anachronistic.

In the forty-second and final Index issued in 1948 and in print until 1966, a total of 4,126 books were still prohibited to Catholics: 1,331 from the 17th century or earlier, 1,186 from the 18th century, 1,354 from the 19th and 255 from the 20th century. Though many were obscure theological titles or works that were controversial in their day but had been forgotten for centuries, literary and philosophical classics by dozens of authors representing a Who's Who of Western thought were also included: among them, Bentham, Bergson, Comte, Defoe, Descartes, Diderot, Flaubert, Gibbon, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Mill, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Pascal, Rousseau, Sand, Spinoza, Stendhal, Voltaire and Zola. Rather than banning books, the church's post-Index book censorship has focused primarily on sanctioning dissident Catholic theologians for their writing or pressuring the occasional Catholic author to hew to orthodoxy.

Though the First Amendment prevents government authorities from practicing religious censorship in the United States, individuals and organized religious fundamentalists have successfully pressed to remove books viewed as anti-Christian from public and school libraries and curricula. The majority of these instances have focused on perceived immorality, profane language or treatment of sexuality, rather than religious content per se, and have been discussed in another volume in this series. Their targets, however, have included textbooks that teach evolution without presenting the alternative theory of "creationism," books said to promote the religion of "secular humanism" and, in a growing trend, material with references to Eastern religions, "New Age" thought, witchcraft or the occult.

Although Rushdie's Satanic Verses is the most notorious international case of book censorship in this century, it is not unique. Authors in Muslim countries face increasing threats to their freedom of expression and their safety both from governments that censor or prosecute those whose writing is offensive to Islamic religious authorities and from unofficial militant Islamic groups.

Egyptian intellectual Farag Fouda and Algerian novelist and journalist Tahar Djaout, among scores of Algerian intellectuals, were murdered during the 1990s by fundamentalist terrorists. In 1994, the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed and seriously wounded. Other writers, such as Taslima Nasrin of Bangladesh, have been driven into exile by death threats or, like Egyptian novelist Alaa Hamed, sentenced to prison for blasphemy. The writing of feminists such as Nasrin, Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt and Fatima Mernissi of Morocco, who challenge interpretations of Islamic dogma that restrict women, has particularly angered both governments and Islamist fundamentalists.

The 100 books discussed in this volume represent a sampling of the thousands that have been targets of religious censorship over the centuries. They include texts of the world's major religions, novels and classic works of philosophy, science and history representing the intellectual heritage of Western civilization. They also include contemporary works that offended church authorities, governments or Christian, Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists. A few entries—such as those on Laurence Yep's Dragonwings and Dickens's Oliver Twist, for example—chronicle censorship attempts in the United States that were ultimately unsuccessful but that merit attention because they involved legal challenges.

Many of these books were branded with the charge of heresy. Heresy is defined as opinion or doctrine that is at variance with orthodox religious teaching, or, as religious historian David Christie-Murray observed, "the opinion held by a minority of men which the majority declares is unacceptable and is strong enough to punish." Others were tarred with the brush of blasphemy, speaking in a profane or irreverent manner of the sacred. All were censored because they were seen as dangerous—to orthodoxy, to faith and morals or to the social and political order.

Some authors—Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Erasmus, Cyrano de Bergerac, Blaise Pascal, Bernard Mandeville, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Anatole France and Salman Rushdie—ran afoul of censors for what Swift called "the sin of wit": irreverence in the form of satire, parody, irony or mockery, in combination with dissenting ideas on religion or philosophy.

Philosophers, scientists and historians—from Abelard in the 12th century to Galileo, Rene Descartes, John Locke and Charles Darwin—who advocated the use of reason or the experimental or scientific method, were condemned for what might be called the sin of thinking. The works of Sebastian Castellio, Thomas Helwys, Hugo Grotius, Pierre Bayle, Roger Williams and Baruch Spinoza were censored for advocating religious freedom, the sin of tolerance. And the sin of disputation was committed by dissidents and reformers such as John Wycliff, John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale, William Penn, John Toland, Matthew Tindal, Emanuel Swedenborg and contemporary theologians Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung.

Some writers paid for their sins against orthodoxy with silencing, prison or banishment. Others, notably John Hus, Michael Servetus, William Tyndale and Giordano Bruno, were victims of what George Bernard Shaw called the ultimate form of censorship, assassination.

The history of censorship is one of inhumanity, of lives and livelihoods lost, talent or genius snuffed out, work unfinished, withheld, deleted or destroyed. Literary history and the present are dark with silences, Tillie Olsen has written. It is also a history of rebellion, of defiance in the face of mortal danger and perseverance against harassment, discouragement and disdain.

Yet to review the censorship of the books discussed in this volume is to be struck by the futility of religious censorship. As historian Leonard W. Levy observed, the verdicts of time mock judgments and alter sensibilities. Insurgent faiths become established and revolutionary ideas lose their power to shock. For centuries censorship has created bestsellers because, as Montaigne said, "To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it." Like water leaking slowly through a dike to become a steady trickle or a flood, words and ideas inexorably elude the censor's grasp.

"A book cannot be killed," commented Moroccan writer Nadia Tazi on Rushdie's censorship. "It lives and dies on its own. Once the `vases' are 'broken,' the fragments of life spread throughout the world; voices escape, going their adventurous ways; and there are always encounters, mutations, and festivals of the spirit."

Margaret Bald

close window