Early in this discursive and thought-provoking book, part history, part law-book, part anthropological treatise, David Nash relates the curious tale of Robert van Hoorn, a Dutch ship master who had an altercation with his passengers in 1728. Van Hoorn’s ship had got caught in a storm in the Atlantic. The normal thing to do in this situation was to strike the sails and pray. Instead, Van Hoorn mocked the Almighty. He ordered Him to do the boatman’s bidding. He hurled insults at Him at the top of his voice. When the storm blew even stronger, he screamed defiance. Why should he do anything to save the passengers or crewmen? If God was so unreasonable as to drown them, let him do his worst. Somehow or other, the ship survived, and when it put into port, Van Hoorn was arrested. But instead of being prosecuted under some eighteenth-century equivalent of the health and safety regulations, he was charged with blasphemy and executed.
This story illustrates most of the reasons why one might wish to penalise blasphemy, even in a society as rational and tolerant as eighteenth-century Holland. First, there is the notion of a community sharing a common fate, whose members are doomed to depend on each other. Everyone on Van Hoorn’s