Religious censorship

Religious censorship is a form of censorship where freedom of expression is controlled or limited using religious authority or on the basis of the teachings of the religion. This form of censorship has a long history and is practiced in many societies and by many religions. Examples include the Edict of Compiègne, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of prohibited books) and the condemnation of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Religious censorship can also take form in the destruction of monuments and texts that contradict or conflict with the religion practiced by the oppressors, such as attempts to censor the Harry Potter book series.[1] Destruction of historic places is another form of religious censorship. One cited incident of religious censorship was the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan by radical Islamists as part of their religious goal of oppressing another religion.[2]


Religious censorship is defined as the act of suppressing views that are contrary of those of an organized religion. It is usually performed on the grounds of blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege or impiety - the censored work being viewed as obscene, challenging a dogma, or violating a religious taboo. Defending against these charges is often difficult as some religious traditions permit only the religious authorities (clergy) to interpret doctrine and the interpretation is usually dogmatic. For instance, the Catholic Church banned hundreds of books on such grounds and maintained the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of prohibited books), most of which were writings that the Church's Holy Office had deemed dangerous, until the Index's abolishment in 1965.

In Christianity

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 changed the nature of book publishing.[3] As of the 16th century, in most European countries both the church and governments attempted to regulate and control printing. Governments established controls over printers across Europe, requiring them to have official licenses to trade and produce books.[4][5] In 1557 the English Crown aimed to stem the flow of dissent by chartering the Stationers' Company. The right to print was restricted to the two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) and the 21 existing printers in the City of London. In France, the 1551 Edict of Châteaubriant included provisions for unpacking and inspecting all books brought into France.[6][7] The 1557 Edict of Compiègne applied the death penalty to heretics and resulted in the burning of a noblewoman at the stake.[8]

A first version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books") was promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1559, and multiple revisions were made to it over the years.

Some works named in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum are the writings of Desiderius Erasmus, a Catholic scholar who argued that the Comma Johanneum was probably forged and De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, a treatise by Nicolaus Copernicus arguing for a heliocentric orbit of the earth, both works that at the time contradicted the Church's official stance on particular issues.

The final (20th) edition appeared in 1948, and it was formally abolished on 14 June 1966 by Pope Paul VI.[9][10] However, the moral obligation of the Index was not abolished, according to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[11] Furthermore, the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that bishops have the duty and right to review material concerning faith or morals before it may be published.[12]

In 1992 José Saramago's "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" entry in the Aristeion European Literary Prize was blocked by the Portuguese Under Secretary of State for Culture due to pressures from the Catholic Church.[13]

In Islamic societies

Although nothing in the Qur'an explicitly imposes censorship, similar methodology has been carried out under Islamic theocracies, such as the fatwa (religious judgment) against The Satanic Verses (a novel), ordering that the author be executed for blasphemy.

Some Islamic societies have religious police, who seize banned consumer products and media regarded as un-Islamic, such as CDs/DVDs of various Western musical groups, television shows and film.[14] In Saudi Arabia, religious police actively prevent the practice or proselytizing of non-Islamic religions within Arabia, where they are banned.[14] This included the ban of the film, The Passion of the Christ.

Examples of Muslim censorship:

In Judaism

Throughout the history of the publishing of Jewish books, various works have been censored or banned. These can be divided into two main categories: Censorship by a non-Jewish government, and self-censorship. Self-censorship could be done either by the author himself, or by the publisher, out of fear from the gentiles or public reaction. Another important distinction that has to be made is between the censorship which existed already on manuscripts, before the printing press was invented, and the more official censorship after the printing press was invented.

Gentile government censorship

Many studies have been written on censorship and its influence on the publishing of Jewish books. For example, studies have appeared on the censorship of Jewish books when they were first starting to be published, in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Other studies have been written on the censorship of the Czarist government in Russia in the nineteenth century.

Many of the "official" Christian government censors of Jewish books were Jewish apostates. The main reason for this was due to their knowledge of Hebrew, especially Rabbinic Hebrew.

In Czarist Russia in the nineteenth century, it was decreed that Jewish books could only be published in two cities, Vilnius and Zhitomir.

Censorship by Jewish religious authorities

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) prohibits the reading of extra-biblical books (ספרים חיצונים). The Talmud explains this to mean the book of Ben Sirah (Sirach). In the early thirteenth century the philosophical book The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides was prohibited to be read until one was older by some French and Spanish Jewish leaders, because of the perceived danger of philosophy. Philosophy was prohibited to be learned until the age of forty. The same restriction was later applied to Kabbalah, in the fifteenth century. In the 1720s, the kabbalistic works of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato were banned by religious leaders. In the 1690s, the book Pri Chadash was banned in Egypt for arguing on earlier authorities.[16]

In the modern era, when government censorship of Jewish books is uncommon, books are mainly self-censored, or banned by Orthodox Jewish religious authorities. Marc Shapiro points out that not all books considered heretical by Orthodox Jews are banned; only those books on which there is a risk that Orthodox Jews may read them are banned.[17] Some examples:

  • The Reconstructionist Siddur (1945), revised by Mordecai Kaplan.
  • Torah Study: A Survey of Classic Sources on Timely Issues (1990), by Rabbi Leo Levi, was banned by Rabbi Elazar Shach. It was banned because it discussed the value of studying subjects other than Torah.
  • My Uncle The Netziv (1988), an excerpt of the book Mekor Baruch by Rabbi Baruch Epstein, was banned by anonymous Rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey. It was banned because it was perceived to have said unflattering things about the Netziv.[18]
  • HaGaon (Hebrew, 2002), a biography of the Vilna Gaon, by Dov Eliach, was banned by Chassidic leaders for its attacks against Chassidus.[19]
  • The Science of Torah (2001), by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, was banned by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and others. It was banned because it explained how the theory of evolution can fit with Judaism; evolution is opposed by many authorities. Slifkin's books Mysterious Creatures (2003) and The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax (2004) were also banned, because they brought down opinions that Chazal could be incorrect in their scientific knowledge.
  • Making of a Godol (2002), by Rabbi Natan Kamenetzky, was banned by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and other Orthodox Jewish authorities because of its sometimes unflattering portrayals of Jewish leaders.
  • The Dignity of Difference (2002), by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was banned by Rabbi Elayshiv and others. It was banned because it was perceived to equate Judaism with other religions.
  • One People, Two Worlds: A Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi explore the issues that divide them (2003) by Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Reinman, was banned by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America and the heads of Beth Medrash Govoha, Lakewood, New Jersey.
  • Kosher Jesus, by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, was banned in 2012 by the Chabad rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, who labelled the book as heretical and stated that it "poses a tremendous risk to the Jewish community," and that "I have never read a book, let alone one authored by a purported frum Jew, that does more to enhance the evangelical missionary message and agenda than the aforementioned book".[20]

In the Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith has a requirement that Bahá'í authors should seek review of their works by the National Spiritual Assembly of the country in which it will be printed. The requirement was initiated by `Abdu'l-Baha and intended to sunset when the religion grows in numbers. The publication review requirement does not apply to most online content or local promotional material. According to the Universal House of Justice, the highest governing body of the religion,

The purpose of review is to protect the Faith against misrepresentation by its own followers at this early stage of its existence when comparatively few people have any knowledge of it. An erroneous presentation of the Teachings by a Bahá'í who is accounted a scholar, in a scholarly journal, would by that very fact, do far more harm than an erroneous presentation made by an obscure Bahá'í author with no pretensions to scholarship.[21]

The review requirement has been criticized by a few academic Bahá'ís as censorship. Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigana, had conflicts over the issue and withdrew his membership as a Bahá'í, claiming that it "has provoked many conflicts between Bahá'í officials and writers over the years."[22] Denis MacEoin similarly resigned his membership and said that the review stifled research in Bahá'í studies.[23] Moojan Momen, another academic in the field of Bahá'í studies who has called MacEoin and Cole "apostates," disagrees and states that "there is no more 'censorship' involved in this process than with any other academic journal."[24]

In Buddhism

Art was censored extensively under the military government in Myanmar at the end of the 20th century. Nudity was not permitted, and art was also censored when it was deemed that Buddhism was portrayed in a non-typical fashion. Following the governmental transition in 2011, relevant censorship laws remained in effect but were enforced more loosely.[25]

In 2015, the film Arbat was banned in Thailand due to its portrayal of Buddhist monks. Criticisms included a scene involving kissing and another in which a monk engaged in drug use.[26]

Other examples

In 2006, Ryan McCourt was the first artist selected to display sculpture for one year outside Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre.[27] McCourt's exhibition, "Will and Representation," was an installation of four large sculptures based on Ganesha,[28] a deity from Hindu mythology. Ten months into the exhibition, then-Mayor of Edmonton Stephen Mandel ordered the works removed after reportedly receiving a 700-name petition complaining of the sculptures' "disrespectful" nudity.[29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36] When asked for comment, McCourt stated that "Nudity seems like a rather quaint thing to get one's knickers in a bunch over, in the 21st century. Besides, there's lots of art that I don't like, I don't go around gathering signatures of people who agree with me, and try to force the art to come down. That would be truly offensive, especially in a democracy like Canada."[37]

Broadly, the public reaction to Mandel's censorship decree was one of disapproval.[38][39][40][41][42] In an interview with the Edmonton Journal's Paula Simons, David Goa, religious scholar, cultural anthropologist, and director of the University of Alberta's Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life, states "In India, Lord Ganesha is on everything -- playing cards, advertising signs, lotto tickets, even diapers, I suspect." Within the traditional Thirty-two forms of Ganesha in Hinduism, Ganesha is sometimes presented nude, in both infant (Bala Ganapati) and erotic (Uchchhishta Ganapati) forms. Simons concludes, "In his haste to appease a few protesters, the mayor, usually a champion of the arts, made a serious error in judgment. Instead of giving McCourt's divinely inspired statues the bum's rush, we should be celebrating this Canadian cross-pollination of cultures and aesthetic forms".[35] The Globe and Mail's columnist Margaret Wente agreed with Simons: "The mayor, of course, was quite wrong. Mr. McCourt's sculptures did not insult the Hindu community. They insulted a small but vocal conservative religious group that is about as representative of Hindus as Hassidic Jews are of Jews.... There's a big difference between respecting different cultures and caving in to illiberalism and superstition." [43]

Despite such negative responses in the media to visual art censorship in Canada, in 2014 the Edmonton Arts Council subsequently refused a donation of one of McCourt's sculptures, "Destroyer of Obstacles," evidently because the sculpture had genitalia beneath its clothes.[44] After meeting with seven Hindu community group representative to seek out their opinion of the donation, the Edmonton Arts Council received a response that McCourt's sculpture was "an offense to their religion" and that the ban enacted by Mayor Mandel should remain in place.[45] As a result of this consultation, "the Public Art Committee unanimously voted to decline acceptance of the gift, as the artwork did not meet "community or civic suitability" criteria." In McCourt's view, “It is not the purpose of a city’s public art collection to placate special interests,” he says. “I want Edmonton to build the best civic art collection that we can get, never mind the politics, the religion, etc. of the artists making the work.”[46]

See also


  1. Bald, Margaret; Wachsberger, Ken (2006). Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds (Revised ed.). Facts On File. ISBN 0816062692.
  2. "Toppling monuments, erasing history". The Washington Post. 18 August 2017.
  3. McLuhan, Marshall (1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1st ed.), University of Toronto Press, ISBN 978-0-8020-6041-9 page 124
  4. MacQueen, Hector L; Charlotte Waelde; Graeme T Laurie (2007). Contemporary Intellectual Property: Law and Policy. Oxford University Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-19-926339-4.
  5. de Sola Pool, Ithiel (1983). Technologies of freedom. Harvard University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-674-87233-2.
  6. The Rabelais encyclopedia by Elizabeth A. Chesney 2004 ISBN 0-313-31034-3 pages 31-32
  7. The printing press as an agent of change by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 1980 ISBN 0-521-29955-1 page 328
  8. Robert Jean Knecht, The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France: 1483-1610 2001, ISBN 0-631-22729-6 page 241
  9. Cambridge University on Index.
  10. Encyclopædia Britannica: Index Librorum Prohibitorum
  11. "Haec S. Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, facto verbo cum Beatissimo Patre, nuntiat Indicem suum vigorem moralem servare, quatenus Christifidelium conscientiam docet, ut ab illis scriptis, ipso iure naturali exigente, caveant, quae fidem ac bonos mores in discrimen adducere possint; eundem tamen non amplius vim legis ecclesiasticae habere cum adiectis censuris" (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 58 (1966), p. 445). Cf. Italian text published, together with the Latin, on L'Osservatore Romano of 15 June 1966
  12. "Can. 823 §1. In order to preserve the integrity of the truths of faith and morals, the pastors of the Church have the duty and right to be watchful so that no harm is done to the faith or morals of the Christian faithful through writings or the use of instruments of social communication. They also have the duty and right to demand that writings to be published by the Christian faithful which touch upon faith or morals be submitted to their judgment and have the duty and right to condemn writings which harm correct faith or good morals. §2. Bishops, individually or gathered in particular councils or conferences of bishops, have the duty and right mentioned in §1 with regard to the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the supreme authority of the Church, however, has this duty and right with regard to the entire people of God. Can. 824 §1. Unless it is established otherwise, the local ordinary whose permission or approval to publish books must be sought according to the canons of this title is the proper local ordinary of the author or the ordinary of the place where the books are published. §2. Those things established regarding books in the canons of this title must be applied to any writings whatsoever which are destined for public distribution, unless it is otherwise evident." 1983 Code of Canon Law, Instruments of Social Communion and Books in Particular (Cann. 822 - 832)
  14. SAUDI ARABIA Catholic priest arrested and expelled from Riyadh - Asia News Archived 23 March 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  15. "Le Prophète Mahomet". L'art du livre arabe. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Retrieved 03-02-2007. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  16. 4 August 2011
  17. | Accessed 4 August 2011
  18. (PDF)|Accessed 6 August 2011
  19. "Tradition Seforim Blog : HaGaon". Archived from the original on 9 July 2013. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  20. Boswell, Randy (30 January 2012). "'Kosher Jesus' book ignites skirmish between Jewish scholars". Retrieved 20 February 2013.
  21. Helen Hornby (ed.). Lights of Guidance. Bahá'í Library Online. p. 101.
  22. Cole, Juan R.I. (June 1998). "The Baha'i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997". The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 37 (2). Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  23. MacEoin, Denis (1990). "The crisis in Babi and Baha'i studies: part of a wider crisis in academic freedom?" (PDF). British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 17 (1): 55–61. doi:10.1080/13530199008705506. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  24. Momen, Moojan (2007). "Marginality and Apostasy in the Bahá'í Community". "Religion" (37:3): 187–209.
  25. Carlson, Melissa (March 2016). "Painting as cipher: censorship of the visual arts in post-1988 Myanmar". Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia: 145.
  26. "Thailand bans film over depictions of Buddhist monks". Al Jazeera America. 13 October 2015.
  27. Edmonton Journal, "Artists Give Walls of Shaw Extension Lively Look," November 18, 2006 Archived 23 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  28. Collins-Lauber, Kim (1 November 2011). "Ryan McCourt". Avenue Edmonton. Top 40 Under 40.
  29. Edmonton Journal, "Scrap Sculptures, Mayor Says," September 19, 2007
  30. 630 CHED, "Controversial Art To Be Removed, Says Mayor," September 19, 2007
  31. CTV News, September 19, 2007
  32. Global News, September 19, 2007
  33. "Art Scrap," CBC News, September 19, 2007
  34. The Globe and Mail, "Edmonton to Remove Statues After Hindu Protest," September 20, 2007
  35. Edmonton Journal, "Sculptor's Use of Revered Hindu Deity Shows No Sign of Sacrilege," September 22, 2007 Archived 23 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  36. Glenn Weiss, "The Role of Censorship In Public Art," Aesthetic Grounds, October 2, 2007
  37. Edmonton Journal, "Sculptor Finds Criticism "Rather Quaint," September 19, 2007
  38. Bruce Dunbar, "Mandel Oversteps Bounds," Edmonton Journal, September 23, 2007
  39. Donna McKinnon, "No Place For Censorship," Edmonton Journal, September 23, 2007
  40. "Venting," compiled by Terry McConnell, Edmonton Journal, September 25, 2007
  41. Joe Renaud, "Art's Message Isn't Always Pretty," Edmonton Journal, September 30, 2007
  42. Krishna Bagdiya, "Sculptures No Threat," Edmonton Journal, September 30, 2007
  43. Margaret Wente, "Why Are We So Afraid To Offend?," The Globe and Mail, September 29, 2007
  44. PZ Myers, "Reaching For a Reasonable Justification for Censorship," Pharyngula, April 24, 2015
  45. McCourt, Ryan (12 June 2014). "Open Letter to the CCLA, the ACLRC, & the RMCLA". Briefing Note. Edmonton Arts Council.
  46. Donna McKinnon, "The Pleasures and Perils of Public Art," Curious Arts, November 27, 2015

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