Monday, February 13, 2006

Free speech is good for economic progress

The current furore over cartoons depicting the founder of the Muslim religion is an apposite reminder of the time when Scotland and England were dominated by several fairly rabid versions of the Christian religion, which treated detractors with no less intense hostility and physical reprisals. It is also a useful background to my, I hope, friendly and civilised discussions with Professor James K. Galbraith on the influence of the Scottish version of Christianity on the writing style of Adam Smith’s discourses.

Gary Duncan writes an excellent piece in today’s Times (London) on the theme that ‘Free speech ensures economic progress’. His ‘hook’ into his readable article is via an incident in Edinburgh’s history in 1696 in the ‘affair of one Thomas Aikenhead, an 18-year old theology student.’

On a freezing Edinburgh night in the autumn of that year, Aikenhead and three acquaintances found themselves hurrying up the Scottish capital’s Royal Mile as they sought refuge from the biting cold. As they passed the city’s austere Tron Church, an embodiment of the country’s repressive Presbyterian church, the young man turned to his fellows and joked: “I wish right now I were in the place Ezra called hell, to warm myself there.”
The casual remark would turn out to be no laughing matter. The next day, Aikenhead’s comments were reported to the authorities of the Scottish church, the Kirk. They didn’t see the funny side.

A swift inquisition of other students revealed a litany of ridicule of the faith by Aikenhead. He had claimed that the Bible was a work of invention by the prophet Ezra; that Christ’s miracles were cheap magic tricks; and that the Apostles were “silly, witless fishermen”.
The incensed ministers of the Kirk quickly made the affair a cause célèbre. Scotland’s chief prosecutor, the Lord Advocate, began a prosecution under a law that those who “railed and cursed against God” or the Trinity were to be punished by death.

A repentant and shattered Aikenhead was convicted and condemned. Desperate appeals by distinguished supporters to the Scottish Privy Council, and to King William in London, failed as the Kirk demanded that an example be made. On January 8 of the following year, Aikenhead was put to death.”

[You should read the entire article in the Times (London) at:,,8210-2037784,00.html]

This is a cause célèbre among Scottish sceptics of the social benefits of religion (any religion) on economic change. It is certainly to the fore in the minds of those interested in the politico-religious climate of the Scotland during the 18th-century Enlightenment and its effects on leading contributors to it, such as David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, James Hutton and Adam Smith.

Of these men, David Hume lived most dangerously, developing a measured but teasing disdain for the apparatus of Christianity (miracles, the existence of God, belief in the after-life, etc.,), but also exhibiting careful prudence in not driving the most rabid of the ‘divines’ (of which Scotland had more than its fair share) into the violent conduct of the stony-faced men without a sense of human decency who dominated the Church in 1696. Their successors proved strong enough to keep David Hume out of professorships in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, but not strong enough to arrange to hang him like they contrived to hang poor Aikenhead.

Francis Hutcheson shrugged off silly charges of apostasy to the embarrassment of his accusers. Both Hutton and Smith escaped the attention of the vigilantes by disguising their scepticism in their books in carefully composed camouflage of ‘well-known phrases’ that appeared to show their soundness as Christians. Unless the ‘witch-hunters’ looked very closely to the disposition of their word orders they would not realise the game being played on them.

Nevertheless, the vigilantes were powerful enough still to make life difficult for targets of their enmity. Gradually, over the 18th century, the urge for freedom of expression – the very heart of enlightenment – grew bolder. Smith made several public gestures towards freedom of expression, notably after his religious mother, whom he worshipped, had died in 1783, but he still did not feel completely free of the ever-present threat. When David Hume was dying in 1776, Smith tried desperately to avoid a commitment to publish David Hume’s Dialogues. The correspondence between them shows Smith twisting and turning to commit Hume to agree to not publish his short book, because of the embarrassment this might cause Smith on the eve of “Wealth of Nations” – it not being a good time to attract public condemnation from ignorant and superstitious ranters.

Hume almost broke with his closest friend over this issue, addressing him as ‘my dear Sir’ in place of ‘my dearest friend’ (Correspondence of Adam Smith, Liberty Press, 1985). Hume being Hume, he reverted to his forgiving and friendly salutations in his last letters to Smith. It was his characteristic of deep gentility and manifest kindness to all (including his critics) that made Hume popular even with orthodox members of the Church and which protected him to the extent that largely he was left alone by his would-be tormentors in his latter days. When the Dialogues were published by Hume's nephew they caused less of a stir than Smith's one- page eulogy to Hume.

In acknowledging the personal struggles of leading Enlightenment figures to make public their radical ideas about fundamental aspects of the society of which they were part and part wanted to change, we can reflect on the hidden, because silent, wise prudence of the many Muslims who do not share the certainties of the fanatical fundamentalists. This might suggest caution in blanket condemnations of all Muslims because of the actions of a (large) minority of those in the streets outside embassies.

Given our own record of religious intolerance, albeit from two hundred years ago, we should reflect sympathetically on the difficulties faced by those Muslims who are inclined to favour Enlightenment in the 21st century, as we are reverential of those Enlightenment figures who risked social place in the 18th century.


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