SCOTLAND'S blasphemy law - which was last invoked more than 170 years ago - should be repealed by ministers with the courage to "show moral leadership", a leading non-faith group has urged.
The archaic law was last used in 1843 to convict Edinburgh bookseller Thomas Paterson who was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for selling blasphemous literature.
Now members of the Humanist Society Scotland have called on the Scottish Government to scrap the law which was deployed in 1697 in the capital trial of Thomas Aikenhead, an atheist student, who became the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy when he was hanged in Edinburgh.
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While it is unlikely to ever again be invoked in Scotland, the interpretation of blasphemy is seen as a threat to human rights in many countries, and was abolished south of the Border in 2008.
The call comes after a new Freedom of Thought Report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union recorded levels of discrimination and persecution meted out against humanists, atheists and the non-religious.
It found that blasphemy remained illegal in at least 59 countries with punishments ranging from a prison term to execution.
At least 13 countries provide for the use of the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy, or converting or inciting someone to leave religion.
Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations’ recently appointed Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, said laws against blasphemy can be exploited as political tools.
He said: "While anyone can run afoul of these laws, and often there are allegations of the use of such laws for political purposes, these laws potentially automatically criminalize dissent and free-thinking, and victimise 'non-believers', humanists and atheists.
"What is even more shocking is the cruelty with which those who are accused of violating these laws are often punished, by state agents or by non-state actors, including neighbours and relatives.”
Gordon MacRae, Humanist Society Scotland chief executive, said: "This year's Freedom of Thought Report demonstrates the danger experienced by people who express a non-religious world view across the globe.
"Here in Scotland, Humanists, atheists, agnostics and free-thinkers enjoy freedoms and respect that would be denied elsewhere.
"However, as our Religion in Scots Law report highlighted earlier this year, Scotland remains a nation with a law against blasphemy still on the books.
"That should be a badge of shame for any progressive nation.
"That is why we are calling on the Scottish Government to show moral leadership and to take a stand as citizens of the world by repealing that law and calling for all other nations to put equality, human rights and liberty first."
Andrew Copson, president of the International Humanist Ethical Union, said: "Making this report accessible online all round the world comes at a crucial juncture in world affairs. The rights and equality of the non-religious are under threat and there is an upsurge in the suppression of humanist values more broadly. Serious damage is being done to the brand of democracy, to secularism, and there are new threats to all our liberties.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The last known prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland occurred in 1843.
“Matters of criminal prosecution are ultimately not for the Scottish Government but for the Lord Advocate as the head of the prosecution service for Scotland, who is required to consider whether prosecution is in the public interest.”