The beginning of How the Scots Invented the Modern World describes the execution of a man for the crime of atheism around 1700 in Scotland. More precisely, this individual was rather loud about their heresy, and that is always the problem. Silent dissent is usually tolerated. This is the last time someone was executed for this particular crime in the British Isles.
In the United Kingdom the book was more accurately titled The Scottish Enlightenment. A relatively moderate and low fuss affair, the Scottish Enlightenment gave us Adam Smith and David Hume, to name two. The point of the book is that in it one can see many of the seeds of the liberal Enlightenment more broadly in Scotland, while in the beginning of the 18th century was arguably more backward and medieval than its southern neighbor.
But the “modern world” means many different things. Mobile phone technology is ubiquitous, to the point that even the poor in developing nations have it. But a broader consumer affluence is out of reach for many. And the rights and liberties of a liberal democratic order are more an ideal than concrete existence for much of the world’s population (and you have cases such as Saudi Arabia where illiberal norms and politics merge with consumer affluence).
As you may know a young man was killed by his fellow students in Pakistan for the crime of blasphemy a few days ago. Whether he was an atheist or a free thinker, or a skeptic more generally, can be hard to ascertain. But the critical aspect is that he was killed in broad daylight by a mob. He was lynched. This being 2017, you can watch a video of the killing, and hear his screams as he is murdered in front of a crowd.
One aspect people have been noticing is that this was a killing enabled by majority and consensus opinion. Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan is a public university, not a cloistered madrassa or a branch of the Red Mosque network. You can’t blame ISIS or some crazy jihadi network. These were university students.
Pakistan has a population of 182 million. The United States around 300 million. I understand that Americans believe we are the future. That the rest of the world is the exception. But how long will that be? Perhaps the arrow of history is more a circle?