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Blasphemy Law

The charges have been dropped against Stephen Fry, but that does not mean we shouldn’t be having this discussion. Let’s be frank, this is from a person living in a country that voted Trump into office and I get to look down at another country (thus far…) because that’s how backwards and borderline insane this law is. I can try and make fun of the UK, but that’s some pot-kettle bullshit, but Ireland!? You don’t get a pass. Sure, by popular vote, they legalized gay marriage nationwide in 2015, but we only have to go back 6 short years to find the passage of the blasphemy law.

Not 1009, where it would still be wrong, but it’d be understandable, but 2009. Where everyone is starting to get on board with smart phones, where wifi is pretty much expected, and where the global economic collapse had just started to abate.

My oldest daughter had already been born. Which means that she was born into a world where there were fewer blasphemy laws on the books. That’s not progress, that’s regression. Not to sound ethnocentric, or Eurocentric, or whatever-centric; but this is the kind of law you expect that they have in Saudi Arabia…because they do. Which, if we must find some good in this, it’s that this law is proof of what happens when religion and the state mix. It apparently doesn’t matter what religion is mixing with what state. Ireland is a Republic not a monarchy or a dictatorship. As America’s incompetent president continues to talk randomly about churches and freedom, the Irish example is one that needs more conversation because as innocuous as it turned out to be, it’s still abhorrent that this kind of law exists in the first place. Especially, I must stress, that it was passed in 2009.

This story of the Irish blasphemy law goes back to 1937 and the Constitution of Ireland. The Constitution mandates according to article 40.6.1.i:

This continues with article 44.1:

These articles mandate that the Irish government set up a legal statute prohibiting blasphemy passed in 1937, the law was only applied to Christian religions. Also, it’s important that these articles specifically mention blasphemy as a crime that needs to be outlawed. I haven’t read the entire Irish Constitution (my family isn’t that Irish) but I’m pretty sure that it will lack any mention of other crimes.

Note: It does mention one more, treason (article 39).

So the law, passed in 2009 states that (I’ll omit irrelevant portions):

(a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and

 

(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

The only defense the law offers is that if the utterance or publication has serious value that a reasonable observer would judge. This would mean anything in an artistic, political, scientific, literary, or academic value. The crime is punishable with a fine not to exceed 25,000 euros (approximately 27,000 US).

Was Fry in violation of this law? You be the judge, in the interview Fry is asked about his atheism and what he would say if, when he died, he found himself standing in front of the god he denies existing. Fry replied, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.”

He then goes on to explain that if it were the Greek Pantheon, it would make more sense as those gods didn’t pretend to be all good, all knowing, or the creators of the world. Here’s the entire 2.5 minute exchange. 

I’m not an Irish detective, nor am I a lawyer. However, given that the definition of “blasphemy” is a “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion…” it seems like a slam dunk. However, his utterance did not correlate to the second half of the statute requiring an outrage of a substantial number of adherents to the relevant religion. So perhaps that’s why the Irish government dropped the case.

Fry’s comments are nothing new. They are not exactly the most eloquent way of putting the old “problem of evil,” but I do like his delivery. His way of making it a personal conversation in which he scolds the maliciously capricious god. Perhaps it has some kind of performance value. Perhaps that is another reason they dropped the case.

Yet none of this matters because the state should have no compelling interest in the crafting these kinds of laws in the first place. I’ve said it more times than I care to link to: there is no harm in blasphemy. There was no harm in the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, the Danish newspaper cartoons, in Piss-Christ, the Last Temptation of Christ, or the Life of Brian. There are literally no sacred cows.

The only thing that these laws seek to protect is the insecurity of the believer, their fear that other people might have seen what they have and rejected it. What else could it be? Words shouldn’t be able to hurt an all powerful being, but somehow nations and people have deluded themselves into thinking the creative being behind the entire Cosmos needs protection from a few air vibrations if they occur in a certain order.

Sure, to repeat the opening point: some people may think that it’s fine because they didn’t prosecute Fry. Even the wording of the law allows so many excuses that it’s nearly unenforceable. Yet that’s not the main issue, it’s that the Irish Constitution felt that this was necessary enough to mention the need for the law in the first place. Of course if they decide to charge him again, article 16 of the defamation law offers Fry the best defense*:

(1) It shall be a defence (to be known and in this Act referred to as the “defence of truth” to a defamation action for the defendant to prove that the statement in respect of which the action was brought is true in all material respects.

 

 

*Though again, I’m not a lawyer, not Irish, and certainly not an Irish Lawyer. Don’t take legal advice from a blog.

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