Saturday, 2 January 2010

Blasphemy is still a thing

Secular campaigners in the Irish Republic defied a strict new blasphemy law which came into force today by publishing a series of anti-religious quotations online and promising to fight the legislation in court.

The new law, which was passed in July, means that blasphemy in Ireland is now a crime punishable with a fine of up to €25,000 (£22,000).

It defines blasphemy as "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted".

Well. This is...medieval.

The law was passed back in July, so I'm late, but it's attracting attention again because Atheist Ireland has just responded to the new law by publishing 25 anti-religious quotations made by or attributed to famous figures, including Jesus Christ himself.

The justice minister, Dermot Ahern, said that the law was necessary because while immigration had brought a growing diversity of religious faiths, the 1936 constitution extended the protection of belief only to Christians.

Except this law doesn't protect religious belief as much as it simultaneously protects the right of some to be outraged and restricts the freedom of others to express thoughts and ideas. My saying, as Christoper Hitchens does, that god is not Great, does not prevent those who believe their god is great from continuing to do so. It does not prevent them from worshipping in their churches or confine their employment opportunities based on their religion. And how completely turned around is it to correct the fact that blasphemy considerations once extended only to the Christian faith by now extending it to all faiths, rather than - perhaps - completely removing from the constitution the outdated notion of blasphemy that obtained when the Church was still head of the State?

I'm sorry but "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion" is a bit too vague for me. I'm going to need more guidance than that. And therein lies the problem with the legislation. It is wholly subjective and difficult to define and prove. Who determines whether the outrage was caused intentionally? How substantial is a 'substantial number of adherents'? Why is your protection from feeling outraged more important than my freedom to engage in reasoned (or not so reasoned, perhaps) discussion of religion and spirituality? Why must I, as a private citizen, be subject to the laws of a religion of which I am not a part? That is to say, what if it is outrageous among the Rastafari to say that Haile Selassie was not divine, he was just a man? Lots of Christians would be having boot sales in the church car park to raise that £22,000. What if scientologists got outraged by a claim that Xenu smelled funny and had bad hair? And this isn't even the old 'slippery slope' argument: the fact is, it is a dangerous thing to subject a population to scores of religious observations to which they are not privy. It is not like hate speech legislation, which aims to protect real, live people and their freedoms, rather than nebulous ideas of deity and religious tenets.

There is a way to protect religious practice and belief, and as Ahern notes, with the growing diversity of these, they should be protected. But these blasphemy laws are not it. There is a difference between feeling threatened in the practice of your faith, and taking offence because another's ideas are not aligned with yours. Hell, I offend my sisters all the time. Not on purpose, because I respect their right to exercise their religious freedom, but as a non-Christian who takes serious umbrage with some of the tenets of their religion, I'm bound to make that known in regular conversation. And that kind of exchange is healthy and necessary, among family but especially in public discourse.

You know, right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the US are probably all packing their bags to move to Ireland as we speak. Because this is the kind of thinking behind their claims that legalizing marriage among gays and lesbians threatens their religion, although no one has been able to articulate to me the process by which this happens. This is the kind of thinking that prioritizes religion over rights and freedoms, and it's a fairly ugly step backwards.

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