Blasphemy Laws Can Only Invite Trouble
Hensher, Philip, The Independent (London, England)
On 1 January, the Irish state introduced a new law. It extends the offence of blasphemy, which previously had only covered the Christian religion. It defines blasphemy as "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted". The punishment for intentionally causing outrage in this way is $25,000.
"Any religion"? Woo. There are quite a lot of religions out there, in case the Irish state hadn't noticed. There is Scientology, for a start. Mormonism proposes that an angel appeared to Joseph Smith with a new sacred book written on golden plates, published in 1830. Christian Science teaches that sickness is the result of fear, ignorance or sin.
There are plenty of religions, too, which are widely regarded as dead, but which a little research could, I am sure, turn up a few dozen practitioners. I bet there are quite a lot of amateur adherents of the cult of Odin still out there. There are, too, some still odder and more recently invented religions; few people, even those within the wider religious community, could avoid stepping on these toes just by saying what they themselves believe in. There is a Church of Satan, active since the 1960s, founded by one Anton Szandor LaVey. Could they not bring a case for "intentionally caused outrage" against any number of members of more respectable religions?
Still, I'm glad that the Irish Parliament used the word "intentionally" in framing its new offence. Once, in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, I observed a sequence of widows approaching one of a long line of lingams in the great Hindu temple there, and noticed that they did not hesitate before choosing one to drape in a garland. I quite innocently asked our guide whether a widow would have a preferred lingam to decorate: this evidently caused immense offence, and he would hardly speak to me again, to my great (and ignorant) distress. At least I wouldn't be prosecuted in Ireland.
The Atheist Ireland association has immediately produced a list of distinguished comments, made over the ages, which they claim would fall foul of the new blasphemy law. It includes the founders of ancient religions, including Jesus and Mohammed; modern adherents such as the Pope quoting a Byzantine emperor on Islam ("things only evil and inhuman"); as well as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Springer: The Opera, and Frank Zappa saying that religion is a product of "the chimpanzee part of the brain working".
I don't suppose anyone will really be prosecuted in Ireland for practising free speech, and I suspect that legislation against real, active hate crime intended to bring down violence on the head of minorities would have been enough. There is an alarming prospect, though, that in other parts of the world, laws like this would have a real, dangerous application. In 1993, a blasphemy law was introduced to the Bangladeshi parliament with a provision for capital punishment. It failed, because its definitions of blasphemy were so in excess of any parallel law in the rest of the civilised world. …