Like many the world over, I have enjoyed the wit of Stephen Fry in great shows such as Blackadder and QI to name just two. Moreover, I enjoy much of Fry’s socio-political commentary, such as his famous interview with RTÈ in 2015. Here, he raised a concept that many atheists have considered: the idea that if God were real, then he/she/they are irredeemably cruel for either enabling or failing to prevent the misery experienced by people throughout space and time (see problem of evil). Christian apologetics such as “blessings in disguise” , “free will”, “original sin”, or “punishment for things” are unconvincing and churlish.
In the 2015 RTÈ interview, Fry described God as “capricious, mean-minded and stupid” and “a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish”. Well put. It turns out that Fry was reported to the police for blasphemy and an investigation is to be conducted. Much outrage has ensued, including in the Guardian comment section, where my alter ego earned 299 upvotes (a new record, beating my last record where I called for a coup d’etat in Turkey). In an era where free-speech whingers are becoming louder and louder, such an uproar was to be expected. Blasphemy is an absurd concept. It assumes that there is a universal standard for what is acceptable speech and that deviation from this standard warrants punishment. Neither of those things are true. Blasphemy laws serve no purpose other than to suppress the opponents of state power and the leaders of the majority religion, entrenching the privileges that the rich and powerful enjoy.
The constitution of the Irish Republic (1937) mandates that blasphemy must be a criminal offence (pg 160 of the convenient online PDF version). The Defamation Act of 2009 gave a statutory definition for blasphemy. In order to strike the law from the constitution, a referendum must be held. You may remember that a successful referendum to amend constitution was held in May 2015 to introduce same-sex marriage. The same needs to be done to remove the blasphemy law.
While many are still worried about faux-populist retrogrades derailing the removal of blasphemy (e.g. like voting for Brexit or Trump), a law which allows the religious to claim offence on the basis of hurt feelings should be even less controversial than same-sex marriage. Luckily the Fine Gael minority government has plans to introduce such a referendum. I’m confident the Irish voters will get this one right too.
Meanwhile in New Zealand: The corporate media and some ignorant politicians were shocked to discover that NZ has its own blasphemy law. All they had to do was look it up on Wikipedia! It originated from English common law (thanks British colonialism!) and was then added to the Crimes Act of 1961, where only the Attorney General may push for a prosecution. Only one prosecution has ever taken place, which failed. Since free speech is protected in the Bill of Rights Act 1990, Attorneys General decline to engage in blasphemy prosecutions.
One might wonder what’s the harm? That’s not good enough. We should not assume that Attorneys General will always act with decency and pragmatism. The BORA would be one of the first targets that a hypothetical far-right government would seek to remove (my guess would be that the BORA would be framed as “PC gone mad”). Then there is scope to tie opposing voices up in blasphemy cases, allowing for the government to cement it’s grip on power. In the same way that we do not leave matches lying around for children and arsonists to set things in fire, we should not leave bad laws around for those with ill intent to terrorise us.
To his credit, Prime Minister Bill English (the Valtteri Bottas of NZ politics*) does not think we should have a blasphemy law. That’s pretty good coming from someone who is generally addled by Catholic doctrine. The Herald ran an article where English was disappointingly lax about the repeal, saying it would be part of an omnibus bill getting rid of lots of nonsense laws in one go. The perpetual contrarian Winston Peters played the “I’ll focus on things that matter” card. Labour leader Andrew Little called himslef a “free speech extremist” (rather understandably). Libertarian welfare recipient David Seymour did his best to get a repeal ASAP. The end of the article was interesting, suggesting that the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 could be misused as a blasphemy law. It’s already been used to harass left wing blogs, so I guess we’ll have to watch this space.
Blasphemy has no place in a secular, civilised society (sorry about the tautology). Even having a currently toothless law puts us at risk should a band of fanatical zealots ever take office. Now is the time to strike while public attention is at its peak. Remove the law so that we may continue without fear to expose conservative religion for the dangerous, hateful fraud that it is.