Blasphemy in New Zealand: Scrap the Law Now!

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 himself 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.

*Following on from my John Key/Nico Rosberg analogy. I wish to extend my apologies to Bottas for comparing him with English. We know that Bottas can win, while English hasn’t.
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France 2017: Le Pen’s Strange Definition of Secularism

I’ve written about the upcoming French presidential election in the past. Since then, free-market lunatic Francois Fillon has tanked following the revelations that he gave fake jobs to his family members. Benoit Hamon and the PS have slipped off the radar as a resurgent Jean-Luc Melenchon has just about drawn level with Fillon in polling in the high teens. Centrist Emmanuel Macron and extreme right-winger Marine Le Pen are level in the lead, both polling in the low to mid twenties. The trend as of mid-April shows Macron, Hamon and Le Pen losing support with big gains to Melenchon and a slight rise for Fillon.

Given the large number of undecided/abstaining voters and the rapidly changing trends, any two of the top four could succeed in the first round of voting on Sunday (French time). The situation in French politics is such that it was covered by British-American comedian John Oliver in Last Week Tonight. In general the segment was light on policy and highlighted the deep unpopularity of figures such as Valls, Fillon and Macron who were caught on camera getting hit with food items. Interestingly, there was no mention of Hamon which should be a signal to his voters to switch to Melenchon in order to see their interests represented.

Most of the segment covered Le Pen, who draws obvious parallels with Brexit, Trump, and now the outrageous Turkish constitutional referendum (although I can’t imagine she would like to be compared with the latter event).  Oliver pointed out that even though she has polished the FN from when her father was in charge, she still lets some unpleasant ideas slip through. One example of this was when interviewed, Le Pen stated that she would ban all religious clothing. Le Pen has also stated that she is attached to secularism. Her ban on religious clothing is no doubt inspired by her staunch secularism.

As the title alludes to, I think that a ban on religious clothing has nothing to do with secularism and in fact goes against secular principles. Firstly, let’s look at a definition of secularism from the National Secular Society (UK):

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

One of the misunderstandings about secularism (normally by religious fanatics) is that it is akin to compulsory atheism or involves preferential treatment for atheists. Not true, if anything the above definition is a statement of neutrality. This position of neutrality is beneficial to the most people as should be obvious to anyone capable of empathy. While a powerful group may be upset that it can’t do whatever it likes, less powerful groups do not experience oppression.

In terms of the second part of the NSS definition, I think that bans on clothing represent a deviation from neutrality and indicate a bias in favour of irreligion. While I think an irreligious society is generally better than a religious society, turning everyone into an atheist will not solve all the world’s problems (just read PZ Myers’ blog and consider some of the examples of asshole atheism that he has confronted). Bans on clothing push the widespread understanding of secularism towards the cartoon definition that religionists use to claim that secularism is persecuting them. Let’s avoid that and acknowledge that individuals should be free to wear the clothing of their choice.

It’s also interesting that in the West, non-religious and Christian people wear clothing which is generally not explicitly associated with religion. That’s probably due to privilege bias and thinking that their “normal” is the only “normal”. I can’t help but think secularism is being misappropriated by Le Pen as a tool to bash religious minorities in France. Bashing religious minorities is a godsend to terrorist organisations who will happily recruit those who have been persecuted. Terrorist organisations will find things a lot harder when the mainstream of their religion have secure comfortable lifestyles, individual rights and freedoms to participate in society and a sense of belonging. True secularism offers us all of those things. Le Pen’s policies only serve to enrage and endanger us.

My preference is Melenchon, whose concerns about economic insecurity are more credible than Le Pen’s. He recognises that neoliberal economics has underlined the noble vision of the European Union. Hamon also has some interesting policies such as a UBI, and investment in infrastructure and the environment. However he is a long shot on current polling. I was wrong to characterise Macron as a Bernie Sanders type figure in my last French post (well spotted Old Deuteronomy), it is clear now that Melenchon is deserving of this sobriquet. It’s now up to France to do what the US couldn’t: put a socialist voice in charge for constructive change.

*You may notice that I haven’t used any of the accented letters in the candidate names. That’s because I have a US English keyboard and I can’t be arsed remembering the ALT codes. This is Zeitung f­ür Katzen, not Journal pour les chats!