Artillery Row

Why Ireland’s blasphemy law needed to go

Insult for its own sake is childish and banal, but the ability to strongly criticise any creed is absolutely vital in a healthy democracy

Love means never having to say you’re sorry. That, at least, is what Valentine’s cards used to say, meaning that the people who wrote them had never been married. And the relationship between Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church is very much like certain marriages – long, once romantic and passionate, then cooler, and now often downright nasty and even on the brink of divorce.

Speaking of which, divorce is now legal in Ireland. So is blasphemy, but only after a 2018 referendum that removed its prohibition from the constitution. Such laws do still exist in parts of Europe, although more anachronistically than realistically. Yet a recent poll in tolerant and progressive Denmark revealed that more than 60 per cent of the population believed in some form of legislation to prevent blasphemy. In case anybody assumes this is because of Islamic immigration into the country, less than 5 per cent of Danes are Muslim. Blasphemy in the Islamic world itself, of course, is a very different matter.

It’s become an issue once again in Ireland due to national broadcaster RTÉ apologizing after protests at a television comedy sketch that depicted God as a rapist. A show on New Year’s Eve featured a 23-second satirical news report naming God in a sexual harassment scandal. “The 5-billion-year-old stood accused of forcing himself on a young Middle Eastern migrant and allegedly impregnating her against her will, before being sentenced to two years in prison, with the last 24 months suspended,” it announced. “Following the news, movie producer Harvey Weinstein requested a retrial in Ireland.”

Cue more than 1000 complaints, condemnation by the country’s primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, and RTÉ responding that it recognised “that matters which can cause offence naturally differ from person to person, within comedy and satire in particular. Having reviewed the feedback and complaints received up to this point, RTÉ wishes to apologise to those who were offended by the segment.”

Stephen Fry who would have liked nothing more than a good old blasphemy trial

The “those who were offended” defence is pretty common these days, and means relatively little, but it does expose that while formal blasphemy may be a rare concept in the contemporary western world, it still features in popular consciousness. The last actual prosecution in Ireland was back in 1855 when a priest accidentally burned a Bible –– well, it can happen to the best of us. More recently, in 2017, Stephen Fry was briefly investigated by the Irish police on charges of blasphemy. The case was based on remarks he’d made on Irish Television two years earlier and, if convicted, Fry could have faced a fine of €25,000.

The cops couldn’t find enough evidence to continue the investigation – and I’m sure didn’t try very hard – much to the chagrin of Fry, who would have liked nothing more than a good old blasphemy trial. What he actually said, however, is worth noting. Asked how he would respond if God did in fact exist and he met him after death, he replied: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It’s 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 which is so full of injustice and pain?”

He continued: “Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish. We have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him. What kind of god would do that?” Which is a wonderful, astute question to ask, and something that as a cleric I’d use as a starting point for a systematic theology or apologetics class, if they were ever sufficiently foolish to let me teach in a seminary.

The point is that I don’t have to agree with Fry – who was, by the way, a kind and encouraging friend to me during my journey towards ordination – to respect the sentiment and the challenge. Faith is a dialogue, and tough and painful questions can’t be strangled or ignored simply because they are difficult. That way is the road to oppression, bigotry and intolerance.

Insult for its own sake is childish and banal, but strong words to make an argument or to oppose a creed – satirical or otherwise – are not only acceptable but also absolutely vital in a healthy democracy. Those social media atheists who moan on about sky-fairies and all Christians being stupid are simply dull. But intelligent and informed debate between believer and non-believer, divine thesis and antithesis, should strengthen and refine a faith that is authentic and vibrant.

It’s difficult to forget even now the uproar over Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979. If the film did have a point to make, apart from being simply funny and entertaining, it was that the loving and pure message of Jesus was forgotten in the rush to embrace pointless detail and pedantic observance. It should have been sacrilegious only to Pharisees, but that didn’t stop it being banned in cinemas and from various zealots and frauds denouncing it all over the media.

The public square in secular society should have no special protection for religious faith

What was said on Irish telly was brief, pithy, and making a statement about the nature of God and humanity, one that shouldn’t worry any Christian who understands the true nature of the annunciation. If it does, tough. Far, far more agonising is the child abuse horror that permeated the Roman Catholic Church and is still being unwrapped. Far, far more agonising is the galloping homophobia and the obsession with contraception and women’s choice that still dominate so much of Christian discourse. That does far more harm to the church than any amount of comedy.

Blasphemy against Jesus and the Gospels does exist, but it comes from fundamentalists and literalists who so distort the original message of the gentle rabbi Yeshua. It comes, for example, from those people who stormed the Capitol Building in Washington DC waving Christian placards and wearing shirts emblazoned with “Jesus Saves”. The public square in secular society should have no special protection for religious faith. All I ask is that it should have no particular animus either. Satirise all you want, but let us respond and participate without benefit of clergy, or with prejudice against believers.

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