Voters in Ireland will decide next month whether they should retain or abolish a “blasphemy clause” from the national Constitution, in large part thanks to comedian and actor Stephen Fry.
Fry narrowly avoided prosecution under the blasphemy rule when he was asked on a state-run television show about what he would say, as an atheist, if he was confronted by God at the Pearly Gates. Fry’s iconic answer went viral:
“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is 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 that is so full of injustice and pain?
That’s what I would say.”
Citizens Speak Out
The fact that Fry was investigated by police over this led citizens to ask if it’s best to remove the archaic remnant about blasphemy from the Constitution. The date for the referendum has been set for the same day as the presidential election, which is October 26.
This referendum is way overdue. This is the 21st Century, and Ireland still has a constitutional clause making it illegal to offend people by making fun of religion? If this were true in the United States, I would be serving a lifetime of sentences for “blasphemy.”
The Constitution defines blasphemy as offensive comments or matter designed to offend any religious community: anything said or done deemed “gross abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage against a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”.
Under the 1961 Defamation Act, a person could be fined and/or jailed for up to seven years for the crime of blasphemous libel, making blasphemy punishable by law.
Several governments have been advised to reform the law, and it was decided to do so by referendum on the same date that the Irish electorate vote for a new President: 26 October.
Working with Christians
It may be overdue, but the fact that this vote is happening at all is a huge sign of progress in that country. And it’s also nice to know that it isn’t just Fry and atheist groups that fought for this vote.
The organisation Atheism Ireland, together with many Christian organisations, has campaigned for the removal of the law. The organisation states: “Regardless of the detail, it is wrong in principle for a modern democratic republic to have any type of blasphemy law.
“Theological thought-crimes belong in the past. Religious and nonreligious people alike should be protected from harm and incitement to harm, but religious and nonreligious ideas alike should be open to any criticism. That is how human knowledge progresses. Blasphemy laws discriminate against nonreligious citizens, by protecting the fundamental beliefs of religious citizens only.”
This group is right. You can’t make laws to protect the feelings of believers, especially when threatening anyone else with jail or fines. It’s nice to see some Christian groups stood up to honor that, too.
Blasphemy laws, basically created to protect the feelings of non-existent beings and those who believe in them, have been a common target for Fry. So it makes sense that it was his words, and his near prosecution, that caused this important vote.
If you want more information about this referendum, here’s an interview with the chairperson of the Referendum Commission: https://www.rte.ie/news/newslens/2018/0925/996954-blasphemy-referendum/
Yours in Reason,
David G. McAfee (Support my work here)