‘Aye, those be slighting words against the Lord:’ Ireland’s blasphemy law

‘Aye, those be slighting words against the Lord:’ Ireland’s blasphemy law

On the first day of 2010 (note: not 1310), Ireland’s new blasphemy law came into effect, making statements about the folly of religion punishable by a 25,000 euro fine. Specifically, the law forbids “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion.” Ireland, yet again, has shown the world the toxic result of religious influence on the state. Fortunately, the Irish specialize in blasphemers as well as zealots; a group called Atheist Ireland is flouting the law by posting on its website 25 quotations selected intentionally to outrage religious sensibilities and daring the authorities to prosecute them. They chose a wide range of blasphemy, which was smart, because the new laws, ironically, are intended to promote tolerance. Blasphemy was already a crime in Irish law; the new legislation merely extends the right not to be offended to people of any faith at all.

Alongside quotes from Frank Zappa about “The Cloud Guy who has The Big Book,” the atheists are promoting attacks on Muslims and even Buddhists, such as Icelandic pop singer Björk’s uncharacteristically hostile comment: “The Buddhists say we come back as animals and they refer to them as lesser beings. Well, animals aren’t lesser beings, they’re just like us. So I say f–k the Buddhists.”

There’s only one blasphemer on the list of 25 blasphemous quotations that’s deemed worthy of two entries, and he is, of course, the greatest blasphemer of them all: Jesus Christ. Two thousand years after his ministry, if Jesus were to choose Ireland as the spot for his return to Earth, he would be fined ¤25,000. I guess the good news is he wouldn’t be crucified. (You have to take progress where you can find it.) Pope Benedict XVI should probably be careful what he says, though. If he were to repeat the remarks he made at the 2006 Regensburg lecture, in the course of which he quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II’s statement that Muhammad’s teachings are “evil and inhuman,” he might well be subject to prosecution.

Surely the problem with a multicultural blasphemy law will be in its implementation: With so many religious violators, whom should the police fine first? The Irish law stipulates that it is meant to punish only people who are “intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents.” Most atheists don’t care enough to blaspheme. Despite the recent spate of atheistic polemics, from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the rest, we simply don’t have a dog in the fight. Priests, rabbis and imams have to outrage other believers; it’s part of the job description. Muslims are supposed to outrage Christians. Protestants are supposed to outrage Catholics. And they all are supposed to outrage the Jews. Religions are inherently blasphemous against each other, which is exactly why, in successful societies, humanists have managed, through the painful effort of centuries, to kick religion out of government.

Religion is creeping back by any means it can find. The same week that the Irish government redefined blasphemy, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard managed to survive an assault in his house by a Somali man wielding an axe and knife. The assailant wouldn’t have had to attack if they had both been living in Ireland. Rather than being apprehended by the police, the assassin could have contacted them; Westergaard, and not his intended killer, would be the criminal in Ireland.

Religious tolerance has been confused with respect. How can you legislate that people not only put up with other people’s beliefs but validate them? What about new religions? Are they entitled to the same protections? What about people with private religions, i.e., the insane? What about people who believe in gnomes and fairies, an ancient religious tradition? Is it blasphemous to claim that the woods are not possessed by magical spirits? What if you work for the department of forestry? What if you insult little girls’ imaginary friends?

Another problem with the new Irish law is that the truth itself is blasphemous. It’s hard to report the events of the past two decades without “intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents.” The Irish government reported that the Dublin diocese of the Catholic Church tolerated “endemic sexual abuse” and sheltered more than 170 pedophile priests from justice for decades. Could you make a more damning statement about any religious group? The Pope goes to AIDS-ravaged Africa and tells people not to use condoms. He welcomes Holocaust-deniers into the priesthood. He commences the process for turning Hitler’s Pope into a saint. No atheist needs to make stuff up. What’s more blasphemous to the Catholic Church than the newspaper?

Religion is trying to make a comeback into the public sphere through the back door, not by insisting on intolerance, but by demanding a respect that it’s done nothing to earn. Fortunately, there will always be blasphemers to stand in the way.