On April 29, the Irish Justice Minister announced a new proposed blasphemy crime. This combines the oppressive religious thinking of 1950s Catholic Ireland and modern Islamic fundamentalism.
This proposal should be opposed for three reasons. One, it does not protect religious belief; it incentivizes outrage and it criminalises free speech. Two, it treats religious beliefs as more valuable than secular beliefs and scientific thinking. Three, we should be removing 1930s religious references from the Irish Constitution, not legislating to enforce them.
Atheist Ireland, as an advocacy group for a rational, ethical, secular Ireland, is campaigning against this proposed law. Whatever your religious beliefs, please join this campaign for a modern, tolerant democracy. Here are detailed arguments for the three reasons to oppose it, plus a summary of the proposed new crime and its background.
The proposed new blasphemy crime and its background
Under the proposal, which is part of a wider defamation bill, “a person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”
“Blasphemous matter” is defined as matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”
The background is this: Under Article 40 of the Irish Constitution, blasphemy is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law. In 1999, the Supreme Court found that the existing law against blasphemy was unenforceable, as there was no definition of blasphemy.
Last year the Oireachtas committee on the Constitution recommended removing the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution. Instead, this proposed new law creates a legal definition of blasphemy, in order to make the offence punishable in law.
We should be working towards an ethical and secular society, where we address our differences of belief in rational terms.
Reason One: This proposed law does not protect religious belief; it incentivizes outrage and it criminalises free speech.
Under this proposed law, if one group of people expresses one belief about gods, and a second group of people thinks that this insults a different beliefs about gods, then the second group can become outraged, and this outrage makes it illegal for the first group to express their beliefs.
The problematic behaviour here is the outrage, not the expression of different beliefs. Instead of incentivizing outrage, we should be educating people to respond in a more healthy manner than outrage when somebody expresses a belief that they find insulting.
Also, it is not restricted to expressions about beliefs. This outrage could be triggered by people expressing scientifically validated facts about the origin of the universe, which could be offensive to young earth creationists.
More worryingly, this law would encourage, reinforce and protect the type of orchestrated outrage that Islamic fundamentalists directed against Danish cartoonists and novelists. It could also help Islamic communities in Ireland to enforce Sharia law on Islamic women living here.
Reason Two: This proposed law treats religious beliefs as more valuable than secular beliefs and scientific thinking
From an ethical perspective, I find it abusive and insulting that the Christian Bible suggests that a woman should be stoned to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night, or that it is okay to kill your slave if he dies slowly, or that effeminate people are unrighteous, or that women must not teach and must learn in silence, or that people should worship a God who threatens to make you eat your own children, who sends bears to kill children for mocking a bald man, and who says that he will bring so much evil it will make your ears tingle.
From a scientific perspective, I find it abusive and insulting that Christians teach impressionable children that the creator of the universe impregnated a virgin to give birth to himself, or that many dead bodies rose from their graves and walked through Jerusalem when Jesus died, or that the creator of the universe turns pieces of bread and volumes of wine into his own body and blood every time a priest on the planet earth chooses to utter a particular set of words. I believe that these false beliefs harm the ongoing human quest for knowledge.
If enough atheists are outraged about these passages, should the Christian Bible be banned? I do not believe that the Bible should be banned, and neither should discussion of the Bible in terms that cause Christians to be outraged.
Reason Three: We should be removing 1930s religious references from the Irish Constitution, not legislating to enforce them
Today, under the Irish Constitution, you cannot become President or be appointed as a Judge unless you take a religious oath under God asking god to direct and sustain you in your work. Also, an atheist Taoiseach or Tanaiste could not take their place on the Council of State without swearing a religious oath.
This means that up to a quarter of a million Irish people cannot take up these offices without swearing a lie. These religious declarations are contrary to Ireland’s obligations under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The preamble to our Constitution states that all authority of the State comes from, and all actions of the State must be referred to, a specific god called the Most Holy Trinity. It also humbly acknowledges all of the obligations of the people of the State to a specific god called Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Article 44, the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God and that the State shall hold His Name in reverence. This is not an assertion of the right of citizens to worship this god. It is an assertion of the right of this god to be worshipped by citizens.
The Constitution also contains other references to this god. Article 6 states that all powers of government derive, under God, from the people. Article 40 makes blasphemy an offence. The last line of the Constitution dedicates the Constitution to the glory of God and the honour of Ireland.
Our national parliament recognises the rights of this god by starting each day’s business with a prayer to it. This prayer explicitly asks this god to direct the actions of our parliamentarians, so that their every word and work may always begin from and be happily ended by Christ Our Lord.
There are also other references in the Constitution to religion, as opposed to gods. We should be amending our Constitution to remove these theistic references, not creating new crimes to enforce provisions that were written in the 1930s.