Monday, July 06, 2009

Blasphemy in Ireland

The Irish Government is acting so as to undermine the fine work I am seeking to do with this blog.

They are working on passing a Blasphemy Law. This law, if passed, would make "blasphemy" a crime. Where, according to the Irish Times:

"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."

(See: Irish Times: Crime of blasphemous libel proposed for Defamation Bill; The New Humanist Blog: Ireland moves closer to blasphemy law)

How does this undermine the work of this blog?

One of the topics that I have written the most about is the right to freedom of speech. I have argued for principles such as:

• The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions. Private actions are based on decisions that require no justification, such as where to shop, what to buy, what to eat, what to wear, and the like.

• A right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from criticism. It is a right to immunity from violence, including state violence, for what a person may say or write.

For a government to even consider a law such as this – other than to reject it outright, denies both of these principles. The law itself gives an illusion of legitimacy to those who would react to words with violence by adding state violence to private violence. Instead of condemning those who would react with violence, it condemns the speaker, and empowers the violent.

Furthermore, it is an invitation on the part of the government to religions to harvest outrage. It is a propaganda weapon that says, "C'mon, followers, if you can muster enough outrage – if you can display enough anger and rage at whomever says this, then we get the government on our side. Then the government will attack our enemies. But if you do nothing, then the government will not act."

These are not absolutes, so it is no criticism of these principles that one can imagine exceptions. To offer criticism one must only only imagine an objection, but apply it to the case at hand.

Which is clearly something that Ireland is sorely in need of – a government subsidy for religious rage.

Almost as abusrd as the law itself are the reactions to it. According to the New Humanist, one reaction comes from Michael Nugent, who chairs Atheist Ireland.

It is silly because it revives a medieval religious law in a modern pluralist republic, and it makes Ireland seem like a backward country. People need protection. Ideas do not. Ideas should always be open to criticism and ridicule. If the law is passed, we will be immediately testing it by publishing a blasphemous statement.

Silly? This means it is trivial, a waste of time. In which case one would have to ask why Atheist Ireland is wasting its time on something that they themselves declare to be trivial.

It is not trivial, in fact. It is quite important, for the sake of maintaining civil order, to promote an cultural aversion to the habit of responding to words with violence. The people of Ireland should have no trouble recognizing the value of that lesson.

I applaud the fact that Atheist Ireland plans on challenging the law as soon as it is passed, if it is passed. However, it would be better if they did not do so because the law was 'silly'. It would be better if they did so for good reason.

We stand here in defense of the right to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not the right to immunity from criticism. It is a right to immunity from violence, including state violence, for what one says or does. It is the right to speak or write without fear, and it is a duty on the part of every citizen not to use fear as a weapon to silence one's critics. It is most important that the government, in a civilized country, raises its voice in defense of those who would speak freely, rather than give its encouragement to those who would harvest rage as a way to silence its critics.

"Silly?" Since when is the right to immunity from violence for speaking or writing "silly?"


Anonymous said...

So what is the penalty for violating this "Blasphemy Law"? Stoning?

In a true democracy, there is no such thing as "blasphemy."

Marc said...

I think you're wrong. In a true democracy, 51% of the voters gets to decide if there is such a thing as blasphemy.

Anonymous said...

What I mean is in a true democracy, you have free speech. "Blasphemy" cannot exist where there is (supposed to be) free speech. Free speech means I don't have to kotow to anyone's "god" or ideology.

You can have free speech or you can have blasphemy. You can't have both.

Nick said...

This is how it started in Iran, way to go Ireland...

Michael Nugent said...

Just to clarify, the quote you have used is an incomplete statement of Atheist Ireland's position on this issue.

Our argument is that the new blasphemy law is both silly and dangerous.

It is silly because it revives a medieval religious crime in a modern pluralist republic. And it is dangerous because it incentivises religious outrage, by making it the first trigger for defining blasphemy.

The problematic behaviour here is the outrage, not the expression of different beliefs. Instead of incentivising outrage, we should be educating people to respond in a more healthy manner than outrage when somebody expresses a belief that they find insulting.

The law also discriminates against atheist citizens by protecting the fundamental beliefs of religious people only. Why should religious beliefs be protected by law in ways that scientific or political or other secular beliefs are not?

I appreciate your support for our opposition to it. Unfortunately, it has now become a campaign to have the law repealed, as it has been passed through the Oireachtas and requires only the President's signature and the signing of an official order for it to become law.