The sacred in modern law

Posted on January 1, 2010


Today, the new Irish blasphemy law has come into force:

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.”

Where a person is convicted of an offence under this section, the court may issue a warrant authorising the Garda Síochána to enter, if necessary using reasonable force, a premises.

An example of legal protection being afforded to the sacred which is hard to believe possible in a modern country such as Ireland. Thankfully, people have already organised themselves to fight this. To test it, Atheist Ireland has immediately published a list of 25 quotes that have at one time or another been deemed blasphemous. Regardless of whether one is a theist or not, I find it impossible to believe that anyone half reasonable could defend this offensive law – indeed, it seems to have very little support among the Irish. In support of the effort by Atheist Ireland, I am publishing the following example of blasphemy from their list:

20. Pope Benedict XVI quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor, 2006: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” This statement has already led to both outrage and condemnation of the outrage. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the world’s largest Muslim body, said it was a “character assassination of the prophet Muhammad”. The Malaysian Prime Minister said that “the Pope must not take lightly the spread of outrage that has been created.” Pakistan’s foreign Ministry spokesperson said that “anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence”. The European Commission said that “reactions which are disproportionate and which are tantamount to rejecting freedom of speech are unacceptable.”

I do not believe the statement to be true, of course. Any such simplistic evaluation of a social phenomenon as complex as a religion is bound to be false. But the law makes no reference to whether the blasphemous statement has to actually be believed in. So, I am publishing the statement with the express aim of acting in breach of this law, to the degree that it is possible for me, given that I do not live or publish in Ireland. As such, I suspect mine is ‘the bravery of being out of range’. But my aim is simply to show my support for the campaign to get rid of this outrageous law.

On another day, I may go back and discuss how this is a great example of how the sacred is a category whose function is to protect claims from investigation and the relevance of it to the stability of religion. Today, however, I am too struck by the sheer knuckle-dragging, antedeluvian wonder of this legal claptrap.

Posted in: news, religion