Ireland: blasphemy law a backward step
07 Jul 2009

michael-nugentThe government should not be creating new laws to enforce provisions written in the reactionary 1930s, says Michael Nugent

This Wednesday the Irish parliament will vote on a new law making blasphemy an offence punishable by a fine of €25,000. If this law is passed, Atheist Ireland will respond by publishing a blasphemous statement in order to test the law and highlight its absurdity. We believe that people need protection from harm, but ideas and beliefs should always be open to challenge.

Why is this happening? The Irish Constitution says that blasphemy is an offence that shall be punishable by law. That law currently resides in the 1961 Defamation Act. The Dáil is now repealing and updating this Act, and Justice Minister Dermot Ahern says he must pass a new blasphemy law to avoid leaving a “void”.

But this “void” is already there. In 1999, the Supreme Court found that the 1961 law was unenforceable because it did not define blasphemy. So, in effect, Ireland has never had an enforceable blasphemy law under the 1937 Constitution. But we will if this bill is passed through the Dáil and the Seanad (the upper house), and the government has the working majority needed to pass it.

Here are three reasons why this law is both silly and dangerous:

Reason One: The proposed law does not protect religious belief; it incentivises outrage and it criminalises free speech. Under this proposed law, if a person expresses one belief about gods, and other people think that this insults a different belief about gods, then these people can become outraged, and this outrage can make it illegal for the first person to express his or her beliefs.

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 healthier manner when somebody expresses a belief that they find insulting. More worryingly, this law would encourage, reinforce and protect the type of orchestrated outrage that Islamic fundamentalists have directed against cartoonists and novelists.

Reason Two: The proposed law treats religious beliefs as more valuable than secular beliefs and scientific thinking. Personally, 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.

If enough atheists are outraged by 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 asking God to direct and sustain you in your work.

This means that up to a quarter of a million Irish people could not 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 the Irish 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 the obligations of every person in the state to a specific god called Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The constitution acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. 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. Our national parliament recognises the rights of this god by starting each day’s business with a prayer asking this god to direct the actions of our parliamentarians.

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 written in the 1930s.

This Saturday, 11 July, Atheist Ireland will hold our AGM between 2pm and 5pm in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin. Members of the public are welcome to attend. Please come along, or advise any friends living in Dublin to do so, if you want to help build an ethical and secular Ireland.

Michael Nugent is an Irish writer of two bestselling books and the comedy musical play I Keano, and chair of the advocacy group Atheist Ireland

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11 responses to “Ireland: blasphemy law a backward step”

  1. […] viewpoint under the guise of some anti-defamation bill. You can read more about it here from the Atheist Ireland […]

  2. E Mac says:

    This law is to protect anyone exposing Islam and nothing more, The Blasphemy law was for Christians only and has not been used for centuries and now that Islam has been allowed to invest our country the law is changed to cover muslims and their beliefs. Michael Nugent: you ar stating things like “kill slaves ” stone women ” are in the CHRISTIAN bible.. please show me your source and verses as there is NOTHING in my bible telling me to kill so please get your facts right when attacking Christians

  3. D Hilliard says:

    Lets see if Athiest Ireland has the guts to say something truly blasphemous to Islam, or if they are just going to go about their usual job of targeting Christians.

  4. DJ says:

    “…the Christian Bible suggests that a woman should be stoned to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night.”

    No, it doesn’t…the Christian Bible clearly states:
    “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone against her…”


    Send my money to…

  5. Alex says:

    will A.I. have the guts to blaspheme islam or just go after Christianity again?

  6. Sean says:

    So far the rather extreme religious people with whom I’ve discussed this law have failed to appreciate the greatest irony: If Jesus or Mohammed were to visit Ireland they would likely be prosecuted for causing offence.

    Well done Ahern. I can’t think why people used to consider us to be backwards, but this kind of legislation should help.

  7. It is amazing that this type of law can be passed. Ireland should be the laughing stock of the secular world. Without the type of critical opposition being expresed by Atheist Ireland the health of reason risks being seriously affected by the virus of religion.

  8. Tony says:

    So with this news law, will films such as Life of Brian be banned again? Or what about Dogma or even Father Ted. And what about the group Anonymous will they have trouble protesting the Cult known as $cientology?

    And what if someone mocks the Pastafarian “religion” will that person need to be dragged before the courts as well?

    People should be allowed to have their say on Religion whether it be good or bad without the fear of being prosecuted because they upset someone.

  9. asilor1031 says:

    everyone, not just atheists, should oppose this law since everyone who expresses an opinion about anything religious is put at risk by it. If anyone at all is offended by what a person says it could become blasphemy under this law. This requires that it is not the words themselves that are criminal but that the words are criminalised by someone else’s reaction to them. This is ludicrous and untenable in law. Clearly it is time to amend the constitution.

  10. Keith says:

    This seems like a form of extremist madness.In my view the doctrine of the organised religions has very questionable moral and ethical standards and much of it just doesn’t seem to be about goodness.The Catholic Church admits to having altered the Bible so on which Bible will this law be based? There are some 40 creation stories, many more credible than the Biblical version-why should we not give equal privilege to these religions? Many believe in a Supreme Being but are not attached to the organised religions, this looks like the beginning of a Govt.sponsored hate crime against this group, who may well be the electoral majority.

  11. David Goss says:

    I am a Christian priest – but I agree with your argument. – Protect people but let ideas and beliefs speak for themselves.