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Ireland: blasphemy law a backward step

By Micheal Nugent / 7 July, 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

Further information:
http://atheist.ie
http://blasphemy.ie
http://michaelnugent.com

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