This year has seen Ireland’s new Defamation Act pass into statute. While the act contains many interesting and welcome points for media (offering much greater protection to investigative journalists than England’s libel laws), the focus has been on the introduction of a crime of blasphemy: the Irish constitution had always maintained that blasphemous libel should be a crime, but no one had ever got round to defining what blasphemy was, or how it should be punished. The new bill criminalises words or actions that cause “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of [a] religion”, with a potential fine of up to E25,000.
Back in October 2009, Mick Nugent of Atheist Ireland pointed out the problems with the Defamation Act:
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.
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.
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.
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.
While Nugent and others fought valiantly against the new legislation, it has now become law. The next step has been to publish 25 blasphemous statements on the Atheist Ireland website, in order to test the law. You can read the statements here. Gardai have said they will investigate whether a crime has been committed.