In this article, first published in the Irish Times on July 10, Michael Nugent describes why the blasphemy law is dangerous, silly and unjust.
Why has Dermot Ahern, in 2009, made blasphemy a crime punishable by a fine of €25,000? When this anachronistic part of the now Defamation Act is signed into law (it passed through the Oireachtas last night but only on the casting vote of the chair of the Seanad), Atheist Ireland will quickly test it by publishing a blasphemous statement. People need protection from harm, but ideas and beliefs should always be open to challenge.
Silly and dangerous
The new 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?
Here’s the background. The Constitution says that blasphemy is an offence that shall be punishable by law. That law currently resides in the 1961 Defamation Act. Because he was repealing this Act, Ahern said he had to pass a new blasphemy law to avoid leaving “a void”.
But this “void” was already there. In 1999, the Supreme Court found that the 1961 law was unenforceable because it did not define blasphemy. In effect, we have never had an enforceable blasphemy law under the 1937 Constitution.
After several retreats, Ahern claimed both that he had to propose this law in order to respect the Constitution, and also that he was amending it to “make it virtually impossible to get a successful prosecution”. How is that respecting the Constitution?
This type of “nod and wink” politics brings our laws, and our legislature, into disrepute. In practice, we cannot be certain how our courts will interpret unnecessary laws, as we discovered after the abortion referendum.
Also, the matter might be taken out of our hands. In 2005, the Greek courts found a book of cartoons to be blasphemous, and issued a European arrest warrant for the Austrian cartoonist who drew them. This can be done if the same crime exists in both jurisdictions.
Instead, we should remove the blasphemy reference from the Constitution by referendum. Many independent bodies have advised this, including the Council of Europe in a report last year co-written by the director general of the Irish Attorney General.
We could do this on October 2nd, the same day as the Lisbon referendum. It could be the first step towards gradually building an ethical and secular Ireland. We should be removing all of the 1930s religious references from the Constitution, not legislating to enforce them.
The preamble to our Constitution states that all authority of the State comes from a specific god called the Most Holy Trinity. It also humbly acknowledges all of the obligations of the people of the State to a specific god called Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Up to a quarter of a million Irish atheists cannot become President or a judge unless they take a religious oath. These religious declarations are contrary to Ireland’s obligations under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Constitution also states that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. This is much more than an assertion of the right of citizens to worship this god. It is an assertion of the right of this god to be publicly worshipped by citizens.
Our parliament recognises the rights of this god by praying to it every day. This prayer explicitly asks this god to direct the actions of our parliamentarians, so that their every word and work may always begin from and be happily ended by Christ Our Lord.
Atheist Ireland is an advocacy group that campaigns for an ethical and secular Ireland, where the State does not support or fund or give special treatment to any religion. As well as a secular Constitution, we want to see a secular education system.
Most primary schools in the Republic of Ireland are privately run denominational schools with a religion-integrated curriculum. This denies most children access to a secular education. It also affects teachers who are not religious.
We are also launching a campaign encouraging people to read the Bible and other sacred books. Objectively reading the Bible is one of the strongest arguments for rejecting the idea of gods as intervening creators or moral guides.
We will be holding our first annual general meeting from 2pm to 5pm this Saturday, in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin. Members of the public are invited, if you want to help our campaign to repeal the blasphemy law and to build an ethical and secular Ireland.