Friday 22 February 2019

To criminalise blasphemy would just be outrageous

Emer O'Kelly considers the implications of Dermot Ahern's proposed offence of 'blasphemous libel'

This week, we are fulfilling one of our Constitutional duties, and will continue to do so until May 10. Under Article 44 of the Constitution, the "State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion". The current national tour of the bodily remains of St Therese of Lisieux, with the remains due to be returned to France on May 10, could be said to fulfil that duty, with Garda escort and public processions scheduled in every town the relics are brought to.

In 2001, the last time the relics were brought to Ireland, and with a busy working schedule severely disrupted when various towns across the country were made impassable to traffic by the faithful, I inadvertently referred at a meeting to the event as "the bishop and his holy skeleton". It caused grave offence to some of the Catholics present. Others of them thought it was funny.

It was not, however, blasphemous, since one can't blaspheme against a saint, only against the godhead.

Article 40 occupies five-and-a-half pages in the Constitution. With 40.2 guaranteeing that titles of nobility will not be conferred by the State, the proposed President's Citizens honours' list is already arguably unconstitutional. Article 40.3 is the section which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, and 40.6.i guarantees freedom of speech, but adds that "the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law".

The theatre writer/director Conall Morrison produced his own version of Sophocles' Greek tragedy Antigone a few years ago, in which Antigone, agonised at the desecration of her hero brother's body after his death in battle, kept howling, "F**k God," (or rather, given the ear-shattering Belfast accent of the actor in question, "F**k gawd." Now that was blasphemous, if you want to be true to the religious interpretation of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.").

So the play was unconstitutional. But it didn't break any laws, because despite the Constitutional prohibition on blasphemy, there are no laws against it. And last year, the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution sensibly recommended amending Article 40 to remove all references to sedition and blasphemy, replacing them with something along the lines of the relevant article in the European Convention on human rights.

In 1999, a judgment of the Supreme Court stated that it was "impossible" to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists. It was handed down in a case in which a man objected to the publication in the Sunday Independent of a cartoon which depicted a rather fat Catholic priest offering the host and chalice to a trio consisting of Ruairi Quinn, John Bruton and Proinsias De Rossa. They were then the party leaders in a coalition government which had sponsored the Divorce Referendum, and in the cartoon they were turning away from the offered host and chalice. The complainant charged that the cartoon constituted a major insult to the Catholic faith.

In faith, 10 years later, it all sounds rather mild when compared, for instance, with the international ruckus over the cartoons in Scandinavia depicting the prophet Mohammed which roused Islam to some murderous fury. But one citizen thought strongly enough to go to the Supreme Court over a slightly silly cartoon. And he lost.

That, you see, is what the separation of Church and State is about. Legally, you can't define blasphemy; religiously you can. So it comes down once again to whether you believe that religion should define our laws. It also, of course, comes down to how tolerant you are of those who disagree with you. For some people, even flippancy about religion is blasphemous, and deserving of whipping at the cart's tail.

But Dermot Ahern, the Minister for Justice and a usually sensible man (although he recently said that the terms of the Budget were "aspirations", so maybe overwork and pressure are affecting his marbles), is proposing a new crime of "blasphemous libel" in an amendment to the Defamation Bill and it hinges on the word "gross".

The Minister wants to define blasphemy as matter "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion ... (and) ... intended to cause ... outrage".

Most journalists have what they write checked by lawyers for possible libel. And it is not infrequent for a libel lawyer to come back and point out that you can't impute meaning to people: you're not inside their heads. So you're not allowed to call somebody a Nazi if they express far-right wing, racist, and sexually repressive views, unless you can prove that they are members of a neo-Nazi group. (I've tried to get away with that one myself, and have had to rewrite more longwindedly at times. "Nazi" is such a neat term, and saves a lot of explanation.)

So who is to prove that strong opinions opposed to religion, gods, and the interpretation of their teaching are intended to be offensive? Atheists, and a lot of agnostics, find all religion offensive, idiotic, repressive, and frequently antagonistic to the good of the body politic, and say so. Even many religiously minded intellectuals agree with this, believing that selective personal beliefs should be private, and should not influence public decision-making.

But for those who hold various religious tenets dear, a lot of intellectual debate is offensive. And, depending on their tolerance of opinions which disagree with their own, they may define publicly expressed disagreement with their personal beliefs as blasphemous. To criticise or ridicule god -- in the persons of Jesus, Jehovah, or Allah, to name only the three of broadest appeal -- or indeed to deny their existence, is blasphemous for many people. And they are entitled to their opinions. But are they entitled to have those opinions upheld in law, and have those who offend against their personal beliefs punished in law?

Without even going to extremes, such a view would mean that the works of Richard Dawkins, international scholar and English-language guru of atheism, would have his works removed from bookshops in Ireland. We'd be back to buying books under the counter. But Dawkins does not set out to be offensive: he just proves, wittily, and to the mind of an atheist or an even vaguely rational, open-minded or doubting theist, irrefutably, that the notion of god is ludicrous.

That last sentence is, of course, blasphemous. But it is a cornerstone of my thinking, and it informs the way I live my life and my code of ethics. And I am well aware that there are people out there who would like to see me prosecuted for it. (I have the letters to prove it.) But it's what I believe, and I don't write it to give deliberate offence, merely to state my own philosophical case. So where does that leave the offence of "blasphemous libel"?

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