Friday 27 April 2018

Fry's 'maniac God' remark should spark rational debate

Our View

I'm afraid I don't believe there is such a thing as blasphemy, just outrage from those insecure in their own faith.

So tweeted Stephen Fry in 2012, yet the erudite comedian still faced an allegation of blasphemy when an Irish citizen took umbrage with comments he made in 2015 during an up-close and personal interview with veteran broadcaster Gay Byrne on RTÉ's 'The Meaning of Life'.

When asked what Fry would say if he found himself 'locked outside the pearly gates', Fry responded: 'I would say, 'bone cancer in children? What's that about?' before declaring that the God who created this universe is an 'utter maniac'.

While such remarks caused outrage with one individual - to such an extent that the matter went to the DPP before eventually being dropped on Monday - it has sparked a wider debate over why Ireland has a Defamation Act at all.

Moreover, such a scenario is grist to the mill of atheists who insist there is no defence for merging religious ethos with the everyday running of the state.

The Fry controversy comes at a time when tensions are already simmering over religious associations with the new national maternity hospital, while the government recently made it mandatory for TD's to stand during the daily prayer service in the Dáil.

But the controversy also reinforces a need for rational debate between those seeking a secular society and those who believe in the merits of having a blasphemy law which was enacted as recently as 2009.

Such a law places Ireland in an international club with countries such as Pakistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen, where the penalty of blasphemy is death. In Ireland, if Fry was found guilty, he would have faced a fine of up to €25,000.

There are wider implications though. News of Fry's blasphemy charge made headlines around the world and subjects Ireland to international ridicule, particularly from the UK where its press has been busy regurgitating an image of a 19th Century backwater Ireland.

In a democracy, people have the right to question doctrines without constraint from religious doctrine and one should ask what exactly is Fry guilty of?

His questioning of how an omnipresent God can stand idly by as 'terrible injustices' are meted out is a logical human response.

For example, his questioning of God's powerlessness in preventing bone cancer in children may be echoed by parents in hospital wards when faced with such heartbreak.

Freedom of expression must not be sacrificed on the altar of religious doctrine. We all have a right to question our status on this earth. However, secularists must also be cognisant of the need for respect.

'Trendy' atheism, whose sole purpose is to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, is equally as self-serving as an unbending religious doctrine.

Time might well relegate Fry's blasphemy allegation to the realms of absurdity and a referendum may indeed be the only source of closure to finally remove the antiquated law.

But, for now at least, we should all avail of the opportunity it has given us to try and reach a comprise with those we disagree with.