Monday, 6 July 2009

Ireland moves closer to blasphemy law

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It's looking increasingly likely that Ireland will suffer the indignity of adopting a blasphemy law in 2009 (yes, this is, amazingly, the 21st century) after the Irish parliament's Justice committee last week voted to move ahead with the legislation, which would impose a maximum €25,000 fine for anyone found "guilty" of committing "blasphemous libel". The legislation was proposed by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, and blasphemous material, according to the Irish Times, is defined as anything "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage." It is intended to back up a clause against blasphemy which is already present in the Irish constitution. Now that the bill has passed the committee stage, the Dáil is set to vote on it this Wednesday, 8 July.

Irish readers will be pleased to know that secular groups are organising resistance to the bill, in a campaign spearheaded by Atheist Ireland, which is chaired by writer Michael Nugent. Speaking to the Observer this weekend, he condemned the proposals as illiberal and archaic:
"It is silly because it revives a medieval religious law in a modern pluralist republic, and it makes Ireland seem like a backward country. People need protection. Ideas do not. Ideas should always be open to criticism and ridicule. If the law is passed, we will be immediately testing it by publishing a blasphemous statement."
And Nugent has acquired some heavyweight support for the campaign, with two of Ireland's greatest blasphemers, Father Ted creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, both speaking out in opposition to the law. I originally included the quote from Linehan used by the Observer here, but Linehan got in touch with me on Twitter saying they hadn't quite used his words, and he gave me a short Q&A interview, so I've included that instead (which is also in this post):
New Humanist: Are you surprised by the government's attempt to outlaw blasphemy? How aware were you of the pre-existing clause against blasphemy in the constitution?

Graham Linehan: I suppose every country has odd, silly laws from the dawn of time that no-one ever got around to changing. What's unusual here is the attempt to actually bolster backward, backwoods thinking. It's very important to smack down every attack on free speech and secularism when they appear, because religious fanatics are getting louder and crazier and more violent, and capitulating only energises them.

NH: How would a blasphemy law have affected your work over the years – would Father Ted have been made?

GL: It might have had a greater effect on our work with Chris Morris. In 'Ted' we tried to avoid attacking basic tenets of belief because we wanted the show to be big and silly and fun ... we weren't interested in being bad boys. But a law like this would have made it much more difficult for the show to be broadcast in Ireland, and it took long enough for it to be shown as it was.
There is a scene in 'Tentacles of Doom' where Dougal outlines his difficulties with Catholicism to a visiting Bishop and basically accidentally rips apart the whole basis of it. I wonder whether that would have to go from future broadcasts.

NH: What can people do to help oppose the law? And if it does pass, how can they carry on opposing it?

GL: Well, I like Mick Nugent's idea of testing the law with a blasphemous statement, but it would have to be worded carefully so that it doesn't dismay normal believers who just want to get on with their lives without bothering others with their beliefs. I suspect these people are in the majority and they should be brought on board, because a blasphemy law makes fools of them as much as it makes fools of the Government.
If the law does pass on Wednesday, Atheist Ireland have declared that they will launch a calculated challenged to it by publishing a statement intended to blaspheme all the religions in Ireland, from Christianity to Islam.

You can keep up to date with the opposition campaign at this dedicated website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. With the vote happening on Wednesday, the campaign have been urging people in Ireland to contact their Dáil representatives, so that's one way in which Irish readers can do their bit.

[Sources: MediaWatchWatch, Observer]


ChicagoMolly said...

So does this mean that all those people who claim that atheism is 'just another religion' are now prohibited from insulting us?

I haven't been to Ireland in over 20 years now (back in the days when they had their own money), and as much as I enjoyed my time there I always had it on my 'nice place to visit but I couldn't live there' list because temperamentally the American outweighs the Irish in me. Now the Irish government is saying they wouldn't be able to live with me either. What a shame.