Atheists are leading the protests against a new law in Ireland, according to a person will be found guilty of blasphemy if they “publish or utter matter 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.” The penalty is a fine of up to about $35,000. My response? This is nuts!
Whether a well-intentioned act designed to soften the blow of decreasing Church influence on Irish politics is a misguided effort at clarifying existing law or a foolish attempt to save money by avoiding a constitutional referendum, the new Irish blasphemy law is a very bad idea. Limiting people’s ability to express themselves on “matters held sacred by any religion” to those expressions which the faithful do not find “outrageous” is the real outrage.
I can think of no circumstance in which limiting people’s freedom of expression to that which is acceptable to the members of a particular religious group being good for anyone. In fact, whether in Ireland, Israel, or Saudi Arabia – and by no means are the three all equally problematic, the track record of allowing the state to dictate religious norms to its citizens pretty much always goes badly.

In the immediate-term, it undermines the most basic rights of those who happen to disagree with “the faithful”. In the medium-term it sets society on a path to coercive governance which will ultimately usurp the rights even of those very “faithful” when they find themselves, as all groups sometimes do, on the outs. And in the long-term it destroys religion itself, undermining the very spiritual ferment which creates the traditions that those who support this law seek to preserve.
Each faith that might seek protection against the outrageous words and deeds of others was itself once an outrage against the norms of its day. How do you suppose Abraham’s neighbors felt when he denied the “proper” faith of idolatry? How about taking away Jesus’ right to outrage the Pharisees? And what of Muhammad, whose spiritual revolution took on both the desert pagans among whom he lived and the Jews and Christians he came to know? And that’s just the three Abrahamic faiths.
There is no question that acts designed with no purpose other than to hurt, offend, or denigrate should be carefully controlled, if not outlawed altogether. But that is not a decision that should be left to the members of any one group, especially when they deem themselves to be following a law — God’s — which trumps the conscience of citizens as expressed through a democratically elected government. However well-meaning they may be, giving such groups that kind of power spells the end of the democracies we know and love.
My only concern is why the campaign against this law is being lead by Irish atheists alone. It is those of us who cherish faith most deeply who should fight against such laws most strenuously. And ironically, until we do, the atheists and secularists will be at least somewhat justified in their suspicion of all religion and all religious people. But that is another story for another time.

More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad