Get an 'outrage-o-meter' to measure blasphemy

Rory Fitzgerald

San Francisco Chronicle - Thursday, January 7, 2010

 

On Jan. 1, a controversial blasphemy law came into force in Ireland and immediately became a matter of international concern.

Pakistan and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have referred to the example of the new Irish blasphemy law to encourage the United Nations to recognize "defamation of religion" as a principle of international law.

Thus, the Irish government's ineptitude in dealing with its constitutional housekeeping has given comfort to those states opposed to free speech regarding religion.

The OIC resolution against "defamation of religion" passed in the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 18. For now, it is nonbinding on U.N. member states, but there are fears that the Human Rights Council in Geneva may eventually seek to incorporate the concept in binding treaties. Imagine a world where you cannot criticize any religion.

Nothing less than free speech is at stake. Under the new Irish law, blasphemy is defined as any statements that are "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 punishable by a $36,081 fine. There also must be intent to cause outrage.

A jury would need an "outrage-o-meter" that could peer into the heart of every member of the religious group concerned and precisely detect whether the feeling engendered is mere anger, irritation or in fact outrage. How many is a "substantial number"? Half? A quarter? 99 percent?

The impression in the international media is that the new law dropped straight out of the Middle Ages into 2010. In fact, the new law repeals a much harsher 1961 law that allowed for up to seven years' imprisonment for blasphemy. It therefore lessens the penalty for blasphemy, and also creates a new definition of the offense.

The law apparently is not a sop to the Christian right, to Muslim immigrants or to the politically correct left but is, according to the Irish justice minister, a matter of constitutional necessity. He says that the Irish Constitution requires a blasphemy offense and that he was merely seeking to avoid having imprisonment as a penalty for blasphemy. However, he could have simply left an old law rot away on the books, or alternatively a referendum on the matter could have been tacked onto the Lisbon Treaty referendum in October. Instead, he has inadvertently allowed Ireland to play a leading role in eroding free speech globally.

Various atheist groups are leading the campaign to have the law repealed. However, this law should not divide those who believe in God from those who do not. It should divide those who believe in free speech from those who do not. The question posed is this: Should religion be the subject of free and open, even outrageous, inquiry?

To those who believed in the divine right of kings in 1776, the American Declaration of Independence would have caused outrage to their religious beliefs. It might, therefore, under the new Irish law, have been considered blasphemous.

The Enlightenment ideal of free speech is a precious thing. And who knows, perhaps that was divinely inspired, too.