Blasphemy laws: A dangerous anachronism

Q: Atheists are others are protesting a new law in Ireland, under which a person can be found guilty of … Continued

Q: Atheists are others are protesting a new law in Ireland, under which a person can be found guilty of blasphemy if “he or she publishes or utters 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. Should Ireland or any nation have a law against blasphemy?

Blasphemy laws are relics–at least in the Western world. But beyond being anachronistic, blasphemy laws dangerously combine sacred and secular power. For this reason alone, such laws should be overturned and abandoned.

In posting “blasphemous” statements on the Web, Ireland’s atheists are deploying civil disobedience in a tactically astute manner. Irish blasphemy laws date from a period in which the nascent Irish republic needed the support of the Catholic Church. Of course, Catholicism was understood to be an essential part of Irish identity in contradistinction to Protestantism which was associated with British imperialism. Within such a context, uttering blasphemy that offended Catholic religious sensibilities was tantamount to attacking the very basis of Irish nationhood.

Recent revelations of the criminal behavior of members of the Irish clergy have attached a negative stigma to Catholicism in a way that secular and atheistic critiques never could manage. Irish atheists are thus seizing a particularly opportune movement when the relationship between church and state is deeply strained. While the new blasphemy law is supposedly designed to protect all religions from defamation, its location in a historically Roman Catholic cultural context seems more salient than the increasing religious diversity of Irish society.

While I am Roman Catholic myself, I applaud challenges to Ireland’s newest articulation of its blasphemy law. Catholicism has long maintained a far too intimate relationship with the nation-state in Catholic majority countries. Relying upon secular power inevitably entails compromising the other-worldly witness that Christian faith needs to make. Since standards for offenses against religious sentiment are so nebulous, abusive and arbitrary applications of blasphemy laws are inevitable. Regardless of how the Irish government feels constitutionally bound to clarify the blasphemy law, defining blasphemy as a “grossly abusive” utterance is still far too impressionistic. And so, while their remarks might be “grossly abusive” to the sensibilities of a large number of people–including my own–I realize that Ireland’s atheists might paradoxically help to create a more healthy context for religious expression.

Archaic though they may seem, notions of blasphemy still have cultural currency in the Western world. But what has been particularly useful about debates over self-conscious blasphemies, such as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” or Martin Kippenberger’s “Zuerst die Fuesse,” is that they provide an opportunity for substantive reflection on the exercise of speech in relation to the diverse sensibilities that inform civil society. Certainly, the “right to offend” should not be exercised lightly. But it is also important for religious people to consider what really is at risk, both spiritually and politically, when they assert that their own “right to take offense” should outweigh all other social or legal concerns. Blasphemous expression, painful and offensive as it is intended to be, can nonetheless provide an impetus for critical self-reflection that religion and religious people all too often need.

(Read more about religion and politics across traditions.)

Mathew N. Schmalz
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