Irish Blasphemy Law Is Right and Wrong
Should blasphemy be illegal?
A new Irish law says yes. In effect as of yesterday, it imposes fines up to $35,000 for saying anything “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.”
What the law gets right
It’s easy to see the good intentions behind the law.
We should never mock, belittle, or insult the religious beliefs of other people. That applies whether we agree with their beliefs or not, and even whether we approve of them or not.
The new law essentially requires people to be considerate of the feelings of others. It’s not just about showing respect for other people, although that is important. It’s also about trying to have a society in which large groups of people don’t hate each other and try to kill each other over religious differences.
What the law gets wrong
On the other hand, in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society, it’s hard to know how to enforce a law like that. The new Irish law imposes fines for saying things that are:
- “grossly:” What does that mean?
- “insulting or abusive:” That’s clearer than “grossly,” but still too vague to justify a $35,000 fine. For example, if someone says that historical evidence doesn’t confirm some of the events in the Bible, is that insulting or abusive? What about printing a picture of Mohammed? Religions disagree about some issues, which means that each religion says the other religions are wrong about those issues. Is that insulting or abusive? Enforcing this part of the law could get really messy.
- “in relation to matters held sacred:” Even religions themselves usually aren’t sure where to draw the line between what’s sacred and what isn’t.
- “by any religion:” Really? Any religion? Not just Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Unitarianism, and Paganism, but also cults? Scientology? Fake religions?
You end up with a law that is so vague and applies so widely that it can’t be enforced. It will end up being politicized and selectively enforced, which will only cause more problems.
On the other hand
The opponents of the new law don’t seem to have any better answers. An Irish atheist group is challenging the law, essentially stomping its foot and demanding its right to hurt other people’s feelings:
“We unreservedly support the right of any Irish citizen to make comparable statements about matters held sacred by any religion without fear of being criminalized, and without having to prove to a court that a reasonable person would find any particular value in the statement.”
Notice the last part of that quote: “without having to prove to a court that a reasonable person would find any particular value in the statement.” In other words, they’re not talking about making serious arguments or statements of belief: a reasonable person would find value in those. They’re talking about saying offensive things just to be offensive.
Let me put it like this. If I live alone in the forest, miles away from anyone else, I have a right to do almost anything I want. I can play loud music at 3am, I can go for a walk without any clothes on, and I can say whatever I want to the squirrels and birds who won’t understand me anyway.
But if I live in a society with other people, then I have to consider their rights and happiness as well as my own. I don’t have the same freedom that I would have if I lived alone in the forest. I give up some of that freedom when I decide to live in society. In exchange, I get the benefits that society offers: friendships, education, security, a higher standard of living, and of course a weekly episode of “Gossip Girl.” 🙂
Maybe I’m just in a good mood today, but giving up the right to insult other people’s religions doesn’t seem like that much of a limit on my freedom.
Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.