- About The Phil
Attitudes towards blasphemy vary greatly worldwide; this diversity is represented by the attitudes of different countries in creating laws that relate to this. The Council of Europe has recently recommended that its members enact legislation that protects freedom of expression. Contrast this with countries who legislate against hate speech – in Pakistan, blasphemy may be answerable to the death penalty. This paper will weigh up what is more important – should a state always uphold a right to as much free speech as possible for all citizens all the time, or do we acknowledge that some words are so fundamentally upsetting to a person’s identity that the state must act in order to protect these vulnerable citizens? I don’t want to read a boring paper about the ins and outs of legislation; rather, I’d like to discuss the principle of blasphemy itself, and tentatively suggest that the enactment of blasphemy law in Ireland is a positive step for democracy.
This discussion will centre around several topics:
(i) the ideas behind free speech;
(ii) blasphemous art;
(iii) moral relativism;
(iv) the importance of upholding minority rights;
(v) blasphemy law in Ireland.
(i) the ideas behind free speech:
Freedom of speech details a right to speak without censorship; however, it is never considered absolute. We legislate to protect people against slander and defamation and some countries on mainland Europe legislate against hate speech, prosecuting those who deny the Holocaust. This is reflective of the sensitive nature of the Holocaust in Europe’s history and national heritage. It is also a perfect example of why the rights of some in society to feel secure may supersede the overall population’s right to be allowed to say whatever they want, whenever they want.
Free speech and the concept of certain fundamental inalienable rights were borne from the ashes of World War II – we have socially constructed a list of human rights in order to combat the human wrongs which devastated so many lives. However, we must remember that these human wrongs were directed at a minority group in society, and that when exercising our human rights we must be careful not to offend.
The ideas behind these fundamental civil liberties such as free speech are to make us feel safe, secure, comfortable in society and not that we are under threat from any one group or one sector in society. Blasphemy represents the very antithesis of this – it attacks one group, fundamentally offending what may be their central belief system, the core of their identity; the most important thing in their life may be the God they pray to every morning.
Free speech should be upheld, but we must question its purpose as a right. Its purpose is to keep us free from oppression of the state and those who may seek to stifle or interfere with personal expression. Freedom of speech values the majority and the minority and seeks to protect people as equals; yet in order to keep it free from any sort of tyrannical or oppressive influence, sometimes we must limit this right in order to protect certain individuals in our society, in this case the religious.
(ii) blasphemous art
Blasphemous art is a particularly interesting example to present here. Its defenders claim it promotes discourse, but what is the purpose and aim of discourse?: to provide an open and equal forum in which ideas can be discussed in an open and honest manner. Blasphemous art is not an equal forum in that it leans on the side of offense towards a certain group in the state. If I’m greatly offended by a piece of art that fundamentally upsets my identity as a Catholic, Muslim etc. I can’t necessarily respond to that in the same manner, because I probably can’t paint or sculpt as well as that artist can. Art is a very unique form of expression that is often very confrontational. How is this is an equal forum for discourse? The artist has selected a field from which I am offended and excluded me in returning the opposing view. There is a failure through the brushstroke to actually constructively inform people, all we see is controversy and notoriety. When the state chooses to fund such works it is vocalising that it’s okay to give advantage and preference to certain groups of people at the expense of its religious voting population. Do they not have the right to equally be protected by the state which espouses fair and equal treatment of all?
Ultimately discourse is harmed by blasphemous art; picture the scenario that your first experience with art is an image which offends and goes greatly against the fundamental beliefs by which you have been raised and live your life. Take the example of the infamous Piss Christ - Serrano argues that it’s representative of the commoditisation of religious symbols, yet its image has been misunderstood and as a result has forced certain religious individual to risk prison time in order to destroy it beyond repair. Is it fair of the state to force such controversial works on its people?
(iii) moral relativism
Western liberal democracies often take an arrogant stance towards ideas from the East, particularly those relating to Islam. We aren’t the knowers of all truth. It is not known to a secular state why another state would act on a religious basis. The West cannot understand that prioritisation. Most importantly, the West doesn’t have an objective truth – until we can prove that God is 100% not real we cannot dismiss a theocracy prioritising religion above all else and we must recognise that our dismissive words can massively offend others. A theocracy may believe that this practice of religion is in the best interests of their state, their people and not doing what they’re doing will result in them going to hell. This is something that is so fundamental to their identity, to everything they do in their life and every decision that their state makes, that to dismiss it with the secular arrogance of the West when we do not have an objective truth is down right inexcusable.
We should not aspire to be a superstate or to have one set of global values. Relativism is good for the West, respecting religion is good for the West: It leads to an ongoing discourse of different morals – we have an alternative to check ourselves against. This stops us getting stagnant, even if it only succeeds to galvanise ourselves in thinking we are even more right. There is truth in the world that not everyone will EVER agree on. However, I think we can agree on the importance of mutual respect and tolerance.
Critically, what irks me most about blasphemers is their assumption that our views of morality are the same as the people living in religious dictatorships or fundamentally religious families – that it’s just the upper echelons of that regime that don’t share these views. Women who wear burqas are always oppressed, they don’t know they’re being oppressed because they’re uneducated; if they’re educated and still are not aware that they’re being oppressed, then ‘’Oh, they must be brainwashed’’ – demonstrates further arrogance of the West. Why can we not acknowledge that not every woman identifies with feminism in the same way we might – the God they pray to is the most important part of their identity, and wearing a hijab or even a burqa may liberate them in the same way that wearing a pair of high heels might liberate me. Most of us wouldn’t stand for outright offensive chauvinistic comments, so why do we defend blasphemy?
(iv) the importance of upholding minority rights
With modern states becoming increasingly secular, society is moving away from the religious values which once formed its bedrock. While moving away from such views we have also lost a certain amount of respect for these religious communities and as a result they have become more and more open to criticisms. I’m not questioning the critique of corruption in the church, but there is a line between criticising the clerical abuse of the Catholic church and drawing an insulting cartoon of Mohammad.
We can comfortably say that the majority support freedom of speech and that the religious groups journalists like Kevin Meyers often fundamentally insult are in a minority. However, we constitutionally protect the rights of minority groups in society because we acknowledge that in ten, fifteen years time the paradigms of democracy may change and those who are in the majority may be the minority – if we were to become a minority group in society, we would want the state to legislate to protect OUR rights lest they were to constantly come under attack in a horrifically insulting and upsetting way due to the rights of the majority to exercise their right to free speech. We therefore have a responsibility to legislate against blasphemy.
(v) blasphemy law in Ireland:
The Defamation Act 2009 Section 36 defines an offence of “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” which carries a maximum fine of €25,000. The offence consists of uttering material “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, when the intent and result is “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”. A defence is permitted for work of “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value.” “Religion” excludes profit-driven organizations or those using “oppressive psychological manipulation.”
Under this law, even the most offensive painting may not be charged as blasphemous, and we are still free to criticise cults that are objectively harmful to our heart’s content. It’s a very lenient piece of legislation that simply acts as a nod of respect to those in society who do value religion. When Islam is constantly under attack in the media, the line between blasphemy and racism is becoming increasingly blurred and in my opinion, it would be irresponsible of the government not to act on this.
The advocacy group Atheist Ireland responded to the enactment of the new blasphemy law by announcing the formation of the “Church of Dermotology”. On the date on which the law came into effect, Atheist Ireland published a series of potentially blasphemous quotations on its website and vowed to challenge any resulting legal action. It also said that it would be holding a series of public meetings to launch a campaign for secular constitutional reform. This media shitstorm that arose had people automatically opposing legislation against blasphemy without really understanding what it was about. We are still free to criticise religion, but there is a line there which the state says which should not cross. Any reasonable person can see where that line falls, and recognises the racist value that certain comments may hold.
I leave you today with one question – what is more important: having as much free speech for everyone in society all the time, or, collectively acknowledging that we should have some level of mutual respect and tolerance, and that we are willing for our rights to be very slightly limited in exchange for guaranteeing the protection of minority groups in society. We can all agree that equality in society is an aspiration that we should all be working toward continuously – is acknowledging the harms of blasphemy not a part of this?
Rosalind Ní Shúilleabháin