Sunday, 10 January 2010

For God's Sake

Every now and then this blog takes some time out to consider the position of atheists and atheism within society. Usually, the societies in question tend to be either those of Britain, or the United States.

So let's head a little out of our comfort zone and take a quick look at Ireland. Specifically: their brand spanking new blasphemy law.

Though it is hard not to consider this from an exclusively atheist perspective, there isn't in truth nearly enough evidence in this one report to argue the law is deliberately aimed at atheists. Granted, in my experience it's generally atheists who tend to get accused by Christians of blasphemy and causing offence, whereas any objections to other organised religions tend to involve criticisms of their beliefs, practices and fanatics directly rather than their stubborn refusal to agree with the Bible. I accept that this is hardly enough to unequivocally state that this is an attempt to keep the atheist population, quiet, though.

Having said that, the likely effect of this law should be obvious. By including the phrase "[C]ausing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion", lawmakers have opened up the possibility of prosecution by opinion poll. If I'm right about it being atheists who are most likely to be accused of blasphemy (it would be interesting to see how determined authorities are to apply this law to Jews, Muslims, and so forth), all it takes is for some unspecified percentage of people to say they felt offended, and it's game over.

How is offence even measured, anyway? Are people going to get polled? Is it worse for 10% of Christians to tick the "very offended" box, or for 20% to tick "quite offended?". Is there a magic number of complaints at which point someone graduates from "widely criticised" to "under indictment"? Hell, if one hundred people can phone the BBC complaining that the final Tennant episode of Doctor Who was anti-ginger because the Eleventh Doctor didn't specifically state his reaction to not being a carrot-top was disappointment, then who knows what comparatively innocuous statements can lead to endless waves of chaos and bloodletting? This is to say nothing of how pathetically easy it is to gin up cheap controversy when required. If otherwise entirely sensible people can spend their days screaming for the resignation of Janet Napolitano on the basis of a three word quote deliberately spun out of context, what chance does anyone have once those with a vested interest in making noise and keeping tempers flared realise that if they push hard enough they can heckle people into receiving criminal convictions.

It seems almost redundant to point out the obvious free speech implications here. It's one thing to abridge freedom of expression to prevent the agitation of hate crimes. That's about balancing one freedom against another: namely saying what you want versus spending your days free of the fear of being beaten to death for the crime of being different. This is about saying what you want being measured against other people simply not wanting to hear it. It is no longer enough to turn off your TV set, or put down a magazine. It is not enough to avoid hearing certain words in certain combinations: these words must not be said at all. It's the legal codification of mob rule, where the mob in question might belong to a group that can't even cope with bus adverts disagreeing with them without seemingly taking leave of their senses.

Whenever seemingly lunatic laws like this get passed, I tend to advise caution about assuming that the status quo is likely to change all that much. It is one thing for a law to exist, and another for it to be both rigidly enforced by the police and taken seriously by the law courts. One would hope that this law might quickly sink into obscurity, a symbolic nod to those still defiant in their refusal to accept the separation of church and state. In this case, though, the article states that a blasphemy law already existed on the books. Thus, the logical conclusion is that this new law is not designed as a symbolic warning against offending religions, but a deliberate attempt to ensure that the country can start getting some convictions against all them filthy blasphemers that apparently keep popping up.

Someone, it would appear, is out for blood.

Update: Tomsk points out in comments that since the original, unenforceable law was in the constitution, it couldn't be repealed without a lot of fuss. I'm far from convinced that it is axiomatically true that a rigid, enforceable law is automatically better than a fuzzy useless one in situations where the law (in effect) cannot be removed, but Tomsk is right that one can view this as an (in my opinion desperately wrongheaded) attempt to tighten up the lawbooks rather than a deliberate attempt to make trouble. My issues regarding the obvious downsides of the law (and the potential likelihood of it targeting specific groups) remain.


Tomsk said...

I think you miss the point when you say a blasphemy law already existed on the books. Blasphemy is an offence under the constitution of Ireland, but up till now it hasn't been defined, and this not a good state for the law to be in, whether or not it's a stupid law in the first place. As the American report says, a referendum would be needed to repeal the law, and I'm not surprised that the politicians went down the path of least resistance.

Yet more proof that a written constitution is a terrible idea!

SpaceSquid said...

I don't see that it's axiomatic that it is worse for a law to be unenforceable than for it not to be. I probably would agree, at least at first thought, that any unenforceable law should be either abolished or tightened to the point it can be used again, but it most certainly doesn't follow that because for any given law either route 1 or route 2 would improve the situation, we must take route 2 whenever route 1 is blocked.