Blasphemy Laws

by George Hatjoullis

According to Wikipedia the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel have been abolished in the UK. It seems they remain in place in many countries. There is obvious tension with Article 10 of the Convention for Human Rights, though this article does allow the state discretion. It is odd that religion was ever deemed to be in need of such legal protection let alone continues to be so. Stephen Fry is under police investigation in Ireland for utterances he made with respect to God, albeit not in relation to a specific religion.

The God of the old testament, as I recall, could take care of Himself*. He set the law rather than demanded protection from it. He punished transgressors of His law with floods and such, sparing only those He judged worthy. He was quite ruthless with the Egyptians when their rulers would not let His people go, inflicting all manner of pain by way of persuasion. And when the Pharaoh regretted the decision and the  Egyptian army gave pursuit, He drowned it. It is thus the height irony that humans came to feel that this all-powerful, law giving, judgement giving, punishing God needed protection of human jurisprudence.

Of course, God needs no such protection. It is the religions that profess allegiance to God that have the protection. It is part of the narrative of power that enables religions to prosper and grow. It is testament to the success of religion that the concept of atheist exists. It means without God and it implies that the natural state is to be with God, a theist, much like apnea implies the natural state is to breathe. The mere existence of the word atheist implies being with God is as natural as breathing and to be without God is as fatal as the cessation of breathing. Blasphemy laws reinforce this narrative in a powerful way.

Religion continues to be granted special privilege and respect even by people who no longer have any spiritual conviction. It is deeply embedded in many cultures, quite possibly in all human cultures. You can say what you like about someone’s politics but you cannot criticise their religion or the concept of religion. In many countries it will get you into trouble with the law. One can see why atheists such as Richard Dawkins have become frustrated and quite shrill in declaring their atheism.

There is no reason to stop people practising whatever religion they choose so long as the practise falls within the laws of the land in which it is practised. It is unclear however why such practices should continue to be accorded special protection under the law. Article 10 of the Human Rights convention does not allow prohibition of speech simply because it is offensive. Yet blasphemy laws allow exactly this. The laws allow religions and their representatives to declare any criticism of their beliefs offensive and subject to force of law. Why are religious beliefs above criticism by those that do not hold the beliefs? Surely those that hold the beliefs will not be swayed and the almighty God of the old testament needs no protection. Of what are people of faith so afraid?

  • I use the masculine because this is what appears in my copy of the old testament.