Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and author, has said he would be willing to make himself a test case to challenge the law on blasphemy, when he comes to Ireland to participate in a public interview at the National Concert Hall next month.
In a letter published in The Irish Times on Wednesday, Dawkins expressed solidarity with Stephen Fry, who was recently investigated on a charge of blasphemy. Gardaí reportedly decided not to proceed with the investigation into comments made by Fry during a television interview with Gay Byrne in February 2015, on the grounds that not enough people had been offended by the remarks.
Dawkins says he is disappointed that an opportunity to challenge the law enshrined in the 2009 Defamation Act was lost, which is why “my offering myself to be arrested was a bit of humorous turning up the pressure”.
In his letter, Dawkins quoted a description from his 2006 book, The God Delusion, of the Old Testament God as "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully".
If asked about it on stage at the NCH, he will stand by this view – which remains “exactly as I characterise it in my letter” – even if it means risking arrest on blasphemy charges.
But he’d rather not. “I’m not exactly bending over backwards to make myself a test case. I was actually rather hoping Stephen Fry would make himself a test case,” he says.
“I wouldn’t mind in a way – except that I can’t stand lawyers, and I wouldn’t like to have to go through the business of employing lawyers.”
However, he believes that the issue “shouldn’t need a test case. Informed opinion in Ireland is obviously almost unanimously against the blasphemy law. It is clearly an anomaly that needs to be changed, and the sooner the better.
"I get the impression that the entire law is very embarrassing to the Irish Government, and probably most of the Irish people, and it needs to be brought out into the open so that the Dáil will take a decision to repeal it.
"I wanted to increase the pressure to repeal this law – partly because the existence of a blasphemy law in a civilised western country like Ireland is taken as an encouraging precedent by some of those countries in the Middle East and Africa, where they have a blasphemy law and it really is enforced.
“They use the Irish law as a precedent – and say: ‘Look, you westerners have a law like this and why shouldn’t we?’ And although the Irish never enforce it, those people do enforce theirs, and chop people’s heads off.”
Ireland is not unique in Europe in having a blasphemy law. Other countries including Italy, Poland, Austria and Turkey also have them. This week, the coverage of Fry's case alerted legislators in New Zealand to the existence of their own "blasphemy" law, which the government has pledged to abolish.
In Greece, a five-year legal battle against satirical blogger Filippos Loizos ended recently with the nullification of a 10-month suspended prison sentence. His crime? Malicious blasphemy and offence against religion, for – among other things – mocking up a picture of a Greek Orthodox patriarch as a pasta dish.
In Russia, blasphemy laws were notoriously used to sentence the band Pussy Riot to hard labour, after they performed in a Russian Orthodox cathedral. And earlier this year, Denmark initiated its first prosecution in 46 years under its blasphemy laws, over a video of a man burning a copy of the Koran.
“I’m not sure it’s part of a worrying reactionary trend,” Dawkins says. “I understand the history of [the Irish blasphemy law] is surprisingly recent. So it’s not an ancient law that they hadn’t got around to getting rid of.”
Denmark is "a disgrace as well, of course" but "it happened that the Irish one was in the news because of Stephen Fry and also it happened because I'm giving a lecture at the National Concert Hall soon to promote my latest book, Science of the Soul, so although the book has nothing to do with it, I thought it was quite a good joke to invite the police to arrest me when I give my lecture in Dublin."
Dawkins believes the reported grounds for the investigation against Fry being dropped were “terrible”.
“It suggests that offending large numbers of people is a good reason to prosecute. It might whip up people up to say, okay let’s get really offended next time. And that’s a terrible reason to prosecute someone, because they offend some individuals.”
He is confident the Irish people would vote to overturn the law if there was a referendum on blasphemy. “It’s one thing to be religious, it’s quite another to suppress freedom of speech in the interests of your religion. It’s a very different thing.”
The indoctrination of children with Catholic beliefs can be extremely wicked, because if they're taught about hell, for example, it can be a very unpleasant experience for them, and even abusive
He also believes that "Irish people are very disillusioned with the Catholic Church because of the child abuse scandals", and cites the shortage of priests coming into the church.
All the same, he was appalled to read this week about a majority of TDs voting to defeat three separate motions to abolish the tradition of a daily prayer before the Dáil sits. “Why not have a prayer to Apollo and Thor? Pray to the fairies? Pray to Zeus?”
He is also alarmed by what he sees as the indoctrination of children into religion in the 90 per cent of primary schools run by the Catholic Church.
Labelling children according to their parents’ religion is as incomprehensible to him “as labelling children according to their parents’ philosophical position, or their parents’ economic position. You wouldn’t dream of talking about a Keynesian child, or an existentialist child. Religion is the one place where we make that exception, and there’s no good reason for it.
“The indoctrination of children with Catholic beliefs can be extremely wicked, because if they’re taught about hell, for example, it can be a very unpleasant experience for them, and even abusive. When a grandparent dies who isn’t a Catholic or isn’t religious, and they believe the grandparent is in hell, it’s a very distressing thing for a child to have foisted on them.”
He describes anecdotes about the materialism surrounding First Communion celebrations as “vile”.
Despite all of this, he says, his affection for Ireland remains undimmed – in fact, he would love to get Irish citizenship.
“I love Ireland. If you can get me Irish citizenship, I would love that. I’m so utterly fed up with Brexit, I’m desperate to get Irish citizenship.”
Tickets are now on sale for Richard Dawkins live at the National Concert Hall on Monday, June 12th at 7.30pm