Crime of blasphemy dangerous and silly


Nothing can be removed from the judgment of laughter, including God and religion, writes JOHN WATERS.

OTHER THAN that it is a ruse to distract the public’s attention from the Government’s handling of the economic crisis, it is difficult to arrive at any insight into why the Minister for Justice has proposed the introduction of a new crime of blasphemous libel.

Perhaps some lobby group has been beavering away, tormenting the Minister and his department. If so, one could readily imagine such a group: wearing its religiosity like a shield against the world, beleaguered in its piety and defensive about its beliefs. But if we succumb to the anxieties of these who wear their religiosity as a suit of armour against reality, we succumb also to the taunts of the ignoramuses who tell us that religion is (at once!) a dangerous and a dying phenomenon.

The right to give expression to the religious concept of reality itself depends on the right to freedom of expression. If we move to censor criticism or the satirising of religion, we move also to what will no doubt be deemed a trade-off: the complete removal of signs of religiosity from public view. If the proposed legislation were to become law, it would become more difficult to argue with, for example, attempts to remove the Angelus from national radio and television, because the continuation of this tradition might then quite reasonably be deemed an unjust provocation to those whose dissent would no longer be a matter of freedom of choice, but a potential crime subject to draconian penalties.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute value, but it should be qualified only in circumstances where the freedom in question is exercised against a group or individual incapable of answering back. The idea that a form of expression can be prohibited because some people find it offensive is a recipe for the elimination of every contentious idea from the public square.

Recently I expressed the view that some paintings depicting a nude Brian Cowen, unofficially and briefly displayed in the National Gallery and RHA, were offensive and in bad taste. But the idea that such gestures might be made illegal, or subject to punishment, must be regarded as both dangerous and silly.

It is true that we now live in a culture where what passes for humour is often elevated beyond merit, but the right to speak and joke freely remains as precious as the right to religious freedom. In truth, because both relate to the fundamental impulses of humanity, they are almost co-terminous.

Humour is one of the cornerstones of democratic debate, a safeguard against pomposity and fanaticism, but also a way for the public conversation to convey the deeper human reactions to events.

A joke gives voice to what is beyond the frontier of the acceptable, and all of us, including those who take offence, need this to remain possible. If we are to avoid sliding into the tyranny of solemnity, nothing can be removed from the judgment of laughter, including God. We need the right to laugh at our deepest beliefs, for only this prevents us becoming overwhelmed by their intensity. Laughter is also a protection against the tendency of human endeavours towards excess and corruption, and religions are as prone to these as any other form of human organisation. Even when a joke goes too far, this is less dangerous than the possibility that it might be suppressed and some powerful but flawed entity left free from criticism or dissent.

The idea that religiosity needs the protection of laws which penalise its detractors belongs to an understanding of religion created in the hubris of modernity. It has to do with the belief that religion is a hangover from a less enlightened time, an unreasonable response to reality that will become increasingly implausible as time moves on. Unbeknownst to themselves, religious-minded people have begun to take this logic to their hearts, seeing themselves in the description of their enemies, and adopting stances that seem to bear out the caricature. They are defensive because they, too, have forgotten that what they profess is not merely some inherited tradition but a fundamental understanding of reality.

Religion is mankind adopting the most open demeanour in the face of the absolutely real. This, by definition, can only be caricatured by someone with a less open outlook, who has perhaps reduced his worldview to an ideological attempt at understanding. Why should people of faith have anything to fear from those whose provocations communicate little beyond fear in the face of the infinite Mystery and a deadly pride that prevents them admitting this? There is no modernity.

There is only humanity and the essential human structure, unchanged since the time of Moses. Man remains as before: a creature, which is to say an organism that did not make itself; dependent on something he neither sees not understands; and mortal to an extent that he can sometimes and only marginally influence as to timing. In the face of such facts, the religious response is the only rational one, and attempts to ridicule it are manifestations of idiocy, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.