Blasphemy and the problem of evil
This Taliban-like law has no place in a democracy
Had the Garda decided to prosecute actor Stephen Fry for blasphemy – and in truth no-one believes there was really any prospect that they would do so – he would have joined a small, eclectic band of political and religious dissidents who over the centuries have fallen foul of this archaic legal provision in Ireland.
They include priests who burned Bibles, Protestant and Catholic, or denied the divinity of Christ, and more recently, in 1957, Alan Simpson, owner of the Pike Theatre Club, for “producing for gain an indecent and profane performance”. Thankfully none, apart from Adam Duff O’Toole in 1328, faced the ultimate fate of being burned alive for alleged heresy and blasphemy. But in fact for leading armed raids against the Pale.
This Taliban-like law has no place in a democracy – as the Law Reform Commission observed back in 1991, there should be “no place for the offence of blasphemous libel in a society which respects freedom of speech”. It should be removed forthwith from both the statute book and our Constitution, even in its currently unenforceable form, and even though we will have to have a referendum to do so.
It is no consolation that, as former minister Dermot Ahern claimed of his own controversial “dilution” of blasphemy in the Defamation Act 2009: “we implemented the crime but made it in a way that it would be virtually impossible to prosecute” – a classic Irish solution to an Irish problem.
In any case, Fry’s comments to Gay Byrne, far from being an insult to God, were a profound and eloquent statement, albeit in a robust form, of what philosophers call the “problem of evil”, the challenge in arguments for the existence of God in reconciling an all-seeing , omnipotent, benevolent God with the pain and evil we see manifest in the world around us. “Why,” Fry asked, “should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” To which the reply of the Christian, though not altogether convincing, should be “because God created free will”. And not a knock on the door from the boys in blue.