Last year Ireland removed blasphemy as an offense from its constitution. It was seen as outdated and unworkable. It may have been those things—in fact the last time it was used was once in 1995 and then previously back in 1855.
But nature abhors a vacuum. And it seems more like a case of “Out with the old, in with the new.”
We live in a new blasphemy era. (And this is evident much further afield than Ireland.)
University campuses ban campaigners, politicians and advocates who hold a view that some disagree with. In recent years, feminist Germaine Greer was ‘No Platformed’ by feminists for suggesting that men cannot become women. LGBT activist Peter Tatchell was labelled transphobic and denied the opportunity to speak. Jordan Peterson had his invitation to be a visiting fellow of Cambridge University rescinded. Just last week John Cleese was hauled over the coals for a comment made eight years ago.
Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts of ordinary folks get suspended because of claims of hate speech.
There is a certain irony in all this—all we have done is replace one set of blasphemy laws with another. Except they are far stricter and far more arbitrary. At least in the ‘old days’ you knew that the rough domain of blasphemy was speaking insultingly about God. Now however it covers all sorts of things—anything at which someone else may take an offence can land you in trouble.
And it is far more rigorously enforced. Celebrities, politicians and sportsmen and sportswomen issue retractions and, at times, grovelling apologies.
You can be the most famous LGBT activist in the last 40 years in the UK and still be labelled transphobic—not because you said anything against trans-sexuals—but because you spoke up for free-speech, therefore allowing someone, somewhere to say something against the LGBT movement.
Forty years ago Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in Ireland as blasphemous. Someone drew this clip to my attention recently:
In the amphitheatre the hopeless revolutionaries are sitting plotting. Stan announces that he wants to be called Loretta.
Judith: Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
Stan: I want to have babies.
Reg outraged: You want to have babies?!?!?!
There ensues a discussion about how they would fight for the principle even if it could never be realised. It finishes up with John Cleese’s character Reg saying:
Reg: What's the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can't have babies?!
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg mutters: Symbolic of his struggle against reality.
I suspect that were it released today The Life of Brian would be banned in 21stcentury Ireland—but for completely different reasons.
We have not gotten rid of blasphemy—we have simply redefined it. When we deny God, we don’t lose the idea of God, we just reinvent ourselves as gods. And therefore anything that offends me is blasphemy. Irish society is kidding itself if it thinks it has removed blasphemy—we have simply swapped it for a much more intolerant and fluid version, one that is defined by society and cultural pressures, where acceptable speech is determined by fear-pressure.
At least under the Christian view of blasphemy there is the offer of forgiveness, a God who says, “Yes, I know every word you said. They were utterly insulting to me, but seek my forgiveness and I will wipe the record clean.”
In this brave new age of groupspeak and groupthink, no such forgiveness is available from society. We are finding increasingly that life without God isn’t as free as we thought it would be.
(For a great article on one aspect of how we live amidst the gods and dogma of the 21st century world, have a read at this thoughtful piece by Andrew Roycroft.)