At last: Ireland to have a referendum on its blasphemy law

You probably know, if you’ve hung around here a while, that Ireland has a blasphemy law on the books, which I wrote about five years ago. It was passed in 2009 as the “Defamation Act,” but really just continued a 1937 provision of the Irish Constitution. Here it is (my emphasis):

36.—

(1) A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—

(a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and

(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

(3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

(4) In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—

(a) the principal object of which is the making of profit, or

(b) that employs oppressive psychological manipulation—

  • (i) of its followers, or
  • (ii) for the purpose of gaining new followers.

As I said before, note that it deals solely with religion, and the criterion for its illegality is “intent to create outrage and actual creation of outrage.” (Note, though, that Catholicism could be said to be an exception to their definition of “religion” since it does employ “oppressive psychological manipulation of its followers.”)  The concentration on religion privileges that over other forms of ideology, and gives believers an incentive to become outraged, a tactic that has worked well for Muslims (though not in Ireland).

Now the Defamation Act has been on the books for eight years, and has never been implemented. The government knows what a mess that would be. Nevertheless, they promised several years ago to hold a referendum about getting rid of this antiquated and unenforceable law, but nothing has happened—up to now. Like Ireland’s promise to have a referendum on abortion, the government considers even holding a referendum on such issues to be a hot potato, and no politician wants to be the first to start the ball rolling.

In 2015 I put up a letter that Atheist Ireland, headed by Michael Nugent, wrote to Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), urging that he fulfill his government’s pledge to have a referendum on repealing the blasphemy law. It was signed by 43 people, including me. And now I’m immensely pleased to be informed by John Hammill (Atheist Ireland’s blasphemy activist) that this referendum will indeed take place. As the Atheist Ireland blasphemy site reports:

Atheist Ireland welcomes the announcement today by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, that our campaign for a referendum on blasphemy has been successful. There will be a referendum on the blasphemy provision within the Irish Constitution during October of 2018 and Atheist Ireland will be campaigning strongly to reform, update and modernise Article 40.6.1(i). This is one part of the continued lobbying by Atheist Ireland to secularise the Irish Constitution.

. . . Also in 2015, in the context of our meeting with An Taoiseach that included further lobbying on the blasphemy issue, Atheist Ireland published an open letter on this topic. The letter was signed by more than 40 high-profile academics, scientists and intellectuals, providing some very welcome extra weight to our lobbying efforts at that time. Atheist Ireland is grateful for the support of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Maryam Namazie, Carolyn Porco, Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Copson, Patricia Churchland and many others for their help and support in this regard. The full list of signatories is available here.

Since then, Atheist Ireland has continued to lobby and campaign on this issue. Our petition for a referendum on blasphemy has exceeded 5,000 signatories.
I have no doubt that without Atheist Ireland’s continual campaigning and pressuring the Irish government to fulfill its promise, this referendum wouldn’t be taking place. I’m fairly confident, too, that the referendum will pass, as a poll of Irish voters taken in 2014 showed that 50% of voters would get rid of the law, 19% said they would vote to retain the law, 26% had no opinion, and 5% said they would not vote. I suspect sentiment has gotten even more liberal since then. So while it’s premature to raise a Guinness to the law’s disappearance, we can hoist one for the good people of Atheist Ireland—one of the secular organizations that actually accomplishes things.

20 Comments

  1. John
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Do the right thing, Ireland.

  2. kieran
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Blasphemy law was purposely made to be very hard to convict. Getting it out of the constitution is fine so long as we don’t replace with something worse such as inciting religious hatred being put in to replace it.

    We’re also looking at the 8th amendment in May or June of next year, that’s the great bit of constitutional stupidity we added in 1983.

    There is still within the constitution a religious test for the president, judges and the council of state, would’ve been nice to see that up for the chop as well.

    Then there’s the preamble… that could go as well.

    • somer
      Posted September 28, 2017 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      Great news – its a beginning.

  3. fyreflye
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Ireland is also planning a vote on whether to repeal or modify abortion laws: http://tinyurl.com/y965e94w

    • DrBrydon
      Posted September 27, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Yes, good news all around.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 27, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Well it’s long overdue that they fixed that barbaric situation, which to my mind is orders of magnitude more serious – in that it has devastating effects on the lives of real people – than a deliberately emasculated and never enforced blasphemy law.

      cr

  4. Posted September 27, 2017 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    As far as this law goes Ireland is still on a horse and cart…. €25,0000 (max) for bollocking a fairytale is very steep, do you get to go to hell for that price?

  5. Posted September 27, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—

    (a) the principal object of which is the making of profit, or

    (b) that employs oppressive psychological manipulation

    Well that’s the Catholic Church out then.

  6. Posted September 27, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    (4) looks like an “anti-Scientology” clause to me, actually.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 27, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think that’s what it obviously is.

      And Scientologists are notoriously litigous.

      cr

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    In the US, even putting aside the First Amendment’s religion clauses, a “Defamation Act” such as this could not pass constitutional muster under the “overbreadth” and “void-for-vagueness” doctrines.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    In the US, even putting aside the First Amendment’s religion clauses, a “Defamation Act” such as this could not pass constitutional muster under the “overbreadth” and “void-for-vagueness” doctrines.

  9. Heather Hastie
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Great news for Ireland! I congratulate all those who have worked so hard to see this happen. 🙂

  10. Posted September 27, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  11. Mark R.
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Yay! Women can drive in Saudi Arabia and people can say whatever the hell they want in Ireland. Small progress, but progress nonetheless.

  12. Posted September 27, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    When I first read the opening paragraph, I thought you meant that you had written the anti-blasphemy law, about 5 years ago, and I was terribly confused. I need to get more sleep.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 27, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      Depends where the implied comma is. “Which I wrote, about five years ago” vs “Which I wrote about, five years ago”. I read it the wrong way first time through, too.

      Mind you, if Jerry had written it, he could claim credit for having produced such an ineffectual piece of legislation.

      cr

  13. Ed
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I just really hope they don’t try to put some replacement text in there about inciting religious hatred which is the law in the UK. Although the UK doesn’t have a Constitution of course which make it easier to repeal. There should be no hierarchy in law where religious people get special protection. The believer, non believer and dissenter should all be equal under the law. This is the best guarantee for religious and non religious freedom.

  14. Posted September 27, 2017 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    There’s a sort of blasphemy law even in Finland. In practice it only comes up, when someone wants to protect Christians or Muslims from extreme hate speech, but even so it’s a bit of an embarrassment.

    It could and should be abolished.

  15. eric
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s premature to raise a Guinness to the referendum’s success. Start tonight! And if it doesn’t pass, raise a Guinness to your troubles in that case too.


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