Why you should vote Yes in tomorrow's Blasphemy referendum

Ireland is truly moving towards becoming a secular republic. Removing blasphemy would be another step in this direction

Stephen Fry risked being charged with blasphemy following an interview with Gay Byrne in 2015. The charges were eventually dropped.

Stephen Fry risked being charged with blasphemy following an interview with Gay Byrne in 2015. The charges were eventually dropped.

In the great scheme of things, the increasing crisis of housing and accommodation in the State is a matter of far greater urgency and social consequence than the Blasphemy referendum.

That may come as a shock to some Capital A Atheists, but it is an inarguable fact. It is also one of the reasons why the referendum on Blasphemy has largely gone under the radar of public consciousness. It is simply not that high on the list of pressing, and urgent, matters that need attention.

A second reason it has failed to catch fire is to do with the way the law is worded itself. Yes, in 2009 a €25,000 fine for blasphemy was introduced, but the law as it stands recognises broad exceptions for creative, academic, political, and other purposes. As a result, there are many instances where a supposedly 'blasphemous' statement can be uttered, but is protected by the law. It would appear to be a law that has purposely castrated itself - a sop to the religious right, but an ineffectual one. As Galway West Labour party chair Dr Andrew Ó Baoill has pointed out, the result of this sop has left us with "the absurd situation" of a law containing "significant penalties that are clearly not intended to be acted upon".

The third reason of course is that the referendum vote takes place on the same day as we go to elect the next Uachtarán na hÉireann - or rather re-elect the current Uachtarán, given last week's The Irish Times poll showing Michael D Higgins on 66 per cent.

Yet, despite all this, Insider believes, come tomorrow, that the public should vote Yes to remove Article 40 from Bunreacht na hÉireann which makes blasphemy an offence in accordance with the law. Now Insider is a believer in the Almighty and furthermore makes absolutely no apologies for this. So why would a Christian think it is a good idea to get rid of the offence of blasphemy?

To criticise religion is not anti-religion

No religion should be above criticism. Under the current law, it could be possible, for example, for the Church of Scientology to take a case for blasphemy against anyone making criticism of it. That is an intolerable situation.

There is the saying, 'If God lived on earth, people would break His windows.' No Atheist came up with that. That is an old Jewish saying from the Yiddish tradition. Is it blasphemous? It is a milder form of what Stephen Fry said to Gay Byrne in that (in )famous 2015 interview with Gay Byrne. Yet, under the current law, an action could potentially be taken.

And this leads Insider to another point: What is religion without criticism? The Judaism of the first Century AD was a religion and culture in the process of lively and controversial debate, with various groups arguing for new approaches to the faith. This is the intellectual arena in which Jesus moved and in which he was an important and controversial figure, fearless in his criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as figures of authority.

Martin Luther

The same is true of The Prophet Muhammad, Jan Hus, Martin Luther (Rome's reaction to his 95 Thesis was an attempt to silence criticism, in effect a denail of the right to expression and debate ), Calvin, Zwingli, Guru Nanak. All looked at the religion of their day and found much to criticise, much to challenge, and plenty that was in need of change. All of them were called 'blasphemers', 'heretics' and 'atheists' by their opponents. Each man risked, not only his place in society, but his life, in order to weed out the corruption and malpractice he saw around him, and to create new and fresh ways of thinking (Indeed Hus was executed in 1415 for his reformist beliefs ).

The point is, if religion is to survive, rather than stagnate, it must have its critics. We see this today in the debates between conservative and progressive wings within both Roman Catholicism and Islam.

Hate Speech

Of course there are those who will use criticism of religion as a means by which to denigrate and demonise minorities. This is one of the pitfalls of freedom of speech when it is accompanied by an absolute disregard for the responsibilities such a right brings, and a disregard of other types of freedom of expression, such as the right to reply, the right to ignore, and freedom of conscience. It is something we do not always appreciate here in the West, but to which Muslim and Jewish people, for example, are rightfully sensitive.

With this in mind, I refer again to Dr Ó Baoill of Galway West Labour, who has pointed out how there is "broad political agreement" that blasphemy is "not something the State should be policing". To those concerned that removing blasphemy as an offence could give the green light to hate speech - acting disingenuously under the cover of free speech - against minorities, Dr Ó Baoill points out that if the referendum is passed, "it will still be possible for the Oireachtas to regulate incitement to hatred and other forms of speech that have actual potential to cause harm."

A hat-trick for progress?

The 2015 Marriage Equality referendum, May's Repeal The Eighth victory, and the continuing effort to secularise our education system show that Ireland is truly moving towards becoming a secular republic. Removing blasphemy would be another step in this direction.

Now, it is important to clarify just what Insider means by 'secular' - this is a state where no one religion is prioritised over another, and where the freedom to believe or not believe is respected: no Sikh man will be asked to remove his turban if working in the public sector, no atheist family will have to face any kind of baptism barrier to having their children enrolled in school. In short, a secularism that respects and celebrates the diversity of society.

We should also pause to acknowledge that Article 40 of our Constitution is often cited by violent, autocratic, theocracies abroad to justify heinous abuses of human rights in the name of faith. We can make a gesture towards secularism, tolerance, and religious freedom by preventing such regimes from citing the Republic of Ireland as an example.

1916 proclamation II

And let us not think that secularism is a new concept in Ireland. It is the essence of Irish republicanism. Wolfe Tone's great quote is still a challenge to us today: "To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, these were my means." The Fenian Proclamation of 1867 said: "We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State." The 1916 Proclamation states: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts."

An Ireland where blasphemy is not part of the Constitution, where baptism barriers - which not only affect atheists, but all non-Roman Catholic religions in Ireland - are no longer in force, and where church run schools are an option, not the only choice (the more Educate Together schools the better as far as Insider is concerned ), will be a step towards what those above radical and progressive thinkers/documents had in mind for Ireland. And this is why Insider would ask you to vote Yes tomorrow.

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