Philip Hensher: Blasphemy laws can only invite trouble

None of us likes being insulted, but only a priest seeks to pass a law against it

Share
Related Topics

On 1 January, the Irish state introduced a new law. It extends the offence of blasphemy, which previously had only covered the Christian religion. It defines blasphemy as "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted". The punishment for intentionally causing outrage in this way is €25,000.

"Any religion"? Woo. There are quite a lot of religions out there, in case the Irish state hadn't noticed. There is Scientology, for a start. Mormonism proposes that an angel appeared to Joseph Smith with a new sacred book written on golden plates, published in 1830. Christian Science teaches that sickness is the result of fear, ignorance or sin.

There are plenty of religions, too, which are widely regarded as dead, but which a little research could, I am sure, turn up a few dozen practitioners. I bet there are quite a lot of amateur adherents of the cult of Odin still out there. There are, too, some still odder and more recently invented religions; few people, even those within the wider religious community, could avoid stepping on these toes just by saying what they themselves believe in. There is a Church of Satan, active since the 1960s, founded by one Anton Szandor LaVey. Could they not bring a case for "intentionally caused outrage" against any number of members of more respectable religions?

Still, I'm glad that the Irish Parliament used the word "intentionally" in framing its new offence. Once, in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, I observed a sequence of widows approaching one of a long line of lingams in the great Hindu temple there, and noticed that they did not hesitate before choosing one to drape in a garland. I quite innocently asked our guide whether a widow would have a preferred lingam to decorate: this evidently caused immense offence, and he would hardly speak to me again, to my great (and ignorant) distress. At least I wouldn't be prosecuted in Ireland.

The Atheist Ireland association has immediately produced a list of distinguished comments, made over the ages, which they claim would fall foul of the new blasphemy law. It includes the founders of ancient religions, including Jesus and Mohammed; modern adherents such as the Pope quoting a Byzantine emperor on Islam ("things only evil and inhuman"); as well as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Springer: The Opera, and Frank Zappa saying that religion is a product of "the chimpanzee part of the brain working".

I don't suppose anyone will really be prosecuted in Ireland for practising free speech, and I suspect that legislation against real, active hate crime intended to bring down violence on the head of minorities would have been enough. There is an alarming prospect, though, that in other parts of the world, laws like this would have a real, dangerous application. In 1993, a blasphemy law was introduced to the Bangladeshi parliament with a provision for capital punishment. It failed, because its definitions of blasphemy were so in excess of any parallel law in the rest of the civilised world. No longer.

The Irish government has seen that the blasphemy laws are no longer appropriate for our society, but they have drawn a disastrous conclusion, and extended them rather than limiting them. Religion is just a system of thought, and must not be protected in ways not appropriate to any other system of thought. None of us likes being insulted, but only a priest seeks to pass a law against it.

David, you're just too much of a good thing

I love the actor David Tennant as much as anyone; I like his cheeky face and his mobile eyebrows; I like him when he is being estuary as Doctor Who, or being Scottish as himself. All the same, I wonder when we might find that we've had enough of the cheeky face and the mobile eyebrows.

Over the Christmas season, he appeared no fewer than 75 times on the BBC, including on QI, Catherine Tate, Hamlet, Desert Island Discs and, of course, Doctor Who. A future measure of over-exposure: one Tennant equals 75 appearances in a period of three weeks. Television has a terrible history of killing off the appeal of talent by grossly overexposing it – think of the careers of John Sessions and Tony Slattery. I don't blame Mr Tennant for saying yes to everything, but it does seem irresponsible of the BBC to fail to manage its talent in a way that will nurture its future.

Neither a dearth nor a flood; and in the meantime, it might be quite nice to remember some of those actors who, 10 or 20 years ago, were in Mr Tennant's position, and who seem to have been unfeelingly dropped. A quick glance through the old cast list of the Channel 4 early-1990s game show Whose Line Is It Anyway might suggest some people who, dare one say it, are still fairly talented.

For some the holiday is never-ending

Have you gone back to work this morning? Or are you managing to squeeze another day, or even another week, out of Christmas and the new year? One of the astonishing developments of recent history is the way that no member of anything resembling the professional classes would dream of going back to work until the fourth or fifth of January.

This year, as far as I can make out, everyone packed up on Friday 18 December and started to think about coming back on 4 January. Two and a half weeks seems excessive to me for a country in deepest recession, but, as you can see, along with street cleaners, waiters and shop assistants, I myself have been hard at work. This excessive and ever-expanding holiday can't be good for mental health. In any case, everyone knows that the most enjoyable holiday is the one you take when everyone else is working, sailing through the streets on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-March.

Was it just me, or did those waiters serving you at lunchtime on the 27 December have a faintly serene air, as if pleased to have something to do and somewhere to go. Much as I love my nearest and dearest, it was rather a pleasure to be able to say, on Boxing Day, "I'm awfully sorry – I've got to put in my three hours on the novel," and disappear.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

RE/Humanities, Sittingbourne School

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We urgently seek an experienced ...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Southampton: Randstad Education are recruiting ...

Maths Teacher, full time supply role, Medway Academy

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Our client school in Chatham, a ...

Geography Teacher, Dover School, full time role

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad Education is urgently s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Cameron's unexpected tax pledges give the Tories home advantage

Andrew Grice
President Barack Obama walks with U.S. Secret Service agents to Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Calif., May 8, 2014.  

Obama's Secret Service has become sloppy with its delusions of Hollywood grandeur

David Usborne
Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?