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

Marketing Executive, London

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly prestigious luxury b...

C++ Software Developer / Image Processing / 3D Visualisation

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: C++ Software Developer / Image Process...

Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux

£30,000 to £40,000: IT Connections Ltd: Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux ...

Software Development Manager / Java / J2EE

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: Software Development Manager / Java / ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Prince George's birthday is a pleasant distraction, but the monarchy still makes me feel uneasy

Simon Kelner
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor