Letter: Workable blasphemy laws in a liberal society

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The Independent Online
Sir: The legal concept of blasphemy is fraught with difficulty. Is it the sacred offence of profaning God? Then it is uniquely important. But because it impinges so deeply on the individual conscience, its criminalisation would inhibit the expression of thought in a way which could be uniquely destructive. Is it the secular offence of causing pain to people? Then who defines what quality of pain should be prohibited?

Two options here are regularly confused: a (relatively) objective one in terms of the nature of the writing - the writing is scurrilous or abusive; and a subjective one in terms of the upset of the reader - he is offended. Mr Justice King- Hamilton in the Gay News case (1977) defined blasphemy using both: '. . . in terms so scurrilous

or offensive as to shock or

outrage . . .'

Scurrilous is a very strong word. The OED quotes Johnson in its definition: 'Using such language as only the licence of a buffoon can warrant.' A definition of blasphemy in terms of this concept would not encompass James Kirkup's poem, the object of the Gay News case: it was inferior poetry, but not buffoonery. There are serious objections even to the criminalisation of scurrilous writings on religion; but the effect would be relatively limited.

On the other hand, to criminalise discussions of religion because someone, or even a body of people, finds them to be shocking or outrageous is intolerable. The law at present has little application, because authoritative Christian opinion finds few cases to take to court.

If blasphemy legislation is extended to other religions, some - Islam is a present example - would interpret blasphemy so widely that the law would be grossly restrictive.

Yours faithfully,


Birmingham Humanist Group

17 September