Following an interview on Irish state television, Stephen Fry is under investigation for blasphemy. In the 2015 interview, veteran television host Gay Byrne asked Fry about his atheism. If the whole Christian schtick turned out to be true, Byrne hypothetically enquired, what would Fry say to God at the pearly gates?
I remember watching a clip of the interview at the time, and while I was impressed as always with Fry’s eloquence and panache, I thought that his was, at base, a fairly run-of-the-mill answer. What would Fry say to God? “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you.” He describes, like David Attenborough before him when similarly questioned, the existence of a parasitic worm whose life cycle necessitates feeding on the eyeballs of humans and blinding them. Why would any omnipotent God worth worshipping include such cruelty in his creation?
The conundrum of why we should believe that a good God lets bad things happen is a staple of theology courses. It’s to be found at the core of much great literature – for example, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamzov, Ivan argues with Alyosha about a little girl tortured by her parents. What worth is a God whose plan includes the suffering of that innocent child? Fry’s answer –though provocatively delivered – represents a centuries-old philosophical and moral position. Yet, in Ireland, it is potentially an indictable offense, carrying a maximum fine of €25,000, to publicly state that position.
You’re probably thinking that Ireland’s blasphemy law is some anachronistic throwback from the nineteenth century, still on the books though never enforced – like the ones about being intoxicated while in charge of a cow or taking public transport while you have the plague. You’d be wrong. The offence of “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” was introduced to a new defamation act by then justice minister Dermot Aherne in 2009, and came into law in 2010.
It is now illegal to utter or publish any material "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion" where intent and result is "outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” There are few absolutely dependable things in this world, but I would contend that the outrage of vast swathes of the religious when asked if they might be drunkenly driving their sacred cows is amongst them. Ireland’s “modern” blasphemy law has provided a model to Pakistan and other states who wish to limit freedom of conscience.
I know how the Irish head-in-the-sand brigade is going to respond to this latest piece of evidence that Father Ted was, in fact, a documentary. They’re going to say that the complaint against Fry is just some crazy hick exploiting a harmless law, and it’ll go nowhere, so we should all calm our jets and laugh it off. I can see the jocular tabloid headlines already: Fry in Hell! And I agree that the case is likely to go nowhere. But we are deluded if we think that the 2009 law is not actively influencing, limiting, even dictating the content that we are offered by our national media.
And we are even more deluded if we think that we are living in a secular society. Just days ago, on 3 May, the Irish government made it mandatory to stand during the prayer that opens the Dáil (parliament) and to observe a moment of silence afterwards. This is an obvious infringement on the freedom of conscience of our elected representatives and coercion of this sort has no defensible place in a secular society. The motion passed by 97 votes to 17.
This is the public discourse and political context that allows for a situation where our elected representatives think it’s acceptable to give full ownership of a state-of-the-art national maternity hospital to an order of Catholic nuns who are ideologically opposed to contraception, IVF, and, of course, abortion. This is the context that enables Catholic control of the Irish state-funded education system. It is the context that denies Irish women their reproductive rights.
It has to change – not because we’re all a bit embarrassed about inviting Stephen Fry on Irish telly and then casting him, without his permission, as a heretic in a medieval docudrama – but because the church should have no place in politics. We deserve a secular state. And we need to start insisting on one.