On the 1st of January 2010, Ireland took a remarkable step backwards when the so called Blasphemy Law came into effect. One of the main results of this has been that many people feel that their freedom of speech could be curtailed by potential legal action and a substantial fine if something they express is deemed to be blasphemous towards a particular religion. To say that this opened a can worms is an understatement and it rather succinctly showed the complete lack of common sense in the then Fianna Fáil led government.
According to the then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, the Law was introduced in order to close a legal loophole within the Irish Constitution, which he was constitutionally obliged to, on the advice of the Attorney General. However this was at odds with a number of statements issued by the Government and Government Ministers over the 2 years leading up to the enacting of the law. In 2008 after a review of the issue by a Joint Oireachtas Committee, the Committee stated “that in a modern Constitution, blasphemy is not a phenomenon against which there should be an express constitutional prohibition”. Added to this were comments made by Michael Martin, in relation to Islamic Countries trying to get a Blasphemy Law passed at the international level at the U.N., in which he said that he believed that the “concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of Human Rights”. Despite Dermot Ahern’s comments that the law is only there to close a legal loophole, it carries a rather substantial fine of €25,000 for anyone convicted of blasphemy but even this was somewhat at odds with statements from the Government in which they said that it is unlikely that anyone could be prosecuted under the new legislation.
Whilst this has been true thus far, it has nonetheless resulted in a number of complaints being made to the Gardaí regarding “blasphemous acts” which have been carried out in public. One of the most recent of these ‘blasphemous acts’ was an exhibition of the work of Mexican-American artist, Alma Lopez, which was hosted by the Hispanic Department of UCC (University College Cork). Over a number of days in June, a number of Ms. Lopez’s works were on display in the O’Rahilly Building and over that same period of time, there were a series of protests held outside the gates of UCC by a small group of Christians. They were protesting one of Ms. Lopez’s creations in particular; a digitally rendered image portraying ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’(see picture below). The protesters believed that the image in question was “disrespectful” and “blasphemous”. The result of this was that a local government minister, Fine Gael’s Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer, became involved in the fiasco in which he declared that free speech does not include the right to blaspheme. He also noted that “It’s important that we have a debate about the interplay between faith, belief and society” all the while apparently being unaware of the fact that the rather benign image in question is part of that debate, which in this case plays a part in the discussion of Chicano culture in particular. Similar sentiments to Buttimer’s were also echoed by a number of members of the clergy from Cork and elsewhere with the Bishop of Cork and Ross, John Buckley, commenting that it was “regrettable and unacceptable that the exhibition seeks to portray the mother of God in such an offensive way”.
In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, Michael Nugent, Chairperson of Atheist Ireland, appeared on Livelive with Joe Duffy in order to debate the then upcoming exhibition. After a number of callers had expressed their dismay and disgust over the image in question, Mr. Nugent noted that “It was like discussing the rules of quidditch with people who believe that Harry Potter was a documentary”. All of this furore culminated in a complaint being made to the Gardaí who then proceeded to send a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in order to investigate whether or not the blasphemy law had been broken. Alas, there have been no more updates regarding the file which was apparently sent to the DPP late June. Of course, the ludicrousness of all of this should be rather clear to see but if it isn’t, allow me to expand further.
Those protesting against the exhibition, along with their supporters, believe(d) that freedom of speech does not give people the freedom to blaspheme when in actuality, it does. Freedom of speech is just that; the freedom to say what we want, about who or what we want in whatever way we see fit. The same rights and freedoms which gave the Christian protesters the right to protest against the exhibition are precisely the same rights and freedoms which give Alma Lopez the opportunity to display her work without fear of reprisal, be it legal or otherwise. A number of us in the Atheist Society held a counter-protest aimed at the Christian protesters in question in which we put forth the perfectly reasonable view that ideas should not be protected. Ideas need to be and indeed should be criticised, be they political, philosophical or religious. The rights which give people the freedom to “blaspheme” are the same rights which gave the Christian protesters the right to protest outside the gates of UCC. They believed quite the opposite however. In their eyes, their beliefs and their morality hold sway over everything and everyone else. But no-one or their beliefs are sacrosanct, despite what Canon Law may say. People need to be protected, not ideas. The same freedoms which gave the Christian protesters the right to say that “Our lady will be stamping on your heads in hell” are the same freedoms which allowed the exhibition to take place in the first place, which gave them the right to protest and which gave myself and other members of Atheist Society the right to hold a counter-protest.
Of course, a line has to be drawn somewhere when it comes to freedom of speech, especially when it comes to inciting hatred against a person or race and other similar acts. However, it is rather impossible to offend the sentiments of a fictional and man-made being, in this case Our Lady of Guadalupe. No-one was being injured or physically attacked. The only thing that was being offended were the ideas and beliefs of a small group of people but as already intimated, nobody has the right to not be offended. However, this didn’t seem to register with those on the opposing side to us. They preferred to hold on to outdated and antiquated views of morality and law all of which stem from a 2,000 year old text full of contradictions, homicide, genocide, rape, famine, torture, sadism; a text in which we are all born guilty and shall be cast into a lake of fire if we don’t repent. The logical fallacy of this doesn’t need to be expanded upon any further other than to say that none of us are born guilty and to say otherwise is abhorrent and has no place in a modern society in which reason and logic are the virtues which we should all strive to live by. A Blasphemy Law has no place in a modern country in the 21st century and no amount of proselytizing or pointing to the text contained within a 2,000 year old book of dubious historical accuracy will convince myself, or anyone else, otherwise.