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In defense of blasphemy and Stephen Fry

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“Every great idea starts out as blasphemy.” ~Bertrand Russell

[Note: since the drafting of this piece, the Irish police have happily announced that the investigation into Stephen Fry’s blasphemy has been dropped.]

The British actor, author, and wit, Stephen Fry, was just investigated by the Irish government for blasphemy. The investigation, launched under a 2009 blasphemy law, was the latest in a string of alarming European signals that blasphemy prosecutions are being resumed, including the first Danish prosecution in 46 years and several recent prosecutions in Greece. Not to mention the notorious use of Russian blasphemy laws.

Fry was being investigated for hammering the idea of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god in an interview. The interviewer asked Fry what he’ll say if he gets to heaven and finds the biblical god at the pearly gates? Fry’s response is as erudite as it is impassioned and it should be appreciated in full:

Stephen Fry during the interview in question. Screenshot via YouTube.
Stephen Fry during the interview in question

FRY: I’ll say, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dareyou? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil.” Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.

Interviewer: And you think you’re going to get in?

FRY: No, but I wouldn’t want toI wouldn’t want to get in on His terms. They’re wrong. Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades, and if it was the twelve Greek gods, then I would have more truck with it. Because the [Greeks] were — they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites, and in their capriciousness, and in their unreasonableness. They didn’t present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac — utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees, thanking him? What kind of God would do that? Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did he do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. So Atheism is not just about not believing there’s a God, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is He? It’s perfectly apparent: He is monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living, in my opinion.

Watching the interviewer squirm during this dissecting of the biblical god, rather like one of the insects Fry mentioned, is simply priceless.

Most people on hearing this disturbing news console themselves with the likelihood that Fry would never be prosecuted. If that’s you, stop. This cannot simply be shrugged off because Fry won’t end up in jail or paying a fine. Indeed the government has already stopped the investigation because it was “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people.” That is a terrifying legal standard by which to charge someone with a crime. But it bolsters the point I wish to make, and that is that the purpose of blasphemy laws is only partially to punish the blasphemer. The laws also exist to deter future criticisms of religion. Who in the Republic of Ireland will criticize religion in such insightful and incisive terms if doing so will bring down a police investigation?

Blasphemy laws are intended to chill speech, and the public investigation of such a celebrated figure will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. But the laws are also meant to discourage thought and encourage self-censorship. Outlawing topics of discussion is a nascent step down the path toward outlawing thought about that subject. This is what Orwell expressed so chillingly in 1984:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

By refusing to allow criticism of god or religion, the Irish government is confining the human mind. Blasphemy laws coerce us into donning our own “mind forg’d manacles,” they are a “form of tyranny over the mind,” to borrow from Blake and Jefferson.

The great Robert G. Ingersoll captured the injustice of blasphemy statutes in his characteristically eloquent fashion while defending a New Jersey man accused of blasphemy in 1887:

By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion — sought to prevent argument — sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.

Blasphemy laws shackle an entire people under the mental slavery of one religion. They have no place in a modern, enlightened state, even if they are not typically enforced. They need to be abolished. Their very existence is an insult to human dignity and intelligence.

FFRF’s 1989 Freethought Today ad for its “Blasphemy is a Victimless Crime” shirts featuring Dan Barker.

Back in 1989, FFRF released a T-shirt to condemn the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. The slogan has entered the vernacular: “Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” This is, of course, absolutely true. While the joke behind the slogan is that there is no god to be offended by “blasphemy,” even if we were to concede that a god existed, nobody is harmed by the blasphemy.

In fact, blasphemy laws are themselves blasphemous. They assume that a god, supposedly omnipotent, is incapable of protecting itself. In other words, blasphemy laws admit that gods need human protection. The legislators are admitting that this deity is weaker than humans. Blasphemy laws are an admission that gods are not gods and are therefore blasphemous. Only could religion produce so laws so absurd that they violate themselves.

It’s time for Ireland to amend its Constitution to abolish blasphemy and protect its citizens from the tyranny of the religious majority.

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