Failure to cause outrage: the Blasphemy investigation of Fry fizzles out

May 10, 2017 • 10:00 am

by Grania Spingies

As many of you may already know, the police investigation into the accusation of blasphemy against Stephen Fry by an anonymous and obsequious finger-wagger has been dropped. As I pointed out, there was never any real chance that Fry would be charged, let alone brought to trial. Ireland’s illiberal and misconceived Blasphemy law was designed to be virtually unenforceable. The 2009 Defamation Act states:

It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates. (Art. 36.3)

The Gardai (police) in this case said they were “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people” and have dropped the charges; so a legal defence never even entered the equation. Michael Nugent, chair of Atheist Ireland, a group that has challenged this law since its inception, pointed out that this “creates an incentive for people to demonstrate outrage when they see or hear something that they believe is blasphemous“. By so acting, the Irish police may have opened a can of worms for themselves and can doubtless expect to have their time wasted by more vexatious reports from upstanding citizens who feel the need to ask the State to punish those they disagree with.

This tepid storm in a teacup has achieved a few things:

One, there’s been the predictable Streisand Effect of having Fry’s putatively blasphemous, and in my view, eminently sensible, statement viewed around the world millions of times.

Two, the shock effect of having someone as famous as Fry even remotely at risk of being criminally prosecuted for utterances so manifestly benign has caused sufficient international embarrassment for the Irish government to once again promise a referendum on the matter. They’ve been promising one since 2010, but have been studiously ignoring the issue ever since.

Three, New Zealand has committed to repealing its own blasphemy law. (Well done NZ!)

There’s been a certain amount of anger on the Internet (I know, shocker, right?) from various Irish activists that this has prompted at least a half-hearted response from certain government officials; while other pressing issues such as the lack of a referendum on access to abortion in Ireland still are not clearly addressed. I am assuming that most of them are completely unaware that the referendum on repealing the blasphemy articles has been on the cards for years and it actually hasn’t been – and still isn’t – fast-tracked to appease Mr Fry.

It’s a fair point, but one that misses the main objection to Ireland having a blasphemy law: while it may be no danger to people in Ireland, it is being used to justify and push for more blasphemy laws by groups such as the OIC at the United Nations. As US attorney Ken White has painstaking pointed out on numerous occasions, blasphemy laws are used virtually exclusively to persecute minority religions wherever they exist. Just today, Ahok, the governor of Jakarta, has been found guilty of blasphemy for referencing a Koranic verse, and was jailed. Needless to say, Ahok is a member of the Christian minority in a Muslim-majority country.

This is how blasphemy laws work: the majority religion silences and punishes minority religions. They do not belong in enlightened societies.

Further reading: Blasphemy in the Christian World

38 thoughts on “Failure to cause outrage: the Blasphemy investigation of Fry fizzles out

  1. There was an article in today’s BBC news suggesting that Bill English is not especially looking to an urgent repeal of the New Zealand blasphemy laws, rather that he’ll wrap them up with other ‘unnecessary’ laws in the fullness of time. I’d rather see blasphemy laws individually targeted so as to make a point, because as you say in your article they represent a very genuine danger worldwide. It’s all very well being able to laugh at the arcane nature of such laws in western countries (though they are now being indirectly re-introduced via laws against religious ‘criticism’), but the fact that people are being murdered by muslim states for breach of these laws is shocking in this day and age.

  2. Islam is the Blasphemy religion in many countries as it is the profound duty of its followers to eliminate all other religions from it’s territory.

      1. Yes, and as they say, only Muslims can fix their own problem. If they ever want to join most of the real world they better get with it.

        1. If they ever want to join most of the real world they better get with it.

          Is it “most of the real word”? (Not that I’d agree that majority means correctness.) Just doing a quick tot-up, I get around 1 billion in the “West” (North America, Europe, Oceania) who I’ll assume hold “Enlightenment” values (big assumption there) ; much of Africa has a strong leaning to authoritarianism and tribalism rather than “Enlightenment” (~1.2 billion) ; South America I don’t know enough to comment ; Middle East is overwhelmingly Muslim and I’ll count them as non-Enlightenment (400 million) ; India at 1.2 billion, very religiously-dominated and with definite tendencies towards demagoguery and authoritarianism so hardly a bastion of “Enlightenment” ; China different, but also very hierarchical so hardly a bastion of “Enlightenment” (1.1 billion); Indonesia as we’re discussing, hardly a bastion of “Enlightenment” (260 million) ; I suppose I can count Japan in the “West” “Enlightenment” camp (127 million). Tally that up and … 1.2 billion for “Enlightenment” and something like 4.1 billion in a non-Enlightenment camp with a couple of billion un-counted.
          Lots of very dubious assumptions in that breakdown, and a distressing tendency to sounding like Eurovision, but I think you need to be very careful about assuming that the majority of the world shares “Enlightenment” values.
          No, I don’t like the conclusion either.

  3. RELIGION: “I’ll only give up my grip on society when it is pried from my cold, dead hands.”

    “The death of an old idea, however, is a protracted and ungainly thing.”
    Dr. Robert D. Morris

    1. And “new ideas spread one funeral at a time”. Specifically quantum mechanics, IIRC, but the idea works.

  4. Blasphemy is defined as “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things…” I think Stephen Fry might have done a better job of making his point if he had made it clear that he wasn’t saying bad things about God, since he doesn’t even believe God exists; rather he was criticizing people who believe in a god whose supposed nature is completely at odds with what we observe in the real world.

    Richard Dawkins has jumped into the fray:

    Richard Dawkins challenges Ireland to arrest him for blasphemy after Stephen Fry investigation

    1. That might be a good approach. I wonder if it will go anywhere.

      I wonder if another provocateur would be needed, like a police chief willing to “play along”.

      1. The Independent says “Police dropped their investigation into Mr Fry after failing to find enough people who were outraged by his remarks.”

        I’d say if anyone can manage to generate the required outrage among the devout it’ll be Richard Dawkins, and that would be a good thing because if there’s an attempt to prosecute Dawkins but not Fry, more people might appreciate the injustice of blasphemy laws.

      2. I wonder if another provocateur would be needed, like a police chief willing to “play along”.

        I don’t think so, at least not a police chief. In Britain (not so sure about Ireland ; Grania?) the Police perform an investigation then submit their report and evidence to the prosecuting authority who choose whether or not to prosecute. “Procurator Fiscal” in Scotland ; “Crown Prosecution Service” in England & Wales, and “Something” in Ireland. I think that’s the same role as a District Attorney in the US.
        The phrase being used is “Police dropped their investigation” ; they can still be instructed to re-open the investigation by the Fiscal / CPS/ DA/ whatever, and then will have to submit a report.
        In practice, I suspect you’d need a politician willing to instruct a civil servant to start the ball rolling. And I don’t think that’s a poisoned chalice that likely to be picked up soon.

    2. Here’s his letter to the Irish Times:

      Sir, – As a gesture of solidarity with Stephen Fry, I quote a sentence from my book, The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
      Every one of these adjectives is amply documented, with full biblical citations, in Dan Barker’s book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction.
      I shall be giving a public lecture in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on June 12th, and I shall therefore be available for arrest on a charge of blasphemy. – Yours, etc,
      New College,

  5. “academic value” indeed.
    Cancer in children is just about the best example around of the theodicy argument against the existence of God.

    Fry was not even remotely engaging in any kind of vulgarity or cheap shot, but expressing a real and deep moral outrage.

    1. Only a supposedly ‘nice’ god – which none of them are – only they don’t exist to be nice or nasty (confusing myself!!!)…?!

    2. but expressing a real and deep moral outrage.

      He can’t do that! He’s an atheist – he can’t have morals to outrage.
      (I’m waiting for some preacher to come out with that line. I may hold my breath – I doubt I’ll be waiting long.)

  6. The ‘blasphemy’ (how can one insult a being that does not exist except in the tiny minds of believers?) & abortion laws are of course intimately linked by a regressive & primitive belief system, aka the Roman Catholic Church!

    1. Not to mention someone might say something “Screw that misogynistic god, it prevents women from getting abortions!”, which could presumably be regarded as blasphemous.

  7. …unable to find a substantial number of outraged people….

    That’s not a reassuring standard. Next time the blue lights will be sure and line up their outragees before the complaint. What number is the Garda looking for?

    1. I suspect the Gardai are carefully looking the other way. This is something they really, really don’t need.


  8. It appears to me that the abortion issue ties in with the blasphemy issue quite directly, if only the illiberal leftists would bother to think about it. Both are issues that show how dangerous a religiously-minded and church- backed government is, for men AND women. No need to fight for one instead of the other, this is clearly a two birds/one stone situation.

  9. I read the other day – and I’m sorry, but I’ve already forgotten where I saw it – that the only reason the Irish blasphemy law was not already repealed is that constitutionally there would have to have been a referendum, and that would have cost a lot of money that the government did not want to spend at the time. So the law was deliberately couched in terms that make it unenforceable.

      1. That is dishonest and equivalent to ‘quoting out of context’. (I mean the OIC, not Grania’s comment!)

        I suppose next they’ll be saying ‘New Zealand refuses to repeal blasphemy law’ when in fact what Bill English* said was he couldn’t see any great urgency and we’ll get around to it. (In fact most politicians and the Anglican archbisop didn’t know it existed).

        (*our PM – a Catholic though nobody here takes much notice of that, in fact I had to Google to confirm that)


  10. As I said to Jerry when yesterday I emailed him the article confirming that the charge was being dropped, I was actually hoping the case would go forward as charging someone as wildly popular and outrageously witty as Fry would have been a boon to those who oppose these oppressive laws and ways of thinking.

    Still, a good outcome is a good outcome.

    1. I have to confess that I’ve winced every time somebody said they’ve wished a trial would happen. Fry may be famous, but he’s also a normal human being. And generally normal human beings don’t enjoy being the target of a criminal prosecution. I wouldn’t wish that stress and waste of time on anyone.

      1. Oh, I think Fry would relish the opportunity to rip apart the law in public and become the face of free speech in Ireland, *especially* against religion. I just think he’s that kind of guy.

  11. Given the rather unconcerned response of the (anonymous) person who made the original complaint, I suspect s/he was an atheist who had done so precisely to make the law look like what it is — stupid and untenable. It’s worked!

      1. “False flagging”.
        I have a vague memory the Jules Caesar had an encounter with pirates in his youth which he resolved with false flagging. And slaughter – this being Jules. If I dug further, I could probably dig up another example from the Greek mythology. Not the Egyptians – they were too careful of their PR position.

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