Ireland’s blasphemy law rescinded

January 4, 2020 • 11:00 am

There is no rational excuse to have blasphemy laws on the books anywhere, yet, as I wrote in my Jesus and Mo foreword, they’re prevalent:

69 of the world’s 195 countries have laws on the books against [blasphemy], though in places the laws are vestigial and unenforced relics of an earlier time. But you can still be fined for criticizing religion in Italy, Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, and the Philippines, jailed in Germany, Poland, El Salvador, India, Finland, Ireland, India, Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria, and put to death in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.  That doesn’t count places where sharia courts can pronounce death sentences not enshrined in civil law, nor acts of murder committed by offended believers in countries like the Netherlands.

One of the most notorious blasphemy laws was in Ireland, as it was enacted in a Western country and was clearly on the books to protect the Catholic Church from being criticized. Grania used to complain about it at length, and I’m very sad she’s not here to celebrate the overturning of that law. Further, unlike “vestigial” blasphemy laws that are on the books but not enforced, Ireland’s was enforced, at least nominally. In 2017 I reported on how author and polymath Stephen Fry was investigated by the Irish police for simply criticizing religion in general (see the “incriminating” video here). The investigation was dropped, but only on the grounds that no identifiable party had complained.

At the time blasphemy was still a crime; as I wrote then:

Blasphemy [as the criticism of religion] is a crime in Ireland; the Constitution of 1937 (see here) says the following:


6. 1° The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality:  i. The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State. The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

Wikipedia has a good article on the blasphemy law, its history, and its implementation in Ireland. The upshot is that it’s been contested, especially by the organization Atheist Ireland, and a referendum on the issue of blasphemy was proposed in 2014 but has yet to take place. No offenses have been prosecuted since 2009, but the law remains on the books.

The promised referendum was finally held in 2018, and voters rejected the law by a vote of 65% to 35%.  Atheist Ireland (of which Grania was once secretary) has an article on the repeal. (Click on screenshot. On the left is Michael Nugent, head of AI clad in his trademarked red polo shirt, but I’m not sure who the others are, though readers will certainly identify them for us.) Atheist Ireland was the most vociferous organization urging repeal of the bill, and its repeal took effect on January 1. They’re a happy group, and I congratulate them.

Here’s the organization’s summary of what was achieved:

The Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Act does three things:

  • For the avoidance of doubt, it declares that the common law offence of blasphemy is abolished.
  • It repeals Sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009, which described what the offence of blasphemy consisted of.
  • It amends the Censorship of Films Act 1923, and the Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act 1925, to remove references to blasphemous matter.

So finally, after more than a decade of campaigning, we have removed the medieval crime of blasphemy from both our constitution and our statute laws. This means that:

  • Our laws can now protect people from harm, not protect ideas from criticism, and our media outlets no longer have to self censor themselves.
  • We are no longer breaching our international human rights obligations, as we have been told by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
  • States that execute people for blasphemy can no longer cite the Irish law at the United Nations, to justify their repression of religious minorities.

Ireland was once a Catholic country. Today it is a pluralist country, which still has Catholic laws that we are gradually changing. Thank you to everybody who is helping to make this happen.

Here are the two articles which were just repealed: 36 and 37; note the emphasis on religion:

Hate speech is apparently still illegal in Ireland, but not “hate speech” that mocks religion. Note that “blasphemy” is defined as speech that is “grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by any religion”, and so for a long time religion was singled out: one feature of a religious country. But The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989 remains on the books, prohibiting speech that stirs up hatred against “a group of persons in the State or elsewhere on account of their race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community [the Roma] or sexual orientation.” (I’m not sure if the “religion” bit remains in there, but it’s superceded by the new repeal of the blaphemy law.) As of 2017, there had been five convictions for violating this Act.

Although this is a bit off topic, my own view is that there should be no laws prohibiting hate speech, save those adhering to the U.S. courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment that such speech can be illegal if it intends to and is likely to incite immediate violence. Hate speech laws are widespread, but not useful in an enlightened society since they are subject to a third party’s interpretation of what is considered “hateful”. For example, Holocaust denialism is illegal in 16 European countries as well as Israel, but I think it’s quite useful to have a public airing of arguments for and against the Holocaust—if for no other reason than that all of us should know that evidence to best defend the truth. And this needs to be done constantly, for each generation needs to learn the facts anew.

Hate crimes are something I’m still pondering, as I can see arguments on both sides about whether you should get an extra penalty for committing a crime motivated by hatred of a group rather than just a person. If you have views on that, please set them out in the comments.

45 thoughts on “Ireland’s blasphemy law rescinded

  1. Slightly off-topic, but Northern Ireland is about to lose its prohibitions on abortion and same-sex/equal marriage in the coming months. Progress at last on the island of Ireland, and perhaps oddly it has been the Republic that has been in the forefront.

  2. Congratulations to Michael Nugent and Atheist Ireland! Unlike the ridiculous online atheist keyboard warriors who attack him, he and his organization get out and get things done.

    1. Wait. “Atheist keyboard warriors” attack him? Why? Besides a regrettable choice in attire, he seems an awful nice guy; I took a look at AI’s web site – really impressive and Kudos to them! I think I can guess who one of those atheists is, but….why?

      1. “Besides a regrettable choice in attire . . . .”

        Just congenially curious: suppose he were to wear, e.g., western boots. Would that be a regrettable choice?

        1. Hmmmm. I dunno. Western boots (I presume you mean what we used to call “cowboy boots”) are the kind of accouterments that not everyone can can pull off. For sure as a boot wearer he’d be more Yosemite Sam than Suzie Q (Apocalypse Now). For the latter I’d give two thumbs up on the boots, the former looks a bit comical, you know?

          (you know I was only ribbing with the regrettable comment, right?)

      2. I don’t want to give the person you’re no doubt thinking of the oxygen of attention he so desperately desires. If you Google Michael Nugent’s name along with that person’s and check out the articles on both Atheist Revolution and Michael’s blog, you’ll have more stories of sordid behavior than you’ll probably want.

        1. Yeah, I’m not going to do the googles on this – there be dragons. I get the gist of it from Michael and Jeremy below. Sorry for the derail and thanks for the info.

      3. PZ Myers alleged this behaviour of Mick Nugent: “defending & providing a haven for harassers, misogynists, and rapists” [meaning Michael Shermer I suppose] – this was a few years’ back, but AFAIK it’s still bubbling away with other people being drawn in on one side or the other including some troll types & the AI org itself.

        I hope that’s fairly accurate. I have no opinion on the above as I can’t bear to visit FTB & I have no first-hand facts to go on.

        1. Nugent suggested that people shouldn’t be “outed” for committing serious crimes on blogs if the crimes haven’t been reported (presumably to the relevant LEO).

          He also robustly criticised PZ Myers confrontational blogging style.

          I don’t think I agree with Nugent on the former topic in every case, but his views on the latter topic definitely coincide with mine.

  3. Blasphemy laws are usually nothing more than religious hypocrisy. Blasphemy and tolerance just do not go together.

    If a crime is committed is the penalty worse if it is considered a hate crime? If so then the penalty was probably not strong enough to begin with.

    While we are all glad to hear religion is becoming less popular in the U.S. it is still very strong. The negative side that we overlook is what has happened to the religions in the U.S. over the past 40 years or more. They are becoming more evangelical and a good example of this is in the Presbyterian religion. In definition that means more extreme, more conviction and less tolerance. Fifty or more years ago when I was young there was no such thing as Evangelical Presbyterian. Today there are more than 600 churches and over 145,000 members. Other religions have gone the same way as members become alienated by liberalism in the old church.

  4. The Holocaust Denialism laws serve a purpose, but I wish they had found a different solution. I am no longer any kind of academic. But when I was, I assisted a very reputable scholar studying industrial developments in the 3rd Reich. Nobody doing real science is going to engage in actual denialism. But discussion about physical elements of the mechanisms of Holocaust can be a very sensitive subject. Like every other famous historical event, it develops a mythology about it. Denialism and Blasphemy laws can be used by people who are emotionally attached to the details of the mythology against people trying to do objective science.

    1. Seemingly related to your last sentence: in its reporting about the attack on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn (?) in the last week or so, the NY Times has focused on quoting inquiries the attacker made online on his smart phone. E.g., “Why did Hitler hate the Jews?”

      Is asking that question necessarily, inescapably prima facie evidence that someone is up to no good? That’s the perception, however subjective, I get from the Times.

      If one desires to learn about the Holocaust and antisemitism, it seems a reasonable question, no less so than asking why many if not most humans (including Christians) have mistreated (hated) Jews down through the centuries.

      1. When the machete attacker asked the question, I feel pretty confident that he was looking for confirmation of views that he already had, and an excuse for what he had decided to do.

        I think that sort of question, or at least addressing it, really needs to be part of any Shoah-related discourse. It is entirely possible to discuss something like the Nazi point of view or motivations without advocating for or excusing those beliefs. None of the actions taken by the Nazis (or American settlers) make sense without understanding their point of view.
        I really hate it when people strip such discussions of any nuance and go with “because they are the bad guys”. I am not arguing against the existence of evil, but I don’t think it is what motivates large groups of people, most of the time.

        I have some very specific views about why Jews were scapegoated and targeted in Western Europe in the early to mid 20th century. I have had the opportunity to discuss the subject at length with people who were enthusiastic Nazis at that time and place. That discussion would be a long one, and probably off topic here.

        1. In one of his old posts the Sensuous Curmudgeon recounts the old clever anecdote: “There’s an old story, set in various locales, about an elderly Jew who is walking along and is approached by a bigot (Czarist thug, Prussian soldier, Nazi officer, whatever). The bigot grabs the Jew, curses him, and demands: “Who is the cause of all our troubles?” The Jew — no fool — answers, “It’s the Jews, of course.” Then he adds, “And the bicycle riders.” The puzzled bigot asks, “Why the bicycle riders?” The old man shrugs: “Why the Jews?”

  5. There are several kinds of crime where punishment is less severe based on the motivation of the offender (e.g., crimes of passion, manslaughter “without malice aforethought”), but I can’t think of any where punishment is more severe based on the offender’s motivation. I’m open to being convinced by others such as Ken Kukec, who knows the law better than I do, but my gut instinct is to be opposed to the concept of greater punishment for “hate crimes.”

    1. … I can’t think of any where punishment is more severe based on the offender’s motivation.

      The closest analogy I can give you, Gary, would be to laws that aggravate penalties for offenders who prey upon vulnerable victims — children, the elderly, handicapped people, etc.

      There are numerous other laws that aggravate penalties based on the motive or mental state of the offender more generally — for example, white-collar crimes that are particularly sophisticated or involve “more than minimal planning,” and in the case of first-degree murder, where the crime was committed in a “cold, calculated, and premeditated” manner.

  6. For my part, I’m somewhat ambivalent about hate crime statutes. One the one hand, these laws seem like they are punishing thought and that is very dangerous path to go down. On the other hand, courts often take into account aggravating (or mitigating) factors in sentencing. For example, sometimes a violent crime committed against a child rightfully (IMO) results in a longer sentence than the same crime committed against an adult. Thus, hate crime statutes are another way to include aggravating factors in sentencing.

    I’m not really sure where I stand (or rather, sit) on this. I look forward to hearing from others.

  7. Re hate laws. There is no penalty for people hating people in group X as long as they do not act upon that hate. There is a penalty for assaulting some one, say two years in jail. If there is no penalty for hate, why should the penalty for assaulting a member of group X, which the assailant hates, be greater than for assaulting a member of group Y, which he does not? The only logic I can think of is that the hate law acts as a deterrent against people acting out their group hatreds above and beyond the deterrence of the assault itself. But, as in the case of the death penalty, is there any evidence of this additional deterrence effect?

  8. Repealing lines of the 1937 constitution after a mere 82 years is light-speed, as these things go. Most of the European blasphemy laws presumably go back centuries.
    One is struck, repeatedly, by the importance of sheer inertia in human affairs.

    Or in some of them. Certain proprieties in the behavior of the US President were observed by all office-holders for many years—until the present one just rubbished them. Now, the absence of those proprieties will be the new normal.

  9. A seemingly small victory, but much appreciated – and perhaps a stimulus to other countries in need of correction. Lift a glass. Here’s to Grania, and all the Granias who work on these issues for us.

  10. Re hate crimes: there was a recent case in London in which a lesbian couple were assaulted on a bus by teenagers. One of the attackers got an increased sentence because of the “hate” aspect of the crime. He was also told that he would have to undergo diversity training.

    I’m not entirely sure what I think about this. It was clearly a horrendous and unprovoked attack. Does the homophobic aspect make matters worse than if it were a random assault? Would a general anger management course be most effective? Or is focusing on the specific motivation behind the assault and addressing that more likely to have a positive outcome? I’m afraid that I have no answers, only questions.

    1. On reflection, motive matters. If the Nazis had simply killed 6 million random citizens, everyone would have been afraid, and no one outside of the instigators could have been complicit. But if the victims knew that they were part of targeted groups, surely their fear would be enhanced? And the ability of those outside the targeted groups to assist in the crime would also be increased.

      Suppose someone suffers an horrific assault. Afterwards, knowing that your assailant(s) chose you at random and that you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time might be comforting. Knowing that they had deliberately attacked you for some aspect of who you are – and that others with a similar mindset might do so again – would provide no such comfort.

      1. Exactly, I think that a ‘hate-crime’ is worse for precisely that reason. If common, it can terrorize a whole group, much more than a simple ‘random’ attack would.
        Stronger, I suspect terrorizing the group in question might be one of the motives for the crime.

  11. The investigation [of Stephen Fry for “blasphemy”] was dropped, but only on the grounds that no identifiable party had complained.

    Christ Almighty! If there was no complainant, what business did the Irish authorities have in opening an investigation in the first place?

  12. … membership of the travelling community [the Roma] …

    My understanding is that the so-called “Travellers” includes not just the Roma but an itinerant group indigenous to Ireland — the “Pikeys” as they are known derisively, at least according to my main source of information on the topic, Guy Ritchie’s early film Snatch:

    1. Pikey is a general racist slur used against traveller communities regardless of their Irish (or Romany) origins: For some inexplicable reason, they don’t like being called it, possibly they perceive it as being equivalent to the use of the “n-word”. Guy Ritchie really should have known better.

      1. Dunno if Mr. Ritchie knew better or not. The use of the term “Pikey” may have been an artistic decision, an effort accurately to depict the language used by the demimonde he was writing about (just as one would expect to encounter the n-word in a US movie about the Jim Crow south).

        1. Me Mam [Co. Mayo] & her family referred to Irish travellers, inc. Romani, as “the tinkers”, with a sneer in her voice & I believe it’s the same term in the Highlands too. The word comes from 13th century “tyckner” or “tinkler” for metalworker as many on the road would fix pots & pans [anything to do with tin, rivets & solder] & sharpen metal blades of scissors, knives & scythes. At some point in the past “tinker” became a negative.

          1. Is that what the excellent character actress Sorcha Cusack (who plays Brad Pitt’s “mam”) is referencing when (at the 1:20 mark in the clip above) she asks of the bloke who’s staying to keep an eye that their car isn’t stolen, “What does he think we are, Ts?” (Or at least that’s what I think she’s saying; for Yank ears, the whole scene could do with subtitles. 🙂 )

          2. Bleedin Oirish Cusacks everywhere on the stage – worse than the mounted Slavic branch from the east.

          3. Yes, but apparently no relation to the western (viz., US) silver-screen Cusack clan — John, Joan, and Ann.

  13. I’m happy for Ireland!

    Hate speech laws are widespread, but not useful in an enlightened society since they are subject to a third party’s interpretation of what is considered “hateful”.

    They are widespread since they accord with UHDR and people dislike the practice. If they are useful remains to be seen.

    The argument proposed here is not true when it comes to jurisprudence, it is the courts that decide. And outside of jurisprudence it can be said of any law, so that doesn’t pass the smell test:

    “Murder laws are widespread, but not useful in an enlightened society since they are subject to a third party’s interpretation of what is considered “murder”.”

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