Along with the Presidential Election this coming Friday, voters in Ireland will also be asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment. This has been generally referred to as the ‘Blasphemy Referendum’, as the proposal is to remove the word blasphemy from Article 40.6.1 of the constitution. But what implications does this actually have?
Let’s look first at the actual article (my emphasis):
- The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality: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.
Should the referendum be passed, the final sentence in this section will be changed by the removal of the word. Note that it is only the word that would be removed, not the article itself. But what does blasphemy actually mean?
There was no legal definition of blasphemy in Ireland, despite the word being part of the constitution, until the Defamation Act 2009 was introduced. This Act states that a person publishes or utters something blasphemous if they
- publish or say something that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and
- intend to cause that outrage.
If we go deeper, then we have to look at the meanings of outrage and religion. Firstly, what is outrage? Profound indignation, or offence. And again, what does it mean to be offended? Stephen Fry commented on the meaninglessness of that a number of years ago, before he was investigated under this very Act, for comments make in an interview on Irish television in which he described god as “capricious, mean-minded, [and] stupid”. This case went nowhere. Somebody was ‘outraged’, but I suppose not enough people were similarly indignant to meet the quota of the ‘substantial number’ required by the Act.
And then, how do we define religion? Belief in a deity? Ok, if so, does the Church of Maradona fall under that category? What about Dudeism? Not that I ever would, but if I were to speak ill of either Maradona or The Big Lebowski, am I being blasphemous? What about Neil Gaiman, who portrays Thor as a lumbering oaf in The Sandman? Is he being blasphemous?
And wait, what about Scientologists? They are considered a religion. Do they have a central deity? As far as I know, it’s some kind of pyramid scheme involving a daft story about aliens and magical particles. A bit like the Star Wars prequels I suppose. Speaking of which, some people consider Jedi a religion. Is it blasphemous to say that Yoda is irritating?
One more, what about Hinduism? Isn’t the cow considered sacred in their religion? So is everyone who eats beef or dairy being blasphemous? I don’t, but I live in a society where this is completely normalised. I want this to change, but for ethical and environmental reasons, not religious.
In any case, I’m going to go with my definition of religion: fairy tails believed to be true by those with a tenuous grasp on reality. Some go further and affirm that religion is a mental illness, though I don’t think it has been, thus far, recognised as such by psychiatrists.
Whatever way we look at it, I don’t see how this can have legal status. Concerns have been raised about how this change will affect our core values and beliefs. However, I would argue that this change specifically refers to religious values, rather than one’s own ethics, philosophy, political persuasion, or spirituality. In case anyone is wondering, I consider religion and spirituality to be entirely different things. That is a whole other topic, however, so I’ll stick to the referendum for now.
For another view on this topic, I highly recommend this piece by one of my esteemed fellow bloggers. Whatever you do, as with any decision, go to the polling both informed about what you are voting on. Too many times people make decisions based on soundbites. I always think of the vote a few years ago, known in the media, and to most, as the ‘Judges’ Pay Referendum’, whereby protection of judges salaries was to be removed from the constitution. What was not publicised however, was the fact that most judges had volunteered to take a salary cut in the wake of the economic crash. The financial crisis was used as an excuse to give the legislature a measure of control over the judiciary, which I thought was a terrible idea. But, the referendum was passed by an overwhelming majority. The second highest margin in history in fact, only bettered by the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement. Irish begrudgery took precedence over actual consideration of the proposed amendment.
So, get informed before making up your mind. I’ve done a lot of reading over the last couple of weeks, and will be voting Yes, so that everyone will be free to wear their favourite Cradle of Filth t-shirts once again.