Should there be an offence of blasphemy (again)?

This from Law and Religion UK website

A new blasphemy law?

The issue of blasphemy came up at a conference in London on Wednesday on “Terrorism and Extremism – how should British Muslims respond?” under the auspices of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. during which concern was expressed that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has no power to pursue complaints of discrimination against groups of people, such as Muslims, if no individual is specified in an offending article.

Al Arabiya News carried a brief report of the conference on Friday in which it quoted Keith Vaz, Chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, to the effect that he would have “no problem” with a new blasphemy law provided it applied to all religions. David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said that some mainstream media had been “grossly irresponsible” in their coverage of Muslim issues and it was something that the IPSO ought to think about. However, though he would not object to a public debate about blasphemy, he had his doubts:

Should there be an offence of blasphemy  (again)?

A little bit of history. There was a time when, in the Christian world, blasphemy was a punishable by death. The last person so killed in Britain was Thomas Aikenhead (March 1676 – 8th January 1697). He was a Scottish student from Edinburgh who was prosecuted and executed at the age of 20 on a charge of blasphemy. The last person in Britain to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott on 9 December 1921. He was sentenced to nine months of hard labour despite suffering from an incurable illness, and died shortly after he was released. The case became the subject of public outrage.  It took a while for this outrage to be translated into legislative action however. The common-law  offence of blasphemy was repealed with effect  from  8th July 2008.

Let’s start with a definition of blasphemy. My Concise Oxford just says “talk impiously, utter profanity about, revile”  (revile is defined as  “Call by ill names, abuse, rail at, talk abusively”).

Encarta Dictionary (via MS Word) is more specific (perhaps because it is American).

1. Disrespect for religion

Disrespect for God or sacred things.

2. Something showing disrespect for religion

something done or said that shows disrespect for God or sacred things.

So some or all of the above if demonstrated would, I suppose,  be a criminal offence.

The Encarta definition might be a problem for Moslems since they are clearly very sensitive to adverse comment or depiction  of the Prophet – and he is/was not a God… in fact it would be blasphemous to say he was. Perhaps “sacred things” would cover this. I suppose in the traditional English way we would have to rely not on definitions but on case law.

If  write this :-

I do not believe that anything that might be described as a God exists in the universe.

Would I have committed a criminal act?

How about:-

“All Gods are creations of the human imagination” .

or how about:-

“In the twenty first century, belief in God or Gods as actual entities by educated adults is truly pitiful.

Now I may be wrong in every one of these opinions (and they are just opinions) but is religion now so desperately fragile that it cannot tolerate such opinions being expressed?

Since I believe all the above then, in my world-view, I cannot be disrespectful of  a thing or things which do not exist.  I do risk  annoying, even upsetting a highly sensitive believer. I suppose I could be accused of disrespecting that person’s beliefs but surely not disrespecting  God. But I disrespect many beliefs held by people…  astrology, homeopathy, fairies, ghosts, faith healing, parapsychology …  and many more. Why should all these not have redress in law if the religious are granted it?

Now there are those who believe in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. If I were to say I don’t believe there is a Loch Ness Monster they have a right to contradict me  and give their reasons for so believing.  I do not think it would be right for them to call the police.

What we are really dealing with is a wish by those who believe in God or Gods not to be contradicted.  In a theocracy, blasphemy is viewed as a very serious crime because it challenges the basis of theocratic state – the very basis of law and order. I hope we do not and never will live in a theocracy.

Half the UK population now claims not to be religious. Has anyone considered the amount of work a blasphemy law would cause the judicial system?

I once heard an old Jewish man say sadly…” If God came into the World, the people would break his windows”. I believe that he had every right to say that without being hauled before the courts.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams has recently written on this subject with uncharacteristic clarity. He comes to the conclusion that blasphemy should not be reintroduced as a criminal offence. It is good to be able to agree with Dr. Williams even if I arrive at the same view by a different line of reasoning.

Alan Rogers

November 2015


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