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Entry 1477, on 2012-12-14 at 12:33:12 (Rating 4, Religion)
I recently listened to a podcast where the the co-founder of "Atheist Ireland" was interviewed. Ireland is a modern western country but, as we all know, it has had a long tradition of problems with religion. Ironically all the "troubles" have been caused by conflict between one sect of the religion based on the teaching of the so-called "Prince of Peace" against another sect of that same religion. I know there is a strong political element to this conflict as well, but it really doesn't lend a lot of credibility to either the Protestants or the Catholics.
Bizarrely (and I really need to check my calendar when I hear this to see if it is 2012 or 1012!) Ireland recently introduced a new blasphemy law. The new law defined blasphemy more precisely than the existing one (presumably when that was introduced it was just assumed that everyone would know what blasphemy was). The new definition is something like this: "it is an offence to publish or utter material grossly offensive or abusive in relation to matters held sacred to any religion, causing outrage."
There are at least two problems with this. First, it is still rather vague and subjective because know one knows what the standard is for something to be "grossly offensive", for example. And second, it incentivises outrage. If a religious person objected to a statement by another person all they have to do is feign outrage and instantly the problem is passed on to the person who made the statement rather than the person who didn't like it.
If anyone makes a statement which I find outrageous - and I often do hear this sort of thing from far right nut jobs who genuinely make statements offensive in both their bigotry and their lack of truth and intelligence - I don't instantly think I should be able to persecute that person using some arcane law. I ridicule the person making it by showing how wrong they are. Surely that approach is far more effective!
But there's a problem in this approach for the religious people. In my case I am right and the nut job is wrong, but in the case of blasphemy the person making the "offensive" statement is usually right and there is no defence against it. So why do the Irish need a law to protect those who are wrong? Presumably this has occurred through pressure from the church or because the law-makers themselves are religious.
And for those more conservative people who might try to defend these laws think about this: perfectly reasonable criticism of religion causes gross over-reaction in less morally developed Islamic countries. Need I mention the violence (both real and threatened) as a result of the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons or Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses"?
I believe that more reasonable nations (and Ireland should be in this category) should be setting an example in this regard. Free speech should be protected and that should act as a force reducing similar laws in more extreme countries and might stop attempts at having religiously motivated laws being introduced through the UN as is currently happening.
I'm not saying that people should be free to say anything. It shouldn't be possible, for example, to use free speech to incite violence against your opponents. But which side in this controversy does that? Is it the blasphemers? No, in fact it is the people who are allegedly insulted who really need to have their hate speech curtailed.
To give an example of how utterly absurd the whole notion of blasphemy is I will quote a case from India where a free speech campaigner (actually the chairman of the Indian Rationalist Association) explained a mysterious "crying statue" near a church in India as capillary action from faulty plumbing from a nearby toilet. Wow, the symbolism there is almost too good to be true!
Needless to say the Catholic Church was outraged. But there are two possibilities here: either that explanation is true, or it isn't (and possibly a real supernatural event is responsible). Any reasonable person would have checked the explanation and found it true and said "oh yes, you're right, that was embarrassing" or found it untrue and said "see, the skeptics can't explain this truly amazing phenomenon".
But with blasphemy laws the truth is irrelevant. The church can make up a load of total nonsense and doesn't even need to defend it. They just persecute their critics instead. In this case the person involved was facing 3 years in prison and had to leave country after police tried to arrest him. Arrest him? For offering an explanation to a mystery? Really?
Of course the Catholic Church regularly criticises other superstitions, such as Islam, when they do the same sort of thing to defend their ignorant beliefs. But there's one thing that religion is supremely good at: hypocrisy!
But while religious extremism seems to be growing in some parts of the world the trend is more positive I believe. Religion is slowly dying. It would be unfortunate if it ever disappeared completely because it is a fascinating social phenomenon, but it needs to be kept in its place: away from any possibility of affecting decisions which should be made based on reality, and not fantasy.
A recent survey in Ireland found the following interesting statistics: in the last 20 years the number of non-religious people has grown by 400%, half of Roman Catholics don't believe in Hell, 15% of them don't think Jesus was the Son of God (isn't that sort of an important part of Catholicism?), and (this is just too good) 8% don't believe in God!
So even though the vast majority of people in Ireland still identify themselves as being religious I would contend that that is more a label of convenience and habit more than one of any real thought. How can you claim to be a Catholic yet reject the most fundamental tenets of the faith? It's just bizarre, but religion is always bizarre because the basic beliefs never make sense in the first place!
A final criticism answered in the interview was the one that atheism is sterile, devoid of feeling, and lacking in any meaning or wonderment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reality is so much better than fantasy. The truth of the universe is infinitely grander than any silly creation myth. The understanding of how the world really works and the questioning of all current understandings is a far greater thing than just simply accepting what a religious leader or an old book tells you to believe. Only someone who has freed themselves from religious dogma would understand this.
As the interviewee said: the idea that a god felt it necessary to tell one person in one tribe on one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in the whole universe that he shouldn't pick up sticks on a Sunday is just unbelievably bizarre!
Yes. As they say: blasphemy is a victimless crime.
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