Blasphemy and ‘you can’t say that!’

Blasphemy and ‘you can’t say that!’ Natasha Ednan-Laperouse

I sense that there is rather more interest in electing (or re-electing) the President of Ireland on October 26 than there is in voting to repeal the single line in the Constitution which deals with blasphemy.

This article (40.6.1.i) states that: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

As far as I can judge, this is more symbolic than operational: when Stephen Fry deliberately uttered blasphemies and invited prosecution by the Irish state, no such prosecution took place.

Nonetheless, Atheist Ireland wants blasphemy out of the Constitution, and since even religious people don’t seem to feel that strongly about it, it seems likely to be abolished.

Michael Nugent, of Atheist Ireland, cited the entitlement to freedom of speech, and the separation of Church and State, as reasons for expunging blasphemy from law and Constitution.


On the separation of Church and State, that is already a reality. And lest we forget, the idea comes from the founder of Christianity: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”

Many commentators, however, don’t quite grasp the difference between “separation of Church and State” with “separation of Faith and State”, or more complicated still, “separation of values and State”. There are no clerics in Ireland’s legislature – as there are Bishops in the House of Lords in the UK – but it is evident that the values of the people have historically aligned with those of Catholic Christianity. Even in a changed Ireland, the deposit of this remains.


But looking at the bigger picture, what’s striking about demands for free speech is how much free speech is now curtailed under the protocols of contemporary taboos. There is a lot of what “you cannot say” in the public (or even the private) realm today.

Some of the things “you can’t say” are surely in accordance with respect and good manners. You cannot utter words that are racist, homophobic, sexist or prejudiced against disabled people: these things are all now considered unacceptable. If you hold any such views you are likely to lose your job. If an Editor publishes opinions deemed unacceptable he too is liable to be fired.

This very event has just occurred in liberal New York, where the Editor of the prestigious New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, has been sacked because he published a first-person article by Jian Ghomeshi on how he, in turn, lost his job, pension, reputation and money after being accused (but legally exonerated) of sexual misconduct.

This is the modern version of blasphemy law, and it is punished rather more severely than being “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, (being the legal definition of blasphemy).

‘Offensive’ speech, or suggestions, can destroy an individual. Earlier this week, Prof. Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University was suspended by CERN, the European nuclear agency, for saying that “physics was invented by men”, and that the notion of equality between men and women in the hard sciences like physics and chemistry was just “an ideology”.

Believe me, he’ll never work in any respected institution again: he has blasphemed.

Interestingly, there was little enquiry as to whether there was any evidence for his assertion that most women aren’t into particle physics. But evidence doesn’t matter. What matters is the ‘offensiveness’ of what he said.

Let people campaign to remove blasphemy from the Constitution if they choose. But please, drop the hypocrisy about freedom of speech. There are very many restraints on free expression, and blasphemy, in western societies, is the least of them.


A tragedy but we must consider our resistance

It was dreadfully sad to read of the death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died on a flight between Stanstead and Nice after a fatal allergic reaction to a baguette sandwich containing sesame seeds. The food supplier, Pret-a-Manager, has been charged with not labelling their products with sufficient information, and a ‘Natasha’s Law’ is planned to enforce such labelling in Britain.

It is worrying to note that there has been such a dramatic increase in allergies in recent years. One British food scientist has claimed that allergies have increased four-fold in the past couple of decades. And why?

One theory is that babies today don’t encounter enough microbes so they don’t build up resistance. People are too clean, too hygienic. So it turns out that the old Cockney saying “every child needs his peck of dirt” contained some truth…