Richard Dawkins: ‘I’d vol­un­teer for a test case on Ireland’s blas­phemy law’

He wants our blas­phemy law – and the Dáil prayer – abol­ished, and sees the in­doc­tri­na­tion of chil­dren with Catholic be­liefs as ‘wicked’. But he’d love an Ir­ish pass­port

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Jen­nifer O’Con­nell Tick­ets are now on sale for Richard Dawkins at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall on Mon­day, June 12th, at 7.30pm

R

ichard Dawkins, the evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist and au­thor, says he would be will­ing to make him­self a test case, to chal­lenge the law on blas­phemy, when he comes to Ireland for a pub­lic in­ter­view at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall next month.

In a let­ter pub­lished in The Ir­ish Times on Wed­nes­day, Dawkins ex­pressed sol­i­dar­ity with Stephen Fry, who was re­cently in­ves­ti­gated on a charge of blas­phemy. The Garda Síochána re­port­edly de­cided not to pro­ceed with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into com­ments Fry made dur­ing a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view with Gay Byrne in Fe­bru­ary 2015, as not enough peo­ple had been of­fended by the re­marks.

Dawkins says he is dis­ap­pointed that an op­por­tu­nity to chal­lenge the law en­shrined in the 2009 Defama­tion Act was lost, which is why “my of­fer­ing my­self to be ar­rested was a bit of hu­mor­ous turn­ing up the pres­sure”.

In his let­ter Dawkins quoted a de­scrip­tion from his 2006 book, The God Delu­sion, of the Old Tes­ta­ment God as “jeal­ous and proud of it; a petty, un­just, un­for­giv­ing con­trol freak; a vin­dic­tive, blood­thirsty eth­nic cleanser; a misog­y­nis­tic, ho­mo­pho­bic, racist, in­fan­ti­ci­dal, geno­ci­dal, fil­i­ci­dal, pesti­len­tial, mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal, sado­masochis­tic, capri­ciously malev­o­lent bully”.

If asked about it on stage at the NCH, he says, he will stand by this view – which re­mains “ex­actly as I char­ac­terise it in my let­ter” – even if it means risk­ing ar­rest on blas­phemy charges.

But he’d rather not. “I’m not ex­actly bend­ing over back­wards to make my­self a test case. I was ac­tu­ally rather hop­ing Stephen Fry would make him­self a test case,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind in a way – ex­cept that I can’t stand lawyers, and I wouldn’t like to have to go through the busi­ness of em­ploy­ing lawyers.”

But he be­lieves that the is­sue shouldn’t need a test case. “In­formed opin­ion in Ireland is ob­vi­ously al­most unan­i­mously against the blas­phemy law. It is clearly an anom­aly that needs to be changed, and the sooner the bet­ter.

“I get the im­pres­sion that the en­tire law is very em­bar­rass­ing to the Ir­ish Gov­ern­ment, and prob­a­bly most of the Ir­ish peo­ple, and it needs to be brought out into the open so that the Dáil will take a de­ci­sion to re­peal it.

“I wanted to in­crease the pres­sure to re­peal this law – partly be­cause the ex­is­tence of a blas­phemy law in a civilised western coun­try like Ireland is taken as an en­cour­ag­ing prece­dent by some of those coun­tries in the Mid­dle East and Africa, where they have a blas­phemy law and it re­ally is en­forced.

“They use the Ir­ish law as a prece­dent and say, ‘Look, you western­ers have a law like this, and why shouldn’t we?’ And although the Ir­ish never en­force it, those peo­ple do en­force theirs, and chop peo­ple’s heads off.”

Ireland is not unique in Europe in hav­ing a blas­phemy law. Italy, Poland, Aus­tria and Turkey, among oth­ers, also have them. This week the cov­er­age of Fry’s case alerted leg­is­la­tors in New Zealand to the ex­is­tence of their own “blas­phemy” law, which the gov­ern­ment has pledged to abol­ish.

In Greece a five-year le­gal bat­tle against a satir­i­cal blog­ger, Filip­pos Loizos, ended re­cently with the nul­li­fi­ca­tion of a 10-month sus­pended prison sen­tence. His crime? Ma­li­cious blas­phemy and of­fence against re­li­gion, for, among other things, mock­ing up a pic­ture of a Greek Or­tho­dox pa­tri­arch as a pasta dish.

In Rus­sia blas­phemy laws were no­to­ri­ously used to sen­tence the band Pussy Riot to hard labour, af­ter they per­formed in a Rus­sian Or­tho­dox cathe­dral. And ear­lier this year Den­mark ini­ti­ated its first pros­e­cu­tion in 46 years un­der its blas­phemy laws, over a video of a man burn­ing a copy of the Ko­ran.

“I’m not sure it’s part of a wor­ry­ing re­ac­tionary trend,” Dawkins says. “I un­der­stand the his­tory of [the Ir­ish blas­phemy law] is sur­pris­ingly re­cent. So it’s not an an­cient law that they hadn’t got around to get­ting rid of.”

Den­mark is “a dis­grace as well, of course”, but “it hap­pened that the Ir­ish one was in the news be­cause of Stephen Fry, and also it hap­pened be­cause I’m giv­ing a lec­ture at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall soon to pro­mote my lat­est book, Sci­ence of the Soul, so although the book has noth­ing to do with it, I thought it was quite a good joke to in­vite the po­lice to ar­rest me when I give my lec­ture in Dublin.”

Dawkins be­lieves the re­ported grounds for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion against Fry be­ing dropped were ter­ri­ble.

“It sug­gests that of­fend­ing large num­bers of peo­ple is a good rea­son to pros­e­cute. It might whip up peo­ple up to say, okay, let’s get re­ally of­fended next time. And that’s a ter­ri­ble rea­son to pros­e­cute some­one, be­cause they of­fend some in­di­vid­u­als.”

Free­dom of speech

He is con­fi­dent that the Ir­ish peo­ple would vote to over­turn the law were there a ref­er­en­dum on blas­phemy. “It’s one thing to be re­li­gious; it’s quite another to sup­press free­dom of speech in the in­ter­ests of your re­li­gion. It’s a very dif­fer­ent thing.”

He also be­lieves that “Ir­ish peo­ple are very dis­il­lu­sioned with the Catholic Church be­cause of the child-abuse scan­dals”, and he cites the short­age of priests com­ing into the church.

All the same, he was ap­palled to read this week about a ma­jor­ity of TDs vot­ing to de­feat three sep­a­rate mo­tions to abol­ish the tra­di­tion of a daily prayer be­fore the Dáil sits. “Why not have a prayer to Apollo and Thor? Pray to the fairies? Pray to Zeus?”

He is also alarmed by what he sees as the in­doc­tri­na­tion of chil­dren into re­li­gion in the 90 per cent of pri­mary schools run by the Catholic Church.

La­belling chil­dren ac­cord­ing to their par­ents’ re­li­gion is as in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to him “as la­belling chil­dren ac­cord­ing to their par­ents’ philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tion, or their par­ents’ eco­nomic po­si­tion. You wouldn’t dream of talk­ing about a Key­ne­sian child or an ex­is­ten­tial­ist child. Re­li­gion is the one place where we make that ex­cep­tion, and there’s no good rea­son for it.

“The in­doc­tri­na­tion of chil­dren with Catholic be­liefs can be ex­tremely wicked, be­cause if they’re taught about hell, for ex­am­ple, it can be a very un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence for them, and even abu­sive. When a grand­par­ent dies who isn’t a Catholic or isn’t re­li­gious, and they be­lieve the grand­par­ent is in hell, it’s a very dis­tress­ing thing for a child to have foisted on them.”

He de­scribes anec­dotes about the ma­te­ri­al­ism sur­round­ing First Com­mu­nion cel­e­bra­tions as vile.

De­spite all of this, he says, his af­fec­tion for Ireland re­mains undimmed – in fact, he would love Ir­ish cit­i­zen­ship. “I love Ireland. If you can get me Ir­ish cit­i­zen­ship I would love that. I’m so ut­terly fed up with Brexit, I’m des­per­ate to get Ir­ish cit­i­zen­ship.”

The ex­is­tence of a blas­phemy law in a civilised western coun­try is taken as an en­cour­ag­ing prece­dent by coun­tries in the Mid­dle East and Africa

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: DON ARNOLD/GETTY AND (STEPHEN FRY, RIGHT) JUSTIN TAL­LIS/AFP/GETTY

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