Atheists in Ireland?
DUBLIN — It turns out, Ireland has its atheists, and they are a wily, rambunctious bunch. In the past three days Irish atheists have become embroiled in a tussle with the Irish government, when the Justice Minister Dermot Ahern brought in a law (see article 36) banning blasphemy. The law took effect on January 1 2010, and the activist group Atheist Ireland immediately launched a campaign website, where they published 25 blasphemous quotes in defiance of the law.
You could almost see it as a modern-day, digital version of Martin Luther’s 95 theses (themselves a protest against the corrupt Catholic Church.)
The matter has already had vast coverage (including a short piece by me), and Atheist Ireland’s website crashed several times because of sheer demand. I met Michael Nugent, chairperson of the group and a fascinating character, earlier today when I attended the monthly meeting of the Humanist Association of Ireland, in Buswells Hotel in Dublin. Nugent is articulate and seems immensely knowledgeable on legal matters. In the face of government folly and insult flinging, he seems all the more quick-witted and bright.
In the London Times today the Department of Justice announced — not a little offensively — that Ahern did not “have the luxury of time to deal with some crackpot sitting in an attic somewhere sending around quotes that are intended to be blasphemous.”
According to Nugent, the Department of Justice has let it be known that there is no chance someone could be prosecuted under the blasphemy legislation.
“They’re not taking seriously the act of enacting legislation,” Nugent suggested, when I spoke to him.
If this is true, Ahern’s apparent lack of respect for the judicial system is even more shocking than his decision to enact the law. If he really thinks his amendments are too trivial to land anyone in court, then why on earth did he bring them in? It’s enormously short-sighted too. Once the legislation’s in place, we don’t know how the judges in future generations will interpret it.
Here’s what the law says: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding 25,000 euro.”
The legislation continues, in a statement I barely understand, but which I think puts artistic freedom in jeopardy and looks back to myopic mid-twentieth century censorship: “It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.”
And it adds some intriguing remarks Nugent says are meant to refer to Scientology:
“In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—
(a) the principal object of which is the making of profit, or
(b) that employs oppressive psychological manipulation—
(i) of its followers, or
(ii) for the purpose of gaining new followers.”
It’s getting late in the evening now, but I want to give you just two other snippets before I leave off this subject.
1) Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association next want to delete from Irish legislation the need for the President, and for judges, to swear an oath asking God for help. “So up to a quarter of a million Irish people [ie. the atheists] cannot hold these offices without swearing a lie,” they argue.
2) ) Nugent & friends have set up a Church of Dermotology — worshipping Dermot Ahern — on Facebook. I believe they may take legal action if someone blasphemes it.
Religious debates and scandals in Ireland are a simmering, potent brew right now. Watch this space — more fireworks are sure to come.