Every blogger in the religion / agnosticism / atheism blogosphere will be commenting on the offensive new law banning blasphemy in Ireland, but I can't help myself, I have to add my voice to the chorus. We might expect this sort of thing from the Muslim world, which is trying to make it a crime worldwide to criticize Islam, even in the United States. But Ireland?
Isn't Ireland known as a the land of freedom fighters? Hasn't Ireland already seen enough death and destruction related to religious intolerance? Isn't Ireland a democracy?
Most bloggers are focusing on the censorship aspect of this law, the blatant and offensive violation of free speech. But there is a more subtle, and in some ways more damaging, side effect of stupid laws like these. Laws like this threaten democracy itself.
There are two principles, well known to legal scholars, that the Irish are violating.
First of all, laws must be clear. "Thou shalt not steal" is a great law, because in almost all cases, we know the difference between what belongs to us and what doesn't. When we break this law, we know we're breaking the law. On the other hand, "Thou shalt not view pornography" has turned out to be a horrible law, because nobody knows what pornography is. Even a Supreme Court Justice of the United States once famously said, "I know it when I see it." If a Supreme Court Justice can't draw a clear line between what's legal and what's not, how is the average citizen supposed to obey the law?
A blasphemy law fails this principle abysmally. Nobody knows what's legal and what's not. The Irish tried to inject words like "reasonable" into the law, which only muddies things further. Is Jerry Falwell "reasonable"? Many people thinks so, I don't. My book, for example, will almost certainly be considered blasphemous by many, yet many consider it important literature in the religion debate.
The second principle that the Irish law violates is best described by the quip, "Better to set ten guilty men free than to convict on innocent man." Most people think this is about the tragedy of sending an innocent man to prison, but it isn't. Tragic though it may be to jail a good citizen, the real tragedy is much worse: If innocent men and women are sent to prison, then there's no reason to obey the law in the first place. "What the hell," they might say, "I'm going to jail either way, why not just do what I want?"
Government can only exist when people give up certain freedoms. Laws are only enforceable when enough people agree with the laws. That willingness evaporates like vodka on hot pavement when innocent people find themselves in jail.
These two principles form a terrible synergy in the Irish blasphemy law: Nobody knows what's legal and what's not, and honest people who sincerely believe they're on the right side of the law will find themselves convicted.
I hope the Irish Parliament, which should be one of the shining beacons of democracy and free speech in the world, abandons this terrible law.