Blasphemy laws; here and there.

Blasphemy laws; here and there.

The Irish public are voting in their referendum today as to whether they will jettison their ancient blasphemy law from their constitution. This is found in Article 40 which reads :-

“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

This situation did receive degree of  public attention when attempts were made to use the law  against Stephen Fry on 2017; following his making of blasphemous statement in a television interview.  His case was dropped and thrown out as have all other attempts to use the law in recent times. Indeed it is a largely recognised that this is an “obsolete law“, a view which is also held by the Irish Catholic Bishops conference who are, as a consequence, not opposing its abolition. It will be welcome to see the back of this anachronism, a relic from the days that every constitution used to include reference to God and Faith.

Blasphemy laws are simply an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. They do not protect people of any faith, they simply protect those with power. They are a sign of the wedding of state and church and a mechanism to bolster the influence of both of these institutions. They protect some from offense or distress by removing the rights of others to freedom of expression.

People with religious faith do not require blasphemy laws. It is in the nature of faith that it persists despite what others may say, it persists in the face of argument. It is this steadfastness which makes me admire so many of those people of faith, who have soldiered on against apparently insurmountable odds, because their faith directed them to do what they knew to be right. (Think of the Quakers’ opposition to wars or the Abolitionists in the struggle against slavery). Indeed blasphemy laws are largely a risk to people of faith in the many cases when their faith is not shared by the current state. This is the horrific situation in which Asia Bibi finds herself in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi had been out collecting berries with neighbours and had taken a drink of water from a well. She was told by her neighbours that, as a Christian, she was unclean and should have not used their cup. An argument followed and at both parties made disparaging remarks about the others faith. Asia was charged with blasphemy and imprisoned in 2009.  She has been kept in solitary confinement and subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death.  Seven years later she is still in prison and awaiting results of appeals to the Supreme Court to have her capital punishment decision overturned.

As a consequence of this blasphemy accusation her family have gone into hiding. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who looked into her case and stated that the death sentence should be suspended was assassinated as a consequence in 2011 as was Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minority Affairs Minister, a few months later as he too voiced his support for Asia against the blasphemy laws. Asia’s case has been used to whip up hatred against Christians in Pakistan and to help hard-line religious politicians in their search for support.

As we await the news from Ireland we should recall that Pakistan suggested, in 2009, to the United Nations that all its member states should adopt the very constitutional clause that Ireland is currently considering removing. We should also recall that there are still 71 countries which have blasphemy laws on their statute books. That is 71 countries which have laws which place people of minority faiths at serious danger. It is time that these laws were abandoned for the furtherance of free speech and promotion of religious tolerance.

With all this in mind it is extremely regrettable that the European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) seems to have taken a backward step.  An Austrian woman was found guilty of “disparaging Islam” and the took her case to the ECHR. They did not uphold her appeal and supported her conviction and fine saying that she made ““an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace” and that this was not covered by the right to freedom of expression. To be clear, this lady had not said anything to foment violence or hatred against Muslims which would clearly, and rightly, be an offense. She had simply been sacrilegious and blasphemous and while this may be upsetting to some should not be against the law.

Churches, states and people in power may need blasphemy laws, people of faith do not and are particularly at risk from such laws. After Ireland, 71 to go !

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Question

The Big Question

This post is an advertisement. I have found a podcast that I feel duty bound to share. Let me explain.

I suppose I should describe myself as an agnostic. I don’t mean this is a mealy-mouthed way, as if I never got around to making my mind up. I mean this as a considered decision after much research and contemplation. I find myself unable to answer some of the major philosophical and moral questions we face, and increasingly fear that the answers may, to me at least, be unanswerable.

My background and experience leaves me very divided. As a scientist and clinician, working with people with psychiatric and neurological problems, I can see the power of scientific explanations as to why people do what they do. The brain sciences do help us understand the mechanisms behind our desires and motivations. But although, as a scientist, I can use these findings to help me with questions of why and how, I fail to find them helpful with questions about what we ought to, or should, do.

I find having grown up in a Christian culture that I can comprehend and understand its moral teachings. When I want to know what we should or should not do I find calling on these principles much more valuable than looking at the scientific literature. Instinctivly I find the Christian writings on free will and responsibility much more plausible than the current utilitarian and deterministic viewpoints. Indeed I’d say I ascribe to the christian worldview but I fail in the vital question of faith.

So I fail in both camps. Millennia of thought and development by both groups leave a finely balanced argument that I can not satisfactorily resolve. Unfortunately I have found the writings and debates on these matters becoming less helpful. They are increasingly acrimonious and less concerned with finding clarity than with either preaching to the concerted or revealing the stupidity of the opposition.

I don’t find this polarised hostile battle very helpful in developing my thoughts. Mudslinging and bear baiting might be entertaining to some but I find it distasteful. I have their been pleasantly surprised to discover a series of debates which avoid this strategy.

The Big Question is a series of live debates, organized by a Christian radio station, in which eminent theists and atheists debate these issues. These are long enough to do justice to the topics and have speakers equally balanced in skills and eminence. The speakers are respectful and don’t try for cheap shots but rather try and grapple with the issues.

I have found myself better informed after these debates and think my opinions are clearer. I fear I have a long way to go before I’ll be certain, if I ever am, on these issues. I may be doomed to be a failure to both camps, but my failure might act as a signpost for others if they listen to these debates and form a better understanding than I have.

The Sea of Faith

The Sea of Faith

While I was watching an old film on television this week I was reminded of Mathew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach”.  This is the lyric poem that he wrote telling of his feelings of loss and sadness following the ebbing of faith in his society. He uses the metaphor of the tide to show the retreat of religious faith, which he felt was now only an echo of its former self.  With regret he wrote :-

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear.

And naked shingles of the world.

Watching the tide retreat under moonlight he rued the passage of faith and considers his and society’s loss.

I was reminded of this poem after catchingMV5BNjU4NzQ4NzU5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM2Nzk1MDE@._V1_ the film “Lease of Life” on television. This was the penultimate film of the great Robert Donat who had returned to acting after a long sabbatical necessitated by his poor health from asthma. In this film he plays a village parson who discovers he has less than a year to live.  Donat’s ill-health is obvious when watching this film, he looks much older than his years, but this adds a poignancy to his role as a man coming to terms with his mortality. The whole cast are excellent but Adrienne Corri, whose youth and beauty are counterposed to Donat’s age and frailty, is especially so.

So why did this 1954 British film from Ealing Studios, remind me of Dover Beach ? It was the theme of the film –  death comes to us all, but before then how do we live life well ? The film takes this religious theme and explores it through a number of vignettes : a wife who has subjugated her life and wishes for her husband and daughter, a daughter who wishes to seek advancement but not at the expense of ther parents, a dying parishoner who who has a complex relationship with his wife. There is no violence, no sex, no excitement, just moral dilemmas played out on a human scale. It would probably be impossible to make this film today. Imagine the pitch to the movie moguls.

Mogul “Right give us your pitch ! What’s the payload of the film

Director ” Sure. The film has at its core a vital unifying scene that lays the whole film open”

Mogul “Great give it to me

Director ” The elderly, terminally ill parson gives a short sermon in church to a group of schoolboys reminding them that religioun is about free will and choices not about dutifully or slavishly following rules

Mogul “And ?

Director “The boys like it and we later see the paron lving in accordance with his beliefs”

Mogul “Next ! Close the door as you leave

The film reveals how issues of faith and morality were central to life. It reminds us we have to think actively about how to be a good and moral person and that it is inadequate to choose the most expedient options at every turn. With this deontologiocal message it does not sit easily in our utiltarian culture.  This film revealed just how important issues of faith, and the role of the church, were in British culture two generations ago. But this has largely gone and, like Mathew Arnold watching the tide ebb, I watched this film and thought what have we lost?

Certainly we have gained some freedoms, particularly in the realm of our sexual lives, but how valuable is it to gain this sexual freedom if we risk loosing romantic love or reducting the pleaures of love to simple mechanics of friction. What if our need for gratification robs us of the virtue of patience. There are so many changes where we cannot foresee the resultant complications and  I fear we are loosing many of the principles that perviously guided our personal and family lives. This film reminds us that these small quotidien decisions that constitute our lives are vitally important and this film does not need any pyrotechnics or CGI assistance to make its point. Like other films from Ealing Studios it looks at people humanely and reveals to us, if we wish to see it, what it is that makes humanity special.

This gentle but thought provoking film reminded me of our losses, but I fear I need to check my priviledge here. The loss of faith and the ebbing of this tide is particularly a problem for white developed-world cultures, particularly in Europe, like mine. This sadness is unlikely to be shared equally across the globe as the number of people of faith (Christians in China, Muslims in Africa and Asia) elsewhere continues to grow. There are now more people on our beleaguered planet who profess religion is important in their lives than ever before and perhaps, in this, there is hope that the tides of the sea of faith will again lap on our shores.


Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; – on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mathew Arnold