Back in February 2015, Stephen Fry was interviewed by Gay Byrne for RTÉ. The video has gone viral on YouTube due to Fry’s answer to a particular question on God. He was asked to suppose he eventually met God, what would he say to him? You can watch the video below, which has been viewed more than seven million times.
I don’t intend to spend any great amount of time tackling Fry’s answer. The Bible itself offers clear answers to many of his assertions, not least the presumption that God created a world full of injustice. Likewise, others have written helpful responses (notably, David Robertson here). My purpose is not to reopen discussion of this video nor to refute any of the claims made by Stephen Fry.
The reason the video has resurfaced (notwithstanding its position on YouTube) is because of a report in yesterday’s Guardian. For it turns out, the gardaí (Irish police) are currently investigating the comments to determine whether they are criminal. The Guardian report:
Under Ireland’s Defamation Act 2009 a person who publishes or utters blasphemous material “shall be guilty of an offence”. A conviction can lead to a fine of up to €25,000.
Is this a product of an overly officious Director of Public Prosecutions? Perhaps an affronted Bishop Brennan type insisting on protesting the comments but unwittingly bringing them to the attention of a wider public audience? Maybe just a slightly touchy religious person who has taken the hump? I shall let the Guardian enlighten you:
A member of the public, who asked not to be identified, said he made the complaint against Fry more than two years ago at Ennis garda station in County Clare.
“The garda then took a formal written statement from me in which I quoted Fry’s comments in detail. This written statement mentioned both Fry and RTÉ specifically.”
He said he was asked by the garda if he had been personally offended by the programme and if he wished to include this in the written statement.
“I told the garda that I did not want to include this as I had not personally been offended by Fry’s comments – I added that I simply believed that the comments made by Fry on RTÉ were criminal blasphemy and that I was doing my civic duty by reporting a crime.”
So, to be clear, a random member of the public – who was neither upset nor offended by Stephen Fry’s comments – decided to report him. This, he avers, was an act of civic duty. Apparently being a good citizen amounts to reporting somebody for voicing an opinion, an opinion that (though it shouldn’t make a difference anyway) didn’t remotely offend.
Blasphemy laws have something of a bad track record, regardless of the particular religion (or non-religion) from which they emanate. Whilst we might want to encourage politeness, letting our words be ‘seasoned with salt’, rarely has it been good news to legally enforce such things. After all, Joash was ultimately right – when faced with angry Baal-worshippers who wished to attack his son for destroying their idols – ‘if he [Baal] is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down’ (Judges 6:31). Likewise, God does not need us to defend his honour. Indeed, Paul instructs us ‘never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’ (Rom 12:19). Paul quotes those verses from Deuteronomy 32, in which God makes clear that, not only does he not need us to defend him but, we are the ones who need him to vindicate us (cf. Deut 32:35f).
Let’s be honest, what value is there in a blasphemy law? We may stop people saying words we (or God) find offensive, but it won’t stop anybody thinking them. Neither will it make anybody righteous nor cause any hearts to call Jesus ‘Lord’. More to the point, what exactly do we think God finds offensive? Is he sat in Heaven waiting to get angry at the noises coming out of our mouths or, as Jesus told us, is it rather what lies beneath those words:
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-22)
God is most concerned about the state of our hearts, not the noises coming out of our mouths. A good example is the phrase “oh my God”. Those words clearly aren’t blasphemous of themselves, otherwise the infallible and inerrant scriptures record blasphemy of their own (see here). It is what lies behind them that make the sentiment good or bad. If God can see into the human heart, then what value is there in stopping blasphemous words leaving lips when those same thoughts remain in hearts? It doesn’t save God’s feelings, it doesn’t defend his honour and it doesn’t stop the heart-guilt of the one thinking such things (which is, according to Jesus, the guilt that matters). The issue is what lies behind those words, not the words themselves. If we cannot stop people thinking blasphemous things, why stop them giving voice to those thoughts? If anything, it is better if they do voice them for then they may be discussed in the open.
The other point that bears comment is the difficulty in understanding quite what was in the mind of the one reporting Fry to the gardaí. The man notes he was not offended by the remarks, so we need make no defence of why subjective offence should not constitute a crime. The question is, why on earth report it? The reason given was civic duty. But how can it be one’s civic duty, that is the essence of being a good citizen, to stop people speaking freely, stating their views and opinions openly? If you see nothing wrong in the comments, and they cause you no offence, why alert the authorities to enforce a law that – to quote Mr Bumble – is a ass?
Clearly I do not agree with Stephen Fry’s comments. But since when has agreement been the arbiter of what should be legal? I think his view is wrong, I don’t think it should be illegal. If we want the right to be able to speak freely about our faith, then Stephen Fry should be free to speak about his (or lack thereof, if you prefer). Ireland should probably get rid of its blasphemy law, just as Britain did. However, they would be wise to heed the warning that Britain offers. You may remove a Catholic-derived blasphemy law (Protestant-driven, in Britain’s case), but care should be taken that it isn’t replaced with a de facto Atheistic/Secularist one. The slew of cases involving people losing jobs and being taken to court for speaking words that do not accord with current cultural orthodoxy amounts no less to a secularist blasphemy law than the previous ill-considered religiously inspired ones. Whilst Stephen Fry should not fall foul of the law for offending the Catholic God, nobody else should face sanction for offending against any Secularist ones either.