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Don’t blame Christians for Stephen Fry ‘blasphemy’ nonsense

[This blogpost was first published on the Opinion pages of the Irish Times website, 11 May.]

In February 2015, in an interview with Gay Byrne on the RTÉ show ‘The Meaning of Life’, the British comedian Stephen Fry engaged on a range of questions before famously addressing the knotty theological problem of theodicy. Theodicy is the word used for conversations about why a good God would permit evil. It appeared first in 1710, in a philosophical work of Gottfried Leibniz. There have always been discussions of this problem of course, but they took on a different shape after the Enlightenment. Back in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo famously inverted the question, suggesting that the real puzzle was not why there was evil in the world, but why there was so much joy. A rich theological conversation has continued through the centuries, with articulate voices from both sides presenting their arguments in various forms. One especially powerful expression is found in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s play God on Trial which locates the conversation in the camps of Auschwitz.

Fry’s answer to Byrne’s question about what he would say to the God he does not believe in, may not have been as profound, but was as fluent as one would expect. Beginning by asking: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?”, Fry went on to describe the deep suffering that is so commonly experienced in this world. These words have renewed relevance this week after it was revealed that gardaí in Ennis received a report from a citizen accusing the broadcast of blasphemy. Had the prosecution gone ahead successfully, Fry would have been liable for a fine of up to €25,000.

Fry’s claim that Christians (and by extension Jews and Muslims) worship “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god” might be considered in poor taste by some, but it hardly reflects a radical, fringe opinion. As the recent Census shows, a growing number of Irish people have no belief in gods or God and many of them presumably hold views similar to Fry’s, even if they might not be quite so compelling in explaining them. Let’s be honest: many Christians wrestle with the exact same questions.

It is important to note that the law under which this prosecution is threatened is not some ancient relic, a holdover from the days before independence or an old artefact of a time when the Irish Catholic church had a much more direct influence on politics. This law was passed as a component of the Defamation Act in 2009. It was not the product of a grassroots movement of Irish Christians or a broad coalition of religious leaders. The Irish Council of Churches did not greet it with applause. No photo opportunity followed with the leaders of Dublin’s mosques. Religious adherents in Ireland did not actively lobby for this law.

The law protects against speech that is “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion”, but it was not advocated for by any specific religious group in Ireland. The response to Fry’s comments ranged from boredom to interest, but it proved impossible to satisfy the legislation’s claim that it intentionally caused “outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

This furore exposes a fascinating angle on the continuing conversation about Ireland’s journey into secularity. It appears from many perspectives that Ireland is becoming an increasingly post-Christian society. Religious observance is falling and the political influence of religious groups is waning. Yet the cultural gap between the concerns of real, actual religious people and the conversations about religion in Ireland is perhaps the most fascinating angle of all.

Irish Christians, on the whole, barely noticed Fry’s comments, never mind expressed outrage at them. Irish Christians are concerned about how asylum seekers are being treated under the direct provision system. Prosecuting blasphemy is not the topic of recent Papal encyclicals but environmental justice and economic inequality is. Putting blasphemers in the dock is not mentioned in the New Testament, but providing for the hungry and the poor, the prisoner and the immigrant is a recurring preoccupation.

If we were following the discourse in the media, Irish Christians would appear to be preoccupied with embroiling a gameshow host in a court case and insisting on TDs standing for prayer regardless of what they believe in. Yet in fact, their political and social concerns are much more closely informed by their Scriptures and their tradition, and therefore actually committed to environmental justice, economic fairness, prison reform and housing provision. There is no theological warrant for a blasphemy law and no religious desire for one. There is theological warrant for broad and sweeping changes across a range of government policies and the religious communities of Ireland strongly support that. If Irish political culture was so deeply influenced by the Christian voice, surely leaders would be working much harder to address climate change, to provide for the poor, to care for the prisoner and to house the homeless? There is a bizarre disconnect at play here, and one that should be much more scandalous to Christians in Ireland than anything Stephen Fry has ever said.