New Blasphemy Law in Ireland

More analogous is a little-known example involving the state of Arkansas, which has not yet roused itself to rescind article 19 of its constitution: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court." A few other states have similar laws.

Same Impulse in Politics

The impulse to enact benighted laws of this sort gives rise to more than these Taliban-like religious laws. After all, it is not only all-mighty deities that need special legal protection. Generals and politicians do too, so the same fearful defensiveness also leads to draconian edicts to protect political leaders and parties from ridicule.

Pakistan, to cite a recent example, has just announced a prohibition of jokes about President Asif Zardari. Anyone sending e-mails, text messages or blog postings containing such jokes is subject to arrest and a 14-year prison sentence. I'm sure even more prohibitive restrictions exist in those hotbeds of free-wheeling political humor, Burma and North Korea.

It's instructive to contrast these authoritarian laws against blasphemy, jokes, political humor and free speech generally with the way people deal with dissent from established scientific laws.

No laws prohibit people from denying that Earth is spherical, that evolution explains the development and diversity of life, or that the moon landing ever took place. The same holds for mathematics. No one claiming that pi is a rational number, that there are finitely many prime numbers, or that Godel's theorem is false has ever been hauled into court.

Of course, I by no means intend to equate the irreligious with scientific quacks. Just the opposite, in fact. It's simply that in most domains, those who insist on denying conventionally accepted beliefs are for the most part simply ignored. Statements that can stand on their own two feet (evidence and logic) don't need crutches (blasphemy laws) to support them.

As mentioned, Ireland is a modern pluralistic state with an educated population, a world-class literary tradition and a healthy economy that has transformed itself in recent years in large part through science and high-tech jobs. To continue this transformation, the religious and irreligious alike should reject this silly blasphemy law.

The religious should probably be most opposed to it, however. Placing punitive sanctions on the robust, or even the rude, expression of irreligious thought does not seem to say much for religion.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as (just out in paperback) "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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