Aug. 2, 2009 -- When a modern Western country whose economy is based on science and technology adopts an absurdly medieval law, one would think that this would be a news story of at least moderate size.
Oddly though, almost no attention has been paid in the United Stares to the passing last month of a bill establishing a crime of blasphemy in Ireland.
Approved by the Irish parliament, it states: "A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding 25,000 euro."
Furthermore, "a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if (a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage."
Even if I weren't the author of a book entitled "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up," I would find this bill abysmally wrong-headed.
Even Parodies and Bad Jokes Liable to Fine
Although it provides for exceptions to prosecution if a "reasonable person" finds literary, scientific or other significant value in a work, it would allow for atheists to be prosecuted for denying the existence of God, a denial that clearly causes outrage in many.
Those writing parodies and bad jokes would also be liable to the 25,000 euro fine. Even an innocuous riff on God rescinding the Bible in the middle of the night the way Amazon called back the Orwell book from its Kindle reader could be prosecuted.
And if the reaction of some irate readers of my book is any indication, so could an imagined instant message exchange between me and God that appears in the book.
But non-believers would not be the only, or even the primary, ones affected by this blasphemy bill. People, irreligious or not, presumably could be prosecuted for drawing cartoons of Mohammad. Christians could be prosecuted for expressing scorn or even disbelief in the Christian teachings of other denominations.
Likewise, Jews and others could be prosecuted for denying the divinity or even the existence of Jesus. Or, if atheism is considered a religion (which it is not), atheists also could claim to be outraged by the expressions of their religious countrymen, each of whom could then be required to cough up 25,000 euro.
Law Allows for Confiscation of Blasphemous Materials
The law also allows for the confiscation of blasphemous materials -- novels, non-fiction books, short videos, full-length movies, etc.
Interestingly, the blasphemy law is not the only medieval aspect of Irish law. The preamble to the Irish Constitution maintains that the state's authority derives from the most holy trinity, stipulates that no one can become president or a judge without taking a religious oath, and declares that all citizens have obligations to Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Similar but less overt sentiments and statutes exist in this country. Witness the arguments put forth by many that the U.S. is a Christian country.
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.