by ALISON HEALY
THE NEW blasphemy law will send Ireland back to the middle ages, and is wretched, backward and uncivilised, Prof Richard Dawkins has said.
The scientist and critic of religion has lent his support to a campaign to repeal the law, introduced by Atheist Ireland, a group set up last December, arising from an online discussion forum. The law, which makes the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter a crime punishable by a €25,000 fine, passed through the Oireachtas last week.
In a message read out at Atheist Ireland’s first agm on Saturday, Prof Dawkins said: “One of the world’s most beautiful and best-loved countries, Ireland has recently become one of the most respected as well: dynamic, go-ahead, modern, civilised – a green and pleasant silicon valley. This preposterous blasphemy law puts all that respect at risk.” He said it would be too kind to call the law a ridiculous anachronism.
“It is a wretched, backward, uncivilised regression to the middle ages. Who was the bright spark who thought to besmirch the revered name of Ireland by proposing anything so stupid?”
Messages of support for the campaign were also received from the creators of Father Ted Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, and the European Humanist Federation. The federation, which represents 42 organisations in 19 countries, said it was “appalled” at the new law and it was “a seriously retrograde step”.
At the agm, Atheist Ireland members voted to test the new law by publishing a blasphemous statement, deliberately designed to cause offence. The statement will be finalised in the coming days.
Atheist Ireland’s chairman Michael Nugent said the group wanted to highlight the ridiculousness of the law. Labour Senator and barrister Ivana Bacik told the meeting that an amendment provides for a review of the law within five years. “There’s a great potential to have this very much altered if not removed altogether,” she said. The new law invited people to make complaints to gardaí and would result in “a huge amount” of wasted Garda time, she said.
“So for lots of reasons I think it’s going to be highly problematic . . . and it’s bad lawmaking if nothing else.”
Ms Bacik said the establishment of Atheist Ireland was “long overdue”. More than 150 people attended the meeting in Dublin and the group ran out of membership application forms. “I think it’s also good to see an organisation that has the word atheist in the title because for a long time many of us were in the closet,” she said.
“It’s not fashionable or popular to declare oneself to be an atheist. There are many people in Ireland who would like to describe themselves as atheists and I’m one of them. I think I may be the only self-confessed or card-carrying atheist in the Oireachtas.”
She said there should be space for atheists, agnostics and believers in organised religions. “And that’s the nature, to me, of a pluralist and tolerant and democratic republic, a country in which there is space for all of us, and in which no body’s belief elevates them to any particular position.”
The meeting agreed to campaign for the removal of all references to gods from the Constitution and for a secular education system. Ms Bacik said the education system, particularly at primary level, was “built on sectarian lines. It is a fundamentally sectarian system in which in our equal status legislation, schools are entitled to give priority to children of a particular religion”.
The group also launched a website http://www.countmeout.ie which provides information on how to formally leave the Catholic Church.
Atheist Ireland believes that many lapsed Catholics, agnostics and atheists are counted in the church’s membership and claims that these figures are used by the church to justify its continued involvement in education.
Atheist Ireland will also encourage people to read the Bible. Mr Nugent said an objective reading of the Bible was one of the strongest arguments for rejecting the idea of gods as intervening creators or moral guides.
Dick Spicer of the Humanist Association of Ireland welcomed the formation of the new group and said it illustrated the changes that had taken place in Irish society. “It’s a sign of how far we’ve come in Ireland, so take hope for the future. This society does move and it does move forward, more so, I think, than we appreciate.”