This was an unexpected subject when I first saw the story at the Washington Post. It involves a British comedian who, just going by the headline, may be facing charges of blasphemy. That’s not something we’re used to seeing in the western world. If you hear about something like this in America it’s typically from the colonial era. In modern times you’ll still see it, but we’d expect the report to be coming out of Iran or Indonesia or some similar location. But this is taking place in Ireland.
Can it be? The suspect in question is British comedian Stephen Fry. A couple of years ago, as Eugene Volokh reports in the linked article, he did an interview with the WaPo in which he said some rather less than charitable things about the Lord. Here’s a brief taste from that article.
“Suppose it’s all true,” began a question to Stephen Fry on Irish television, “and you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to Him, Her or It?”
Fry, a beloved actor and comedian in Britain, began his reply like this: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you.”
Fry is also a humanist.
He continued: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?”
He goes on to describe God as “monstrous” and a few other choice words, but honestly it’s all still far more tame than any number of things I’ve seen on Comedy Central. Still, Ireland has a law against blasphemy which persists to this day and can carry a fine running into the tens of thousands of dollars. And Volokh discovered that there is a police “investigation” underway.
So does this mean that Fry will soon be hauled off to a ducking stool and strapped in until he sees the proverbial light? Unlikely. The police are only confirming that an investigation is “underway” but that’s because they received a complaint. From the sounds of it, that’s standard procedure and they won’t be saying any more about it until the investigation is concluded. The local news coverage also cites someone described as a “well placed source” saying that prosecution is highly unlikely.
While something of an odd duck in western law enforcement, we have plenty of laws still on the books in the United States which aren’t really enforced anymore, but they can occasional crop up to cause controversy. We had anti-miscegenation laws on the books well into the sixties. Did you know there are several states where it’s still illegal for a man and woman to live together in sin prior to marriage? Of course, the odds of getting a conviction on such a charge and having it hold up on appeal are pretty much zero.
We’ve discussed here previously some of the differences between the nearly unlimited freedoms of speech, religion and privacy which we enjoy in the United States as compared to Europe and Asia, not to mention the Middle East. Those differences can be stark in some cases, but somehow I don’t think Ireland is still at the point of locking up somebody for blasphemy. Then again, I wonder what they would do if an artist showed up there putting a crucifix in a jar of urine? They might not be quite as “modern” as I’m thinking after all.