Melanie McDonagh

Stephen Fry will be delighted to be accused of blasphemy

Stephen Fry will be delighted to be accused of blasphemy
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Oh God. And I mean it. What was a well meaning Irish citizen doing, bringing a blasphemy complaint against Stephen Fry? I mean, if you wanted to make the big man’s day, to give him that delicious sense of being persecuted without actually being persecuted, well what could be better than being done for blasphemy? It’s the campaigning atheist’s wet dream. It could mean, if you’re really lucky, being prosecuted in Ireland for repeating your observations about the Deity – cruel, capricious, allowing bone cancer in children etc – and the very worst that can happen to you would be a fine, which you could then refuse to pay and strike an Oscar Wilde sort of attitude. It’s not like, say, being done for homosexuality or apostasy in a Gulf State, when the whole persecution business takes on a rather less fun aspect. It means that very cheaply you’re the pin-up of Irish unbelievers, the occasion for umpteen agonised columns in the Irish Times about the futility of blasphemy laws, a rallying point for Irish secularists who are possibly even more irritating there than here…what, in God’s name, is not to like, from S Fry’s point of view?

As it happens, I thought Stephen Fry’s interview with Gay Byrne (short for Gabriel, not his orientation) on RTE in his discussion programme about religion two years ago, trite and silly. 'Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?' he asked. You know, that line of argument was put rather better by Voltaire after the Lisbon earthquake, and it still doesn’t wash - given that a world in which God constantly intervenes is one difficult to square with human free will and natural laws.

Whatever. We must pray that the Irish police drop the whole thing; it was at least unhelpful of them to talk about it. Right now this plays into a particularly toxic environment in Ireland around religion. There’s an ongoing row about abortion, whereby a government-appointed commission stuffed with pro-choicers invited to opine on the abortion laws has, predictably, suggested the Irish law should go the way of the English one. And the stuff about blasphemy, wilfully or not – and I’m inclined to cynicism myself – is grist to the mill of the secularists, who tend to overlap with the abortion lobby (though, as I never tire of pointing out, abortion is a moral, not a religious issue).

What the whole thing calls irresistibly to mind is the way authors used to clamour to be on the list of banned books in the days when the Irish Government tried to prohibit filthy and subversive literature. Flann O Brien, as a newspaper columnist, was mordantly funny about the writers who demanded to be placed on it, in the interests of sales. Falling foul of the blasphemy law is the contemporary version of being on the banned books list. If this case really is brought by a bona fide outraged Christian, and I do not know, then they might like to reflect that they have undoubtedly made a lot of atheists very very happy.