08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Goddamn It, Ireland Outlaws Blasphemy

IRELAND -- From the country that gave the world the Blarney Stone, the Magdalene Laundries, molesting monks and aborting minors stopped at the border comes the latest in moralizing insanity. Unwilling to allow radical Islamics and American religious fundamentalists to claim all the glory, Ireland has made blasphemy a crime.

Of course, the 2009 outlawing of blasphemy is different from previous centuries attempts to do likewise, because this time it's not so much an attempt to save people's souls as it is an attempt to keep from hurting their feelings.

According to the Irish government, it's not merely a good idea to crack down on offending the sensibilities of the religious, it's constitutionally required.

Specifically, article 40.6.1 of the Irish constitution guarantees freedom of speech - so long as it does not concern "blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter."

The realization that not all speech may be free was reached while the government worked to repeal the 1961 Defamation Act, which contained some especially nasty restrictions on communication. Alas, while doing so, the government decided that charging citizens €100,000 ($180,118) for offending religious belief would be a grand idea.

Fortunately, marginally saner heads prevailed and the final price one will pay in Ireland for uttering a religiously discouraging word will be a mere €25,000 ($45,028).

Oh, and the risk of police raids using "reasonable force" against publishers of potentially "blasphemous statements," of course. But that's been the case, technically, since the constitution became effective in 1937.

As Jason Walsh explains on, the strange case of boosted suppression of speech is likely an ironic result of the traditionally poor country's economic improvement and attempts to put a more "contemporary politically correct" face on its methods of social control. Given that the country's more conservative elements have not evidenced support for the crushing of less than laudatory communications directed at an allegedly all-powerful and all knowing entity know as "God" or his representatives on earth, this interpretation seems likely.

As Walsh points out, the move isn't earning praise from more progressive thinkers, although neither the Green Party nor the Labour Party have spoken out against the slip back in time - or into the offensensitivity-rich future, as the case may be.

British ethologist, evolutionary biologist, science author and atheist Richard Dawkins, however, has made his position on the subject abundantly clear by stating that "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, civilized -- a green and pleasant silicon valley. This preposterous blasphemy law puts all that respect at risk." Further adding to the rich irony of the situation is the fact that only political parties to take offense of the reinforced directive are the republican party Sinn Féin and the conservative Fine Gael.

Although Dermot Ahern, TD Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has promises that "No innocent conduct will be captured," the question about what will be deemed "innocent" remains.

Pornography, most likely, will not be seen as "innocent," nor will other forms of erotic communication. In a country that legalized contraception in 1980 but didn't make it available for a decade, lifted the ban on homosexuality in 1993 and the ban on divorce in 1995, became the first European country to ban smoking in public places and then expanded to do likewise with incandescent light bulbs and place a tax on plastic bags -- all in the name of motivating people to live right -- determining which citizens can have their feelings hurt and which can't is likely to be a highly politically charged topic.

Also highly politically charged are the steps that would be required to roll back the potential for smothering both speech and thought that such a ban presents. Ahern, who supports the suppression, has already discouraged citizens from considering an amendment, deeming such a thing to be both "costly and unwarranted."

Fortunately, Walsh points out that only one case of blasphemy prosecution has taken place since the 1937 constitution. Given that the case, an unsuccessful 1999 prosecution of a newspaper, resulted in the Supreme Court being unable to locate any blasphemy, chances seem good that speaking ill of any number of religious deities and their clergy will remain largely unnoticed.

But with the United Nations being asked to deem blasphemy an offense of international proportions, the topic seems unlikely to have seen its last discussion -- for however long such a discussion will be legally tolerated.