SpringerGod bless the House of Lords. As much as I struggle with the fact that they aren’t elected, I can’t deny that they make some very good judgments. The most recent came earlier this week when they refused to hear a case brought by the activist group Christian Voice attempting to prosecute the BBC for blasphemy.It might surprise many of our non-British readers that Britain has blasphemy laws, but we do. I’ll explain just what they are shortly. Christian Voice tried to prosecute the BBC over its decision to broadcast the theatre show “Jerry Springer: The Opera.” [They also tried to prosecute the producers of the play]. The show is in two parts. Part one is the Jerry Springer show which gets out of control until the climax when Jerry gets shot. Part two is a dream sequence in which Jerry wakes up in Hell and all the guests from his show are now in other guise: God, Jesus, Satan, Mary, Adam and Eve. Subsequent scenes include Eve fondling Jesus’ genitals under his loincloth, Satan calling Christ a ‘cunt,’ references to how Mary was tricked by God with a condom that didn’t work, Christ telling Satan to ‘talk to the stigmata,’ and references to Christ as being “a bit gay.” Hardly family viewing, eh?

In the minds of the Christian Taleban this was ‘blasphemous libel.’ Blasphemous libel is an old common law offence; there have been very few public prosecutions and most private prosecutions have come to nought. The offence contains two aspects: (1) material relating to God, Christ, the Bible or the formularies of the Church of England which is contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous and/or ludicrous, and (2) the publication must be such as tends to endanger society as a whole by endangering the peace, depraving public morality, shaking the fabric of society or tending to cause civil strife.

So, was there a legal case? Seemingly you’d have a better chance prosecuting the Pope for downloading child pornography. The nails in the coffin of the legal case included:

1. Prosecution of a theatre production is precluded by the Theatres Act 1968. The purpose of this is to abolish censorship in the theatre and Lord Justice Hughes agreed it had been correctly applied.

2. Similar provisions in the Broadcasting Act 1990 protected the BBC from prosecution for its broadcast of the play, which in all fairness gave advance warning as to the content.

3. The second element of a blasphemy charge simply wasn’t fulfilled. Lord Justice Hughes commented that, “this element will not be shown merely because some people of particular sensitivity are, because deeply offended, moved to protest. It will be established if but only if what is done or said is such as to induce a reasonable reaction involving civil strife, damage to the fabric of society or their equivalent.” This play had been shown over a period of two years with little more than a mutter of discontent let alone civil strife. There simply was no evidence provided for this point.

4. There has been little by way of recent case precedent, with the charge being used only on one other occasion since 1922. In Whitehouse v Lemon, Lord Justice Roskill observed that “the state only became interested in the offence if the actions of the alleged offender affected the safety of the state.”

5. The object of the show’s attack was not Christianity but exploitative television chat shows such as Jerry Springer.

6. As a House of Lords select committee predicted, any future blasphemy prosecution would fail because it would clash with the right to free speech in the European Convention on Human Rights, which is part of British law.

With such a spurious legal basis why did Christian Voice pursue this charge to the House of Lords? Like most authoritarian moralists they did it for our own good. How nice. Stephen Green, the national director of the group, said: “It brings down the judgment of God on us all” and that “I love my neighbour and I do not want that to happen.” Ah! So Mr. Green simply loves us so much that he’s seeking a curtailment on freedom of speech for our own good! Wonderful. I’d buy him a pint to say thanks but he’s probably teetotal. In response allow me to quote another, much more intelligent, Christian – CS Lewis: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” Apt indeed.

Why would the judgment of God fall on a nation that permitted the showing of a certain play on television and in theatres? Has God nothing better to do? For one thing showing a play or even watching it doesn’t mean that we are in agreement with the contents. Some plays are good, some are bad. Some are really really bad. I agree with Mr. Green that Jerry Springer: The Opera was a bad play, but this is an artistic judgment. Showing it hardly warrants divine judgment on an entire nation. I can live with the notion that God punishes blasphemers for, umm, blaspheming, but why does he feel the need to take his divine wrath out on everybody? Perhaps he got out of the wrong side of his bed, but isn’t it much fairer and just to deal with human beings as individuals? I would be interested to know what Mr. Green thinks will happen to the nation now that the makers and broadcasters of Jerry Springer: The Opera can’t be prosecuted for blasphemy? Are we to expect fire and brimstone from the heavens?

Speaking of wrath, I wonder what Mr. Green thinks is an appropriate punishment for blasphemy. Hefty fines perhaps? A lengthy stay in prison? Chopping off the hands of offenders? Would it take a death penalty to appease the divine and his easily offended minions? Isn’t this all starting to sound rather familiar? Recently we’ve heard of a journalism student in Afghanistan sentenced to death for blasphemy because he dared download articles about women’s rights; a British teacher in Sudan charged with blasphemy for naming a teddy bear Mohammed; and killings and threats of killings because of the blasphemy of portraying Mohammed in cartoon form and mocking Islam. Mr. Green might well say that what his group wants is a long way from these extremes, but the truth of the matter is that the difference is only one of degree – not of actual substance. Christian Voice are fundamentally in the same boat as every other religious group who seek special protection for their religious beliefs and sensitivities, groups who are singularly unable to give any justification whatsoever for their position.

What is it about a belief or an idea that requires special protection? Beliefs are abstract entities and therefore it is impossible to harm them. There’s nothing about a belief that can be or should be given special protection in law. In fact any belief which relies on special assistance and protection probably isn’t worth defending at all. No one is asking for special rights to bash the Christian religion, just for a level playing field in the arena of ideas where nothing can be hidden away and made immune to criticism, or indeed mockery. Some people might be offended, but that is ultimately a problem for them; it’s singularly a very bad idea to curtail free speech anywhere it causes offence to some thin-skinned sensitive souls. When I bash your religious beliefs or you bash mine, or my political and ethical beliefs, we don’t harm each other. We remain free to believe and think as we like. Jerry Springer: The Opera didn’t harm a single Christian in this country in any meaningful and relevant sense. In fact, the very same concept of free speech that allows one man to make such a play allows another to tell them that they are going to meet with divine retribution and burn in Hell for doing so. Such freedoms are not therefore a threat to belief systems; on the contrary they give them – all of them – protection. Everyone is free to think their thoughts and speak their mind without fear of reprisal from other groups who long for special treatment.

I think for the meantime this position remains the dominant one in our society and it’s unlikely to be challenged by irrational fringe lunatics crying out for special government force backing for their own system. To that end groups like Christian Voice are little other than Bible thugs who may as well have carried signs reading “earth is flat!” and “bring back slavery” for all the support they got or progress they’ve made towards theocratising society. In fact they have rather splendidly shot themselves in the foot, and perhaps should be thanked because their actions have reminded the rest of us that such an absurd, anachronistic, authoritarian, unjust, and just plain silly law remains valid in our society. Hopefully, thanks to Mr. Green and his associates, the repeal of the law is just a little bit closer.

And just why shouldn’t the law be abolished altogether? Even though there are unlikely to be any successful prosecutions under it any time soon it would still be nice to wipe such legally-enforced bigotry out completely, if only for the symbolic purposes of making a strong statement as to where our society stands on issues of free speech and fairness. Blasphemy laws are a little like laws pertaining to obscenity and censorship: all they are good for is controlling ideas, and by extension the people who think and express them. Blasphemy and blaspheming is actually a good socio-political sign, since it indicates the level of free speech and tolerance in any society. When a society has laws against blasphemy what it means is that a stronger power can persecute a weaker one purely because of differences in values, thought and perception. Having laws against blasphemy is destructive and dangerous, with the concept being used by all manner of paranoid religionists to deny liberty of thought and expression to others, or bully and threaten them.

But groups like Christian Voice want them retained. They state that if the laws are not retained it would be like saying: “We do not want the United Kingdom to enjoy the blessing of God, if such exists. We are not God-fearing folk. We care nothing for God or his blessing.” What they don’t say is just how we will be blessed by God if we keep the laws. Will our potatoes grow even bigger? Our motorways never experience traffic jams? Our ships never sink? Our toasters never burn the bread? Will all our children have big dicks (except obviously the girls)? Regardless, individuals – as opposed to nations – are the arbiters of whether or not to fear God and care for his blessing. Scrapping blasphemy laws doesn’t mean we all must blaspheme. You are free not to if you wish, Mr. Green. Scrapping the laws is about liberty, and it is liberty that makes true morality possible. Wouldn’t God rather we worshipped and obeyed him freely rather than out of fear or government force?

So absurd are the blasphemy laws that even most Christians are in favour of seeing them go the way of the dodo: including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and numerous other church leaders, whose theology doesn’t have a God that needs protection. With hardly a voice on the opposing side, at least few intelligent ones, it seems that we can apply a familiar religious phrase to the blasphemy laws:

“The End is Nigh!”

Thank God.