Sunday, January 03, 2010

Praise the Lord and Pass the ... uh ... New Laws

During the Second World War, Frank Loesser wrote a popular song titled "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." It was written in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and told the story of a chaplain (known in military slang as a sky pilot) whose ship was under enemy air attack. The sailors asked him to say a prayer for them while they fired at the attacking planes, whereupon the chaplain put down his Bible, jumped into one of the ship's gun turrets, and began firing back at the enemy, shouting, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!"

It was a very popular song at the time, and goes to the heart of the rather rocky relationship between violence and religion. The sacred writings of most religions offer some variant on the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," but also put an asterisk next to it to indicate the various loopholes (self-defense, participation in a "just war," "jihad," "getting rid of "infidels," and so on). Some religions urge the penalty of death for blasphemy, defined by Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary as, "1 a : The act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God; b : The act of claiming the attributes of deity. 2 : Irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable." In his famous "Devil's Dictionary," Ambrose Bierce defined the related word impiety as "Your irreverence toward my deity."

Be patient, I'm getting to the point.

Mike beat me to a discussion of the law which came into effect in Ireland on January 1st, which makes blasphemy a crime punishable by a €25,000 ($35,800) fine. According to CNN (see the link in the last sentence), the law makes it a crime to say or publish anything "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion."

Now, Ireland is a traditionally Catholic country, and the Catholic Church takes a dim view of blasphemy, as do many other religions. But it's very clear to me that the purpose of the law is not so much to prevent the denigration of religious beliefs in general as it is to protect Ireland's people and economy from the sort of violent reactions that come from the Muslim world whenever there is a hint of criticism of Islamic beliefs in general or of the prophet Mohammed in particular. The violent reactions to Pope Benedict's speech at Regensburg in 2006 (in which he appeared to criticize Mohammed in the context of a scholarly discussion of reason and faith), the death sentence imposed on author Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran over Rushdie's allegedly blasphemous book The Satanic Verses, and the widespread Islamic outrage and violence over the infamous Danish cartoons in 2005 are still fresh in the minds of countries with substantial Muslim minorities.

Is it wrong to criticize the deeply-held religious beliefs of another? What constitutes punishable criticism or blasphemy (could "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" be considered blasphemous)? What punishment is appropriate? Who decides? In a country like Saudi Arabia, there's no question about any of these: it's illegal to build a church or practice any religion other than Islam. Compare this to overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland, which not only has a relatively small Muslim population, but also a mosque and community center in Dublin to serve it.

Is it right to deliberately insult someone's religious beliefs? It may be boorish and mean-spirited, but should it be illegal in the context of a pluralistic society? I think not.

As John pointed out in his comment on Mike's post, the only winners in this situation are the government that collects the fines and the lawyers who prosecute or defend the cases. Religion is a matter of the heart, but is all too often disconnected from the brain.

What we need are not laws, but common sense and a little bit of fallback to the Golden Rule. This may be difficult for adherents of a religion that absolutely believes it's right and everyone else is wrong and needs to be shown The Way, forcibly if necessary, but perhaps there's hope.

Until then, we'll see nations fall back on stupid laws.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Mike said...

"What we need are not laws, but common sense.."

Don't hold your breath. But if you do, have Agnes take a picture of your blue face right before you pass out. It will make a good post.

Wv: carcoss - What's left of a dead car.

Phfrankie Bondo said...

...Well said, Good Sir....

Anonymous said...

Sadly, this marks the beginning of encroachment of Shariah (Ultra-orthodox Islamic law) into the Irish code law. Galileo is dead, and the Catholic Church eventually recognized he was right. It is obvious that the only group that would use this law against others would be Muslims. Too bad, it's the end of religious discussion in Ireland.

Don't sneer; we're next.

Eminence Grise

And considering the Danish Experience with cartoons, I rely on Bilbo's silence as the only barrier between Eminence Grise and a Muslim assassin.