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Article in Justice of the Peace


169 JP (13 Aug 2005) 629

Doc. No. 2005.046


Introductory Note by Francis Bennion


The following article is in effect updated by a 2008 article by Neil Parpworth, included on this website by kind permission of the editor of Justice of the Peace: see ‘The Abolition of the Blasphemy Laws’ 172 JPN (15 March 2008) 164-166. (2008.NFB.001) I am grateful to Mr Parpworth.


Page 629

'A New Reason For Blasphemy Reform – Part III',


Blasphemy today


No longer do the British authorities fear the state will be undermined if people question the truth of Christianity or insult the Christian deity. The emphasis in Britain today, sometimes stigmatized as political correctness, is on not hurting people’s feelings rather than on the safeguarding of the Christian religion.


There is an obvious reason for the absence of any British state prosecution for blasphemy since 1922. It is that the British people no longer care passionately about the Christian religion. Most of them do not care at all. The Age of Reason which was ushered in with the dawn of the eighteenth century swept away the hot passions over Christianity that reached a climax in the century before. The assiduous Puritan pamphleteer and barrister William Prynne (1600-1669) has no counterpart in the Britain of today. Here is what Prynne suffered for his Christian faith:


“After a year’s imprisonment in the Tower Prynne was sentenced by the Star Chamber on the 17th February 1634 to be imprisoned for life, and also to be fined £5000, expelled from Lincoln’s Inn, rendered incapable of returning to his profession, degraded from his degree in the University of Oxford, and set in the pillory, where he was to lose both his ears.” 1


No one is likely to risk losing both his ears, or even one of them, for his Christian belief in 21st century Britain. It is different with most British Muslims, whose belief in their faith continues to burn strongly. This makes it all the more inappropriate that the law of blasphemy, with its exclusive protection of the established Church of England, should still be in force in Britain today. Whether it is also inappropriate that there should be no similar protection for the Islamic and other religions is a matter of opinion. The Government has indicated its opinion. It has introduced the Racial And Religious Hatred Bill, which was passed by the House of Commons on 12 July and will be dealt with by the House of Lords when Parliament resumes in October. Before I consider that Bill there are two preliminary matters to be mentioned. The first concerns the very nature of religious faith.


The Nature of Faith


During his time as Archbishop of Canterbury2 the late Lord Runcie promoted the notion that all religions are worthy of equal respect. This agreeable (in the literal sense) idea has been taken up with enthusiasm in various egalitarian quarters. But as an agnostic I temerariously suggest that it seriously misunderstands the very nature of faith.


The opposite idea, namely fundamentalism, is surely the only realistic stance for a true believer in any monotheistic religion. The New Testament presents Christianity as exclusively true. Christ notoriously said ‘No one comes to God except by me’.3 The Talmud and the Koran make similar claims for their faiths. There can be only one truth about the Universe, and each religion claims to possess it – even though the dogma of each religion is different. That is why I have ended up an agnostic.


A true believer in a particular faith must surely treat apostasy and blasphemy in relation to that faith as ultimate transgressions. If what he or she adheres to is indeed exclusively true, such things are terrible offences against the all-powerful Ruler of the Universe. The consequent sentence of death and damnation springs from the creed itself. In the case of Salman Rushdie and his scurrilous novel Satanic Verses, the fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini, which condemned him to die, merely declared what was obvious. That is why it could not be withdrawn.4


Sceptics adopt the stance either of a Rushdie or a Runcie. A Rushdie propagates doubt or disbelief by satire, irony, or other debunking. A Runcie unintentionally achieves the same result by watering down the faith he proclaims. To do


Page 630


either is inconsistent with the nature of true faith.


There is no neutral judge who can determine whether the fundamentalist or the sceptic is right. A Rushdie who believes religious belief is mischievous will claim the right to oppose it by every means possible. A fundamentalist will resist this to the death. There is simply no room here for a Runcie. Though I respected the late Archbishop, and believed him to be sincere, I really do think his position was and is untenable.


LAW COM No. 145


The other preliminary matter concerns the Law Commission report mentioned in Part II of this article.5 In connection with the current Racial And Religious Hatred Bill it has largely escaped attention that this report foreshadowed that Bill. It is worth considering what the report said about penalising incitement to religious hatred.


First, the report cited 6 a powerful comment by the late Professor Sir John Smith:7


“ . . vilification, ridicule, and contempt may be decidedly in the public interest. Should it not be possible to attack in the strongest terms religious beliefs that adulterers should be stoned to death and that thieves should have the offending hand lopped off, however offensive that may be to the holders of the belief?”


Expanding this, the report pointed out 8 that restrictions would in particular have adverse consequences for what many would consider to be proper criticism of matters pertaining to religion and religious belief:


“Ridicule has for long been an acceptable means of focusing attention upon a particular aspect of religious practice or dogma which its opponents regard as offending against the wider interests of society, and in that context use of abuse or insults may well be a legitimate means of expressing a point of view upon the matter at issue. The imposition of criminal penalties upon such abuse or insults becomes, in our view, peculiarly difficult to defend in the context of a ‘plural’ or multi-racial, multi-religious society. Here one person’s incisive comment (or indeed seemingly innocent comment) may be another’s ‘blasphemy’, and to forbid use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable . . .”


The report nevertheless accepted that certain conditions might remove this unacceptability.


“Of course, such abuse or insults directed at the beliefs or practices of a particular religion may in substance amount to an attack upon adherents of that religion because of the views they hold . . . if such attacks appear to be or become a real social problem, the appropriate response in our view is not to extend the law of blasphemy but rather to adapt the present offence penalising the publication of matter likely to arouse hatred towards persons on account of their race so that it would penalise publication of matter likely to arouse hostility to others on account of their religious beliefs.” 9


This is precisely the course the Government has taken in introducing the current Bill. The key question is whether the Law Commission’s condition has been met, namely that this has become “a real social problem”. Many, among whom I include myself, would argue that it has not, and that the situation described elsewhere in the report 10 continues to apply:


“In fact there does not seem to us to be any genuine ground for accepting the proposition that religious beliefs are under threat or subject to overt hostility of the kind or to the extent which necessitated the protection afforded to ethnic minorities by section 5A of the Public Order Act 1936. Indeed, that section has a relevance to the laws of blasphemy perhaps not appreciated by those who invoke it as a precedent; for it suggests that, leaving aside the general laws relating to public order and obscenity, it is only in the most exceptional circumstances where particular social tensions are in issue that the criminal law ought properly to intervene to control the written or spoken word.”


I had written the above before reading an item in the Times of August 3 which may indicate an altered situation. Under the headline “Religious hatred crimes increase by 600%” the item reads as follows:


“Religious hate crimes soared by almost 600 per cent in London as people attacked mosques and insulted Muslims after the suicide bomb attacks [of July 7 and 21]. Scotland Yard figures released yesterday show there were 269 religious [stet] motivated offences reported since the July 7 bombings compared with only 40 in the same period last year . . . Britain’s most senior Asian police officer said that the incidents were seriously affecting the Muslim community.”


It would be ironic if the Government proved to have somehow anticipated this sharp increase in religious hatred attacks, and their cause, before introducing the present Bill which deals with them as it were in advance. But then attacks on London following 9/11 have been repeatedly forecast. Perhaps we should give credit to the Government for perspicacity.


The Racial And Religious Hatred Bill


The Racial And Religious Hatred Bill extends the race hate offences in Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 to cover stirring up hatred against persons on religious grounds. The offences in Part III, which when the Bill comes into force


Page 631


will also apply to religious hatred, at present relate to:


the use of words or behaviour or display of written material (section 18),

publishing or distributing written material (section 19),

the public performance of a play (section 20),

distributing, showing or playing a recording (section 21),

broadcasting or including a programme in a programme service (section 22), and

the possession of written materials or recordings with a view to display, publication, distribution or inclusion in a programme service (section 23).


For each present offence the words, behaviour, written material, recordings or programmes must be both threatening, abusive or insulting and intended or likely to stir up racial hatred. If the Bill is passed this will also apply to religious hatred, that is hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief. For material to be held “likely” to stir up racial or religious hatred it need only be shown that it was likely to be seen or heard by a person in whom it is likely to stir up such hatred.


The Home Office explanatory note on the Bill says that some religious groups, such as Sikhs and Jews, are distinct ethnic groups, and as such already benefit from the protection of the existing Part III race hatred offences while other groups targeted for their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs are ethnically diverse and so are excluded from the scope of these offences. It adds that the amendments are designed to ensure that the criminal law protects all groups from having religious hatred stirred up against them, regardless of whether members of that group share a common ethnic background.


One doubts the validity of this distinction drawn by the Home Office between on the one hand what it calls “mono-ethnic” religious groups such as Jews and Sikhs who share a common ethnic background and on the other hand religious groups who are “ethnically diverse”. All religious groups include converts who come from differing ethnic backgrounds.


Also suspect is the Home Office’s bright idea that Atheists and Humanists should be protected along with the religious. As an Agnostic I also seem to be included, though these are not named in the explanatory note. No evidence is adduced that British groups defined by reference to lack of religious belief are currently under any form of attack that requires protection from the law. A legislative provision is supposed to be passed in order to remedy a social or legal mischief. Here there is no such mischief, so the provision is unnecessary. It is a misuse of legislative powers to enact unnecessary provisions.


Be that as it may, it seems that the Government are determined to put their Racial And Religious Hatred Bill on the statute book. That being so, we are in a new situation as regards the abolition of blasphemy offences. As the title of this article suggests, there is a new reason for blasphemy reform. The arguments for the reform were already strong. Now they are overwhelming. Even after the reform has been carried out there will in future still be protection for Anglicans, however unnecessary. Only now there will also be protection, however misconceived, for holders of other beliefs as well. So for reformers it is time to act.


How to achieve blasphemy reform


The obvious way to achieve reform of the law on blasphemy is for the House of Lords to add to the Racial And Religious Hatred Bill, when they consider it in the autumn, a consequential provision abolishing the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.


If this does not work, the other way would be for a backbench MP who is successful in the next ballot for private member’s Bills to introduce the necessary Bill.11 It is unlikely to be opposed, for who would oppose it?


<<<<<< Part II of article



1 Encyclopedia Britannica (Cambridge University Press, 11th edn 1911), Vol. XXII, p. 532.

2 1980-1991.

3 John 14.6.

4 In case any reader draws the wrong conclusion I should say that I accepted an invitation to become a member of the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie, though I resigned from it when he decided to become a Muslim: see

5 LAW COM No. 145 (1985), Offences against Religion and Public Worship.

6 See footnote 52.

7 The comment was made in [1979] Crim. L.R. at pp. 312-3.

8 See para. 2.35.

9 Ibid.

10 See para. 2.42.

11 The ballot is held under Standing Order No. 14(6) on the second Thursday on which the House of Commons sits in the new session.