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.
'A New Reason For Blasphemy Reform – Part
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.”
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 Canterbury 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’. The Talmud and the Koran make similar claims for their faiths. There can be only one
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.
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
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. 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 a powerful
comment by the late Professor Sir John Smith:
“ . . 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 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.”
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 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
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
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
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
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. It
is unlikely to be opposed, for who would oppose it?
<<<<<< Part II of article
Britannica (Cambridge University Press, 11th edn 1911), Vol. XXII, p. 532.
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
he decided to become a Muslim: see www.francisbennion.com/1991/009.htm.
COM No. 145 (1985), Offences against Religion and Public Worship.
comment was made in  Crim. L.R. at pp. 312-3.
ballot is held under Standing Order No. 14(6) on the second Thursday on which the House
sits in the new session.