I am horrified that Irish police are reportedly considering charging Stephen Fry with blasphemy after a viewer laid a complaint about his description of God as capricious, mean-minded and stupid.
Freedom of conscience is one of the most vital human rights, for believer and non-believer alike. The Reformation brought a breakthrough in this notion by making a relationship with God an individual matter rather than being mediated through the church.
It was developed further through the Enlightenment and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is terrible when believers persecute others in the name of religion. Pakistan’s vicious blasphemy laws, under which Asia Bibi has spent seven years on death row for drinking from a Muslim cup, are a powerful injustice, and there has been plenty of Christian villainy.
It is also unpleasant when the intellectual thuggery comes from non-believers, whether it is Stalinist police throwing priests through ice holes to their deaths or attempts in modern Australia to silence opponents or get them sacked.
Too often, freedom of conscience only applies to those who share one’s opinion. It is an ugly hypocrisy.
When I was growing up, blasphemy meant using the words “God” or “Jesus Christ” as profane exclamations, “taking the name of the Lord in vain” in contradiction of the Third Commandment.
I notice when people do that, and I don’t like it much because it is contemptuous of religious sensibilities, but it’s part of life. It is pointless taking offence.
Far more serious, and far more dangerous, is when believers take the name of God in vain by living corrupt or exploitative or cruel lives, and this is what was principally meant when Moses brought that commandment down from Mount Sinai.
The prophet Isaiah condemns those who honour God with their lips but whose hearts are far removed, though, of course, believers should honour God with their lips also.
We Christians carry the name of our saviour in our self-description – “the name above all names,” the Bible says – and it is our responsibility to reflect Christ’s love, generosity, holiness and obedience to God in our lives. Our failures are what take God’s name in vain – actions outrank words.
Fry is entitled to his view, and if his assumptions about the God he doesn’t believe in were correct he would have a reasonable case. I would like to show him where I think he is wrong, but I don’t want to see him punished.
The blasphemer is not Fry but the slave owner, the abuser, the exploiter, the murderer. And the ultimate blasphemer is the terrorist who murders in the name of God.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.