The clock is ticking down in the run up to Ireland’s blasphemy referendum on October 26th. Few commentators think that the law should remain on the books. However, John Waters writes in The Sunday Times that the blasphemy law should be kept to safeguard respect and belief [1]. His argument is confused on two grounds.

Knowledge
Photo by Ansonlobo under the CC Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Firstly, just because something is held as a belief should not mean that it is automatically worthy of respect. For example, you could hold the belief that it is right to slaughter 5000 innocent women and children, however it does not follow that this belief should be respected. Secondly, and perhaps worth exploring in more detail here, is the question of the meaning of belief itself. It could be argued that religions, typically, do not truly offer a set of beliefs. Rather, they assert to know. This may seem like a trivial difference, but it has important consequences. We can flesh this out with a thought experiment.

I may be looking for my jacket at the end of an evening at a friend’s house. I am standing in the hall and vaguely remember leaving the jacket in the kitchen, which is directly off the hall. If it is in the kitchen, but I do not have a clear line of sight to it, then I may believe that the jacket is in the kitchen. However, if I do have a clear line of sight to the jacket, then I will know that it is in the kitchen. The effect of these two differing mindsets can be tested. If I merely believe that my jacket is in the kitchen, and someone then tells me that it is in the sitting room, then I will most likely accept their suggestion as a possibility. I will not dogmatically argue with them that, in fact, the jacket is in the kitchen. I will not get angry at them. Nor will I demand that it is offensive for them to suggest that the jacket may be in a different room to the one I had in mind.

However, if I am asserting that I know that the jacket is in the kitchen and someone tells me otherwise, there is a good chance that I would robustly disagree with them. For I would know that the jacket is in the room; I may even be pointing at the jacket with conviction. Which of the two - belief or assert to know - best describes the position of those who would argue for the preservation of blasphemy legislation? Do they ever put forward their beliefs and then qualify them by saying they might be wrong? Do these sound like the kind of beliefs that may need defending by a constitutional protection? Do these sounds like beliefs at all?

This difference, between belief and asserted knowledge, is not a new concept being introduced here. Rather, it has been at the heart of civilisation for over two thousand years - as epistemology - the study of how certain we can be of things. This is one of the core fields of philosophy, arguably first argued by Xenophanes in the 5th century BCE. Since then, Plato, Aristotle and pretty much every significant philosopher has had something to say about it. [2] This difference is crucial and can guide us as to whether we want to live in a country with blasphemy legislation, or without. The former is the current situation in Ireland and other jurisdictions that have legal measures in place to repress critical thinking. We have an opportunity to put clear light between Ireland and countries that would threaten, sanction and, in some cases, torture those who would defy religious belief. [3] So what is to be done on Friday, October 26th? We are at a point in history where we can assert to know that repealing this law is the right thing to do.

References

  1. Coyne, Ellen, John Waters Launches Campaign To Keep Blasphemy In Constitution, Thetimes.Co.Uk, 2018
  2. Adamson, Peter, 3 - Created In Our Image: Xenophanes Against Greek Religion, History Of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, 2018. Transcript of quote: ‘He [Xenophanes] is distinguishing between believing something and really knowing it, a distinction that will be tremendously useful down the line when we get to Plato’ (16m20s)
  3. Blasphemy Referendum - It Is Important That We All Vote, irishexaminer.com, 2018

P.S.

The field of epistemology, the discerning knowledge from belief, is an extensive one. Trying to cover it here in detail would not do it justice. We will likely explore this in a future post with reference to the above.