Never tempted by the prospect of exposing the left breast and rolling up a trouser leg, while blindfolded and muttering odd sentences, the Masonic Order never seemed an inviting prospect. Others, however, seemed to get very exercised about those who indulged in such odd activities, they muttered about conspiracies and dark powers. When one of the churches in the North had a full blown debate on the matter in the early-1990s, it seemed time to find out more.
Contributing items to a weekly radio programme on religious affairs meant being able to get an interview with a Belfast academic who had just published a book about brotherhoods in Ireland. He was cagey in his answers. He had never been a member of any organisation and did not want to cause offence either to those who were members of brotherhoods, or to those who had been critical of the Freemasons in the church debate. It seemed a limp interview until it drew to a close, “I wouldn’t wish to be a member”, he said, “but when I look at those who have attacked the Freemasons, the Communists, the Nazis, and other extremist groups, I know who I would prefer”.
The interview prompted a couple of furious phone calls claiming that this man had no right to speak as he did, which was disturbing in itself, but reflected a wider belief that some groups of people had a right to tell others what they could and could not believe.
At the heart of the blasphemy provisions of the Defamation Act 2009, which came into force this weekend, is an assumption that within Irish society there are religious groups who have the right to feel offended at what others say, and other groups who may be prosecuted for saying what religious people find offensive. Even the language in which the legislation is couched inclines its implementation towards those who are the sort of people who write to the press feeling ‘grossly abused’ or ‘outraged.’
36.— (1) A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000.
(2) For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—
(a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is 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, and
(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.
(3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.
(4) In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—
(a) the principal object of which is the making of profit, or
(b) that employs oppressive psychological manipulation—
(i) of its followers, or
(ii) for the purpose of gaining new followers.
In a secular, liberal age, it’s hard to imagine many members of the main churches pursuing a prosecution; individual freedom includes the freedom for people to say nasty things. The legislation, instead, is a charter for extremists to pursue their intolerance of the things they decide not to like; a move back to a medieval worldview.
We have slipped a long way back from Voltaire, who in the 18th Century declared, “I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ But he would say that, wouldn’t he? He was a Freemason.