Why Christians should back scrapping Scotland’s blasphemy law

Why Christians should back scrapping Scotland’s blasphemy law

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 30, November, 2018

IT IS NOT OFTEN that I would find common cause with the Humanist Society of Scotland, but in relation to their campaign to have Scotland’s blasphemy law scrapped, that is exactly what is happening.

The HSS has consistently raised this issue over a period of years. In June 2017, an HSS member wrote to the then Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson MSP, asking for the blasphemy law to be dropped. The issue was then raised with the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament, and there have now been calls for it to be addressed as part of the Scottish Government’s updating of hate crime legislation. 

Scotland’s law against blasphemy is a common law offence, the last recorded prosecution having taken place in 1843 at Edinburgh High Court, when the bookseller Thomas Paterson was sentenced to 15 months in prison for selling blasphemous books. After such a long period of non-use, it is clear that the law has no current affect. Nonetheless, it remains part of Scots Law, and in June 2017 Michael Matheson reported: “The Scottish Government has no plans at this time to formally abolish the offence”. This is despite, as HSS have pointed out, the blasphemy laws of other European countries having been scrapped in recent years, including in England and Wales in 2008, Iceland and Norway in 2015, Malta in 2016, and Denmark in 2017.

So why should we now support calls from the Humanist Society for repeal of the blasphemy law? It seems to me that there are three key reasons for doing so.

Firstly, in a liberal democratic society it is essential that free speech should be protected. I wrote on this site earlier this year about the case of Count Dankula and his Nazi pug, and how that raised serious issues about the limits of free speech. At a time of worrying calls for “no platforming” and “safe spaces” to protect people against unfashionable opinions, it has always been my view that there is no right not to be offended by the views others might express. If people want to blaspheme Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, it should not be for the state to prevent them from doing so.

Moreover, I cannot see the argument that the good news of the Christian message needs protection from man-made laws – it has survived, and indeed flourished, through centuries of oppression and persecution.  And it is hard to see why, in a pluralistic society, Christianity should be entitled to a protection not afforded to other faith systems.

Secondly, Scotland’s blasphemy law is not actively in use, and it is nearly two centuries since there was last a prosecution. Arguably, it has fallen into desuetude, and even if the authorities were to try to bring a prosecution today, I suspect there would be a very strong defence from any one accused that the law no longer has effect through non-use over an extended period.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for scrapping Scotland’s blasphemy law is that it would help us argue on behalf of Christians persecuted using similar laws in other countries. The recent case of Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, has thrown this issue into sharp focus.

Sadly, Asia Bibi is by no means an isolated example. In Muslim majority countries across the Middle East, blasphemy laws are the norm, and are often used as a means of suppressing religious minorities such as Christians and the Bahá'í's. This week I met with representatives of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who are warning that blasphemy legislation is increasingly being used as a tool for religious oppression in many North African and Middle Eastern states. It is difficult for us to argue on behalf of those persecuted by blasphemy laws elsewhere, whilst we retain a similar piece of legislation in our own legal system.

For these three reasons, Christians in Scotland in particular should support these calls from the Humanist Society Scotland to scrap our antiquated blasphemy law. The Scottish Government has the opportunity as part of the review of hate crime legislation to do just this, and I will be urging them to take it.

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