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Blasphemy. Such an antique idea, so medieval a concept, writes Lisa Scott.
Something surely belonging to a time of rough hemp tunics, tonsures and illustrated parchment, yet the Irish Republic plans to bring blasphemy charges against entertainer and atheist Stephen Fry for comments he made on a television programme in 2015 when asked what he would say to God, given the opportunity.
"I’ll say: Bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you create a world where there is such misery that’s not our fault? It’s utterly, utterly evil," he told Gay Byrne, host of programme The Meaning of Life.
"Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’’‘‘The god who created this universe ... is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish," Fry added.
"We have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him. What kind of god would do that?"
As far as I’m concerned, Fry was voicing something many people have thought at one time or another: the bad in the world beggaring belief. It was his opinion and he’s entitled to one, and to the articulation of it. Robust free speech is something New Zealanders value, which is why Prime Minister Bill English suggests we get rid of our own anti-blasphemy law, not used since 1922, under which blasphemous libel is punishable by up to 12 months in jail.
This country having broadened its mind considerably in the intervening years, we don’t think God needs defending (or that New Zealand needs God’s defending, as sung in our national anthem); are far more likely to be offended by violence or racism or property prices than a slanging match with the Almighty, who can probably take care of himself.
Brought up a Catholic myself, communioned, confirmed, as an adult my own relationship with God flims and flams, my faith at times wobbly to non-existent. Deathbed absolution sometimes seems the best I can hope for.
A law against blasphemy is a fence post marking the comfort zone of a religion in which doubt and despair are sins. We all have comfort zones: a psychological state where things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment. Parameters denoting that this far is fine, and a millimetre beyond is completely unacceptable; like kilt length when I was at high school, to check which, the nuns got their rulers out and made us kneel on the floor of the hall. These safety bubbles (this far and no more) keep us tethered and take many forms: language you would allow in your presence, treatment of women and children you would find acceptable, dangerous behaviour you would countenance or indulge.
Stepping out of your comfort zone raises anxiety and generates a stress response. It can be really good for you, exhilarating, and is the reason why tourists go bungy jumping. I stepped out of mine when I left the fur-lined pockets of material comfort, when I abandoned middle-class markers of success like toilets and husbands, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.
I used to be a bit of a scaredy-cat, extremely risk-averse, but with everything burnt to the ground, and me left holding the match, without the safety net of a stable relationship and the conventions and expectations of normality associated, the reckless streak I’ve always possessed emerged treble-fold, manifesting in night surfing, smoking at Olympic level, dating younger men ... midlife crisis behaviour akin to Evel Knievel bus-jumping, hedonism unchecked. I told myself it was character-building for me to be out of my comfort zone, far from the staid and boring, when really I was caroming hither and yon like a pinball whacked by a malevolent child.
All this came to a head this week when, hitchhiking home in the early hours of Monday morning, I caught a lift with two men who’d been awake for two days straight.
"Do you smoke?" asked the driver.
I thought they meant cigarettes. It was P. The passenger flicked a lighter under a blackened glass bowl and in the chemical light I caught a glimpse of the dead-shark eyes of nothing left to lose and saw just where a boundary-less freefall could take you. I got out of the car at Hampden, shaking. The first frost of the year nipped my fingers and the morning fog parted briefly to reveal the fact that I was standing in front of an old brick church.
"Thank you, God," I said.