Things to bear in mind when disagreeing

British actor Stephen Fry is unaware of 200 years of new thinking about God, says Ian Harris....
British actor Stephen Fry is unaware of 200 years of new thinking about God, says Ian Harris. Photo: Getty Images
It's been open season for flicking away the few remaining public signs that this was once a Christian country.

Naming Jesus in Parliament's opening prayer - gone. Respecting Easter by closing shops on Good Friday and Easter Sunday - gone in Dunedin (Ed Sheeran was in town!) and several other centres. In Christchurch, Good Friday marked the start of a cricket test. The March census will no doubt show the proportion of Christians in New Zealand shrinking further, while that for people ticking "no religion" will increase. Rounding it off, the Government moved last month to erase the crime of blasphemous libel from the statute books.

All these flow naturally from a secularising century in all Western countries. Do they mean the end of civilisation as we know it?

Not at all, though they certainly signal the end of Christianity's dominant position in society and public affairs. Once the churches had a vital presence in both, but they have badly misread our changing times, and with a broader cultural mix of immigrants in the past three decades, Christianity is now just the largest faith among many.

The law against blasphemous libel was not worded specifically to protect Christianity, but historically that was always assumed. In a secular state such as New Zealand (that is, one which is religiously neutral), no religion should expect to have special laws to uphold its traditions, apart from that safeguarding the right of all its citizens to follow freely the religion of their choice. Still less should any religion demand a law to protect the feelings of its members, which is essentially what the blasphemy law does.

People will occasionally mock or abuse some aspect of a religious faith, believing they are too smart to go along with "all that stuff". British actor and entertainer Stephen Fry exemplified that in 2015 when he asked on Irish television: "Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"

His question merely showed him to be unaware of 200 years of new thinking about God as a concept generated in the world of human thought, for the best of all possible reasons, instead of a real Being who acts in the physical world of science and nature. In our secular world, God is best thought of as the supreme symbol of what is ultimate in the values we live by, of the interconnectedness or coherence of all things, and a reference point that gives people's lives a sense of meaning and purpose.

Of course Fry's remarks would offend anyone who holds to the traditional concept of God, just as exhibiting a statuette of the Virgin Mary in a Condom in Wellington in 1998 was highly offensive to Catholics, and Danish cartoons about Mohammed infuriated Muslims in 2005.

There will always be people who gratuitously insult a religion, usually with minimal understanding of its true intent and nature. At a stroke, they show their ignorance, abuse their freedom and demean themselves.

But offending people's religious sensibilities should not be a crime punishable by up to a year in prison, as our law provides. While no charge of blasphemous libel has been heard in this country for 96 years, there was a bid to invoke the law over the Virgin statuette (the Attorney-general refused), and it is not hard to imagine outraged Muslims trying to do the same over some perceived slight to their faith.

Indeed, most Muslim countries have the severest legislation against blasphemy. In Pakistan, Catholic woman Asia Bibi is currently on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet in a neighbourhood tiff, a "crime" she denies.

New citizens deserve respect for their varied religious traditions, but ought not to claim exemption from the same critique of their beliefs as Christianity has long been exposed to - provided it is done "in good faith and decent language". Those words are in our current legislation, and apply to "any opinion whatever on any religious subject".

The basic point is simple: it's people who have human rights, not ideas. Ideas can and must be open to challenge and debate, or society stagnates. History offers plenty of examples of that.

Anyone is free to disagree with anyone else about matters of religion. But it should always be done with taste, decency and a modicum of knowledge. That includes the knowledge that undergirding all the world's major religions, when not corrupted by power, lie common values which are the bedrock of any civilised society: integrity, wisdom, justice and compassion.

 - Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.


I found Ian Harris' opinion piece on religion contradictory and uninformed. While telling us we should not go out of our way to offend the religious, in one fell swoop he informs billions of devout followers that the last 200 years has changed God from a personal relationship they have with the supreme Being to a "concept generated in the world of human thought". I expect they will be somewhat surprised (and offended) by this.

On the other hand, I was surprised to find out that religion was actually representing the "common values which are the bedrock of any civilised society". I shall have to go back over the Bible and re-read all those passages where God approves of slavery, rape, murder, genocide and human sacrifice. Clearly, I got the wrong idea.

I think that Ian Harris could learn a lot from Stephen Fry, who is clearly more knowledgeable regarding religion. While God may be a fluffy invisible and imaginary friend to Ian, there are people entering our primary schools promoting their faith to children who firmly believe in the God who created evil and hell. Where is their respect for others' beliefs? Find out more at

God didn't approve the ills cited. OT Scribes did, within the Patriarchy of ancient times. It made life easier for the masculine idiots.