Staying with the blasphemy thing a bit longer. If the real issue is offence taken by believers, rather than by the deity, is there not a valid point to be taken into account by atheists? If we believe – as we should – in pluralism; in the right of anyone to believe anything he likes, in a secular society. Should we not recognise that to cause deliberate offence to others whose beliefs differ from our own is not something that a civilised society should tolerate. After all, if you believe that black people are racially inferior to white people (or vice versa), most of us would agree that to go round saying so is insensitive at best and socially divisive at worst. In Britain we have laws against it. So why not take the same view about religious hatred? If someone goes round saying that Christians are socially inferior to atheists and should be socially deprived as a result, surely we would regard that as wrong. In fact of course, until Catholic Emancipation, Catholics were treated in exactly that way in Protestant England – they were second class citizens. If the Irish blasphemy law had that sort of behaviour in mind, we might disagree about whether it is suitable for legislation, but we would at least understand the principle behind it.
But that isn’t what Fry did. He pointed out the cruelty of an omnipotent deity who allows pain and suffering. He may have been a trifle more eloquent and vehement than most (and why not?) but he was hardly saying anything fundamentally new; the problem of suffering has tested the best religious thinkers for two millennia. And most important, he did not attack people of faith – just their god. In my view we atheists are entitled to this. There is again a parallel here with racism. The concept of positive discrimination in favour of blacks is popular. The argument is that it is necessary to compensate for the imbalances of the past. Well, the same is true for atheists – and in spades. For the best part of two millennia, anyone who dared question any of the church’s teachings was in serious legal trouble. And anyone who dared question the very existence of god was not allowed to live long enough to ponder the question further. I suggest we should view Fry’s words as legitimate positive discrimination to make up for the Spanish Inquisition and all the other persecutions people have suffered for the last two thousand years, for daring to question a god who kills babies. On that basis, I think Fry and the rest of us have pretty carte blanche to say what we like about Jehovah until the cows come home.