Case of the missing blasphemy defense: What Ireland's Independent, BBC and the Daily Mail skipped

According to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, theodicy is defined as a "defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil."

It's a word not at all unfamiliar here at GetReligion central.

As it turns out, the question of theodicy might well be the linchpin of a potential police investigation in the Republic of Ireland involving a British comic named Stephen Fry. Since Fry is British, let's go to the recent account by the BBC (original spellings and style retained).

This is long, but essential. Read carefully.

Police in the Republic of Ireland have launched an investigation after a viewer claimed comments made by Stephen Fry on a TV show were blasphemous.
Officers are understood to be examining whether the British comedian committed a criminal offence under the Defamation Act when he appeared on RTE in 2015.
Fry had asked why he should "respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world. ... full of injustice".
He later said he was not "offensive towards any particular religion".
According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, no publicised cases of blasphemy have been brought before the courts since the law was introduced in 2009 and a source said it was "highly unlikely" that a prosecution against Fry would take place. ...
Appearing on The Meaning of Life, hosted by Gay Byrne, in February 2015, Fry had been asked what he might say to God at the gates of heaven.
Fry said: "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It's not our fault? It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"

Fry raises a question that's been around since the beginning of time, an issue to which philosopher Gottfried Leibniz gave the name "theodicy" in a 1710 book with that title. The question of how we can reconcile the existence of an all good and all powerful God with an evil and fallen world is a huge one.

But what helped give Leibniz a place in history almost gave Fry a cell in the big house. (See the "Update" comment at the end of this blog post.) Even though no charges will be brought against the funnyman and self-professed humanist, a complaint to Irish police over Fry's comments was seriously investigated by the force, known as the Gardaí. Charges were possible, according to the Irish Independent's news website:

Gardaí [police] in Donnybrook have recently contacted the man who made the report and a senior source revealed a full investigation is now due to be carried out.
Under the Defamation Act 2009 a person who publishes or utters blasphemous material "shall be guilty of an offence". They are be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000.

The Independent story -- along with the BBC summary and some other reports in recent days -- stipulates it is "highly unlikely" a prosecution will result, citing a police source who wished to remain anonymous.

But neither the Independent nor the BBC nor the ever-sober Daily Mail (cue the hair-on-fire reportage) mention the very first words to come from Fry in response to the question. Let's transcribe the video (above):

Interviewer Gay Byrne: "Suppose what Oscar believed in as he died, in spite of your protestations, suppose it's all true. And you walk up to the pearly gates and you're confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to Him, Her or It?"
Stephen Fry: "I will, basically -- that is theodicy: 'How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It's not right.'

You can see the journalism point a mile away. Fry says, the question is one of "theodicy."

I'm not a lawyer, but when you place questions such as, "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault" behind such a label, it strikes me that calling this blasphemy would be quite a stretch, however the law is written.

Watch the video and you'll see Fry is quite up front about this. He's as familiar with the term and its meaning as would be any first-year seminary student. Why not quote it? Why not explain it?

So -- here's the core journalism issue -- why not find some legal mind who can put these elements together and suggest whether or not invoking theodicy would be a legitimate defense against a blasphemy charge.

If it isn't, I would venture to suggest hundreds of preachers, professors of religion and others in the Republic of Ireland will henceforth sleep rather uneasily.

This is what reporting is all about: Carefully observing what is stated and checking to see where and how those comments fit in the context of the issue at hand. Little hinges swing big doors, the saying goes, and Fry's theodicy hinge might keep him out of the courtroom, let alone the slammer.

UPDATE: According to The New York Times, which also managed to avoid the use of "theodicy," no charges will be brought against Fry. To their credit, the Times did find two academics to comment on the Irish blasphemy statute as well as its origins and impact. This is more than the BBC, the Irish Independent and certainly the Daily Mail were able to accomplish.

Please respect our Commenting Policy