What if Ireland discriminated for atheism instead of for religion?

by Michael Nugent on March 2, 2013

This is an extract from a talk I gave at Trinity College Dublin last week on the relationship between religion and the Irish State.

I want you to imagine if the Irish State was run in the reverse way to the way that it is at the moment with regard to religion and atheism.

Imagine if the preamble to our Constitution began with the words “In the name of atheism, we the people, acknowledging the nonexistence of gods, do enact this constitution.”

Imagine if our President and judges had to swear an oath that began “In the absence of any gods” and that ended with the phrase “May my atheism direct and sustain me.”

Imagine if our Constitution included an article about atheism that began: “The state acknowledges that public praise is due to atheism. It shall hold atheism in reverence, and shall respect and honour atheism.”

Imagine if our Parliament started every day with by reciting: “May our actions be directed by our atheism, so that every word and work of ours may always begin and end in atheism.”

Imagine if there was a law against publishing “matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to atheism, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of atheists…”

Imagine if 96% of our primary schools were run with an explicitly atheist ethos – not a neutral, secular ethos, but an explictly atheist ethos – where children were taught that there is no god, and that ethos was permeated throughout the entire curriculum.

Imagine if the UN Human Rights Committee repeatedly told us that this was infringing on the human rights of religious people, and the state said they would set up a forum to discuss having a small number of agnostic schools, but still no religious schools.

Imagine if our hospitals were run with an explicitly atheist ethos, with signs on the walls saying that there is no god, and with atheist ethics committees, and with the danger of a dying patient being told ‘this is an atheist country’

Imagine if the Equal Status Act and Employment Equality Act allowed atheist schools and hospitals and training colleges to explicitly discriminate in favour of atheists in order to protect the atheist ethos of their institutions.

Imagine if the state funded atheist chaplains in our schools and hospitals and army, at a cost that could provide more teachers and nurses and doctors.

Imagine if atheists were automatically allowed to solemnise state marriages, but religious people had to undergo a series of legal and political tests to satisfy the State that they were suitable people to do so.

Imagine if atheist groups were exempt from paying tax, and if the Charities Act included ‘the advancement of atheism’ as a charitable purpose, but excluded the advancement of religion.

Imagine if the default oath in our courts was that you were asked to swear as an atheist to tell the truth, and that you had to openly object to that in order to avoid doing it.

Imagine if the Juries Act exempted representatives of atheist bodies, but not of religious bodies, from jury duty.

Imagine if an atheist group that runs most of our schools had been found by various tribunals to have been abusing children, and covering up the abuse of children, for decades.

Imagine if an international atheist group, to which that atheist group was affiliated, that acted as if it was also a state, had been involved in moving atheists who abused children from country to country to avoid facing up to the legal responsibilities of their actions.

Imagine if our state continued to have diplomatic relations with that association, and exchanged ambassadors with it as if it were a legitimate State.

Now, that sounds outrageous. And it is outrageous.

But it is just as outrageous in the current circumstances, where all of those things apply, but the other way around.

Imagine if there was even one explicitly atheist school in Ireland – not a secular school, but an atheist school, that explicitly taught that there was no god.

Imagine that even one set of religious parents was forced by circumstances to send their child to that school.

We would never hear the end of it until it was resolved.

But in Ireland we have multiple times that discrimination continuing without anyone even thinking that it is a problem.

Why do you believe that your religion is more important than our atheism?

The State certainly should not believe that.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Thomas March 2, 2013 at 12:23 am

Brilliant Michael, an atheist state that acted like the current state would be awful and is the strawman the religious apologists attack. I, even being an atheist would not want to live in such a state. But a secular state, now that would be awesome.

2 Daniel Murray March 2, 2013 at 12:58 am

I swear in the sure and certain knowledge there is no god lol an amusing thought but a contradiction in terms as atheism is not a belief and cannot be discriminated for.. you cannot discriminate towards people who are not christians, not jews… Your piece is an interesting exercise, but unhelpful rhetoric that plays right into and supports the negative and false perceptions of non belief in god. It is a vacuous as saying can god make a rock so heavy he cannot carry and as misleading as saying atheists attest to there being no god.

You have failed atheism very badly in this piece and set us back and this line says it all “Why do you believe that your religion is more important than our atheism?” Religion is a belief, atheism is not. if you cannot understand that, as it has repeatedly appeared so, you should really step down.

This is not the first time I have thought this of your ill thought out articles and easy .. gain, empty rhetoric. Even when you reduce this to a game of words you fail very badly.. like an incompetent William Lane Craig. If this is the face of irish atheism, I’m out.

3 Michael Nugent March 2, 2013 at 1:06 am

Thanks, David. I think the reverse-discrimination analogy is a useful way of breaking through the lack of thought many religious people put into the current discrimination.

Daniel, I don’t for a moment buy the idea that atheism is not a belief. Atheism can be anything from a passive disbelief that there are gods to an active belief that there are no gods. And even the distinction between those two is more illusory than real.

4 Joel March 2, 2013 at 1:57 am

“I don’t for a moment buy the idea that atheism is not a belief. Atheism can be anything from a passive disbelief that there are gods to an active belief that there are no gods. And even the distinction between those two is more illusory than real.”

So, because I don’t think Superman is real, therefore I hold the belief that Superman doesn’t exist? It’s an ‘active belief’ that there is no Superman?

5 Michael Nugent March 2, 2013 at 2:16 am

Joel, here is how I see it.

Once you have been exposed to the idea of Superman (let’s assume we are talking about the DC Comics superhero character) then you either believe that he exists or you believe that he doesn’t exist.

Neither position is (necessarily) a claim of certainty, and either position can be accompanied by a lot of doubt or a little doubt or no doubt.

But once you have been exposed to the idea, unless you have some reason to believe that there there is exactly a 50/50 chance of Superman existing or not, you will come down, on balance, however slightly or greatly, either on the side of believing that he exists or believing that he doesn’t.

6 Michael Nugent March 2, 2013 at 2:25 am

I think that the tendency for some atheists to describe atheism as an absence of belief in gods more accurately describes how they choose to express their belief, than it describes what their actual belief is.

And I think that some people conflate the idea of believing that a yes/no assertion is either true or false, with a claim of knowledge or certainty that the yes/no assertion is either true or false.

So you can believe that [any god/a particular god/Superman] does not exist without making any claims of certainty that it does not exist.

7 Daniel Murray March 2, 2013 at 2:27 am

Atheism is the absence of belief in god/gods. I don’t know one person who is an atheist who treats it as a belief that there is certainly no god.;

8 Michael Nugent March 2, 2013 at 2:30 am

That said, I’m quite happy for atheists to describe their atheism as either not believing that there are gods, or believing that there are no gods, or whatever other variation they choose.

In reality the word atheism means different things to different people, including to different atheists. And its meaning has changed many times over the generations, and will no doubt continue to change.

9 Stacy March 2, 2013 at 3:26 am

So, because I don’t think Superman is real, therefore I hold the belief that Superman doesn’t exist?

Of course. What do you think the word “real” means?

real (Adjective) Actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed: “Julius Caesar was a real person”

10 Underwood March 2, 2013 at 9:07 am

First time commenter.

And to say: I chose to home-educate in no small part because it was the only way I could avail of a secular education for my children. It’s beyond ridiculous that in the 21st century, the State-provided education is 99% a religious one.

Also, I had not realised quite how religion-imbued this country still was, till you put it in that list. Scary stuff.

11 Eoin March 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

Michael I would like to thank you again for your tireless efforts on all of our behalf.

With regards to the belief disbelief divide I see above, it doesn’t matter if we equate our disbelief to their belief or not. For a myriad of reasons the catholics see us as a competing worldview.

It’s easier to understand atheism as a rough set of views agreed upon by all atheists for believers. Obviously we are not unified in our beliefs on all sorts of social and economic issues. We must unite in our disunity.

12 Tony March 2, 2013 at 12:49 pm

The pedantic nature of some of the follow up comments couldn’t help but remind me of the squabble between the two factions who were both breaking into Pilate’s palace at the same time in “The Life of Brian”. As Brian tries to break them up he implores them that “we should be struggling against the common enemy”, and both factions reply “The Judean People’s Front!”

13 Daniel Murray March 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm

The definition of atheism cannot be pedantic to an atheist. We are often expected to prove there is no god! as if we assert this as a fact of certainty. Most atheists do not hold such ridiculous assertions as they are largely atheist for reasons that would make believing, asserting there definatly is no god, contradictory.

The same argument can be used almost whole for asserting something without proof regarding belief in god and the belief that there 100% for sure is no god. Atheists to person, from my experience make a point of saying they do not assert there is no god, they just don’t believe in god… not that there definatly is no god/gods.

Atheism is not a belief. There can be beliefs associated with it and rightly so. For example that we should not believe things without proof. That religion has a corrupting influence on society. that indoctrination is wrong.In humanism and secularism. Not always true, but often and these beliefs do have a relationship with atheism. But atheism is not a belief, to not believe something is not a belief. I don’t believe in fairies… is that a belief?

14 Michael Nugent March 2, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Daniel, I’ll reply to this in more detail later, but your main concerns seem to be built on a misunderstanding that ‘believing there are no gods’ is the same thing as ‘asserting with certainty that there are no gods,’ and that you believe that the second statement is harder to defend in debate with theists than the first.

But ‘believing there are no gods’ is *not* the same thing as ‘asserting with certainty that there are no gods,’ so you are building your concerns on a misunderstanding. As I said, I’ll reply in more detail later.

15 Michael Nugent March 2, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Daniel, if you are interested in familiarising yourself with some of the arguments of atheists who say that they believe that there is no god, I would recommend starting with any of the following books.

God – The failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor Stenger

The Non-Existence of God by Nicholas Everitt

The Impossibility of God, a series of essays by members of The Disproof Atheists Society edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier.

There are more, but those three are particularly good.

16 Paco March 2, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Daniel, you say ” I don’t know one person who is an atheist who treats it as a belief that there is certainly no god.” – why did you feel the need to add “certainly” there? In other comments posts you use also introduce “assert”, “definititely”, “100% sure” also gratuisly – nothing to do with the word “belief”. .. Remove those and you have what to me (and many) is the definition of atheism – “I believe there is no god”. I don’t claim to have proof of it, but I belive there is no god. Without this belief, I would claim just I’m “not religious”. I also believe there is no life after death. I can’t really prove that either. But that’s what I believe. There is nothing wrong with having beliefs. I’ll accept it if I’m proven wrong, but meanwhile, my beliefs are what they are.

After removing the word “certainly” from your claim, Daniel, it reads “I don’t know one person who is an atheist who treats it as a belief that there is no god”. I actually can claim that every atheist I personally know has that belief. None of us claim to have proof of it. None of us will assert it as fact. But we certainly believe that’s the case.

A different point is whether the atheist agenda should focus on promoting that belief. I think most of us would agree that the first priority is to promote secularism and fight discrimination against atheists (discrimination really well described by Michael’s post). I’m ok with that approach – people, including children, suffer because of this discrimination. If we lived in a modern, secular, country, however, you could expect an Atheist organization to promote atheist beliefs (there is no god, religion and superstition are harmful) more actively. Some atheists may be uncomfortable with that (I wouldn’t). In any case, AI seems focused on fighting discrimination (and rightly so) so they need not to worry.

Finally, Daniel, the last paragraph of your first comment is uncalled for, particularly after what I believe is a weak argument from you. Michael is far too kind in his replies.

17 argumentix March 2, 2013 at 11:25 pm

It’s nice to know that as a movement, we now have our own puritanical sect. They are driving me frantic with their pedantic antics.

Daniel, many atheists claim there are no gods, and simultaneously that they have no proof. This is not a contradiction. The atheist claim can be rendered more carefully as : “the positive claims made by believers conflict with my mental model of the world, which is built from science and reason. My mental models tells me that on balance of probability, there are no gods.” Note there is no claim of proof here.

The correct response to a religious person asking you to prove their god does not exist is to beat them over the head with Russell’s teapot.

18 Daniel Murray March 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Micael and the yes men. First Michael the second of your posts is, well,that is a bit patronizing, perhaps that was not your intention. My point here about the assertion that there is not god is one that has no evidence and is both unprovable and un disprovable.

Most atheists don’t follow the idea that”faith” is a virtue as is asserts something without proof. The same can be said of an active belief that there is not god. Someone with that belief would not have a leg to stand on in an argument against theism/deism as they could not reference proof once as their belief have no proof. Every debater I have seen argue against theism has stresses the point that they, and most atheists, do not assert their is no god as this would be ridiculous.

It is not an incidental point, it is central and one of the few points that is almost universal among atheists.If one says religions are lacking in proof or positive empirical evidence and this is one of the main reasons you do not believe then you cannot, without contradicting yourself, actively believe there is not god.

This assertion that atheists believe actively their is no god is irritating and false. In fact the only people I have heard say that atheists believe actively there is no god, are people like William Lane Craig, Denish Desuza etc. i.e. theists debaters. They will say that the other side has to prove there is no god!As for science, by definition we cannot disprove the non existence of a non existent supernatural being. This is also central to the atheist view. Michael, you seem to have dug yourself into a hole and are refusing to keep digging. Please admit that most atheists do not actively believe there is no god and that in fact atheists would find that assertion similar to a religious one.

As for the assertion/believing difference, I think we have clarified that in previous comments and you have made clear your understanding and “belief” on the scale of atheism with the positive belief as being what you are defending, not the passive lack of belief.

There is no misunderstanding there. The belief aspect of atheism, as laid out by yourself, is the active belief there are no gods. Let’s not get into a word game when we both know what we are discussing.

You(Michael) replied with “I don’t for a moment buy the idea that atheism is not a belief. Atheism can be anything from a passive disbelief that there are gods to an active belief that there are no gods. And even the distinction between those two is more theoretical than real.” Here you say atheism is a belief, while accepting areas where it is not. The area it is a belief, according to you is “an active belief that there are no gods” and you are taking the belief side in your article it seems and this is confirmed by your response.

AS for the difference between the passive belief in god against the active belief there are no gods, this is a different discussion to whether atheism is a belief or not. As I have commented earlier, the argument that atheism is a belief and an active belief there is no god is not one I have ever experienced from another atheist. Many theists though. This view will really undermine your debating position if a theist debater finds out about it.

To believe, in the active sense (I say this and other words and phrases for clarity Paco) that there are no gods and to believe this without proof means you think it is ok with you to believe things without proof, just as religions do, well with little proof. In fact to believe something without proof puts you in a very weak position to criticize religions that have flimsy proof.

Some may say this is extreme, it is not, it is very basic. If you think your beliefs should be compelled by proof, not chosen by what suits, you are being hypocritical to belive (actively) there are no gods as apposed to not believing in god but accepting you can not prove that. This is a central argument of atheism, what can be believed without p[roof can be dismissed without proof. By definition we cannot disprove the non existence of a non existent supernatural being. We must be agnostic on that point. If you actively believe it you are holding an irrational belief, at least as irrational as any of the main religious beliefs.

If there is a sect, it is those who actively believe there is no god or are no gods. This is strenuously fought by atheist organizations and is a perception that makes us look as irrational as theists.

I hope some fellow atheists will speak up, or even a good theologist or philosopher in logic and reason, to help me point out the obvious.

19 Daniel Murray March 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm

@Paco, to edit my sentences to suit yourself then fight a comment I didn’t make but you did is disingenuous in the extreme.

Then you follow up my point and respond against me,in your second paragraph, where you completely contradict yourself and make the point I am making, that no one claims they can prove it. If you look at michael’s reply to me you can see where the “certainty” comes into it. I am saying no one claims it is provable and that they don’t believe in god, I added my other words to belief to clarify if as belief can be a bit hazing and open to interperitation, then you take all those words away and seem to take exception to them. THEN you respond with the complete misunderstanding I was trying to avoid and the clarity I was trying to give. i.e. against the active believe… please don’t take out the word “active” and respond to belief in a the way active is put in to stop by clarifying the way I am using the word. Honestly Paco, how can you stand over that very sneaky and dishonest response !!!

20 Daniel Murray March 5, 2013 at 2:12 pm

@argumetex. That is my point. Please read michael’s response where he talks about atheism being a belief and specifies the active belief there is no god.

It is very frustrating to be misrepresented and countered with your own point. I don’t believe in god. I don’t consider this a belief. I do not say there is, in an active way, no god or god’s, this is what I was countering. I think we should believe things the proof compels us to. There is and can, at present anyway, be no proof there is no non existent supernatural being. This is what I am apposing in response to Michael’s assertion atheism is a belief and seemingly to say active belief there are no gods as opposed to not believing in god/gods, is a significant part of the atheist view. It is not. Most atheists don’t believe in gods but do not actively claim there is no god as this cannot and does not have any proof. Most atheists do not hold with assertions/beliefs without proof.

21 Paco March 5, 2013 at 10:56 pm

@Daniel

First of all, I resent your “yes men” comment, again uncalled for. Please stop the personal attacks. They do not help you.

Second, on your comment:
“To edit my sentences to suit yourself then fight a comment I didn’t make but you did is disingenuous in the extreme.”

I explicitly “edited” your sentence ( (1) “After removing the word “certainly” from your claim…”, (2) “Remove those and you have what to me …. ”) to bring it back to the topic of belief and not assertion, how am I being disingenous there?

And editing is what I was pointing out *you* are doing (and not explicitly) – you keep adding “certainly”, “assertion”, “claim” and “100% sure” qualifiers to the sentence “i believe there is no god” which is what we were discussing in the first place. And you keep doing it by the way. So who is being disingenuous?

Maybe you don’t feel your your point is solid enough without constantly replacing or combining “belief” with “assert”, or “claim”, and I don’t blame you.

Moving on, I am happy that you chose not to believe anything you can’t prove. I see that more as a choice of not expressing that unproven belief rather than not having it in the first place (I doubt you really have a totally neutral opinion on all such debates). It possibly makes it easier to have (or rather to avoid) debates with those believing in gods, as you point out.

I however I am happy to express my beliefs (there is no god), and will accept being proven wrong. I don’t have (since I can’t have) proof of my beliefs, but they are based on reason. And as you can see I’m not the only one that feels that way.

22 Daniel Murray March 6, 2013 at 1:14 am

@ Paco, you are full of it Paco. The whole point i was making was on certainty so to edit it out then answer to your own comment has no excuse. You have no right to dictate and edit others comments to what you see they should be. I made a point and you falsely thought it was of point.. how dare you tell me it is about belief and not assertion. Discussions are about exchanging ideas. If you thought I was wronmg, say it, don’t go through this propaganda exercise in censorship and have the cheek to stand over it. What purpose did you changing my main point then answering your edited statement attributed to me serve.

To question my point being solid when you changed its wording is laughable. I made my point and made it straight, you did not.

As for everything else you have said, presumptions about what I believe etc. they mean nothing. You are clearly a hypocrite who cannot debate or argue without re writing comments then responding to them or putting words in peoples mouths… how’s this for personal, you are a sub moron. So much so you can miss the point entirely and take out the central point then answer that. Just stay away from me.

23 Daniel Murray March 6, 2013 at 1:16 am

to answer on how you are being disingenuous, in case you didn’t get it. You to the specific point I was stressing out, then answered your edited version of my point/comment. If you are so stupid as to think that achieves anything you are truly lost./

24 Paco March 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm

The topic discussed was “do atheist believe there is no god”, you claim that is not the case, yet to argue your point you talk about atheists “asserting there is no god” “100% sure there is no god” etc rather than just plain, personal, belief.

All of us have made it clear that in no way we claim proof there is no god – there is no debate there, there never was. You know that.

When I try to bring you back to the topic of personal belief, by asking you to rephrase your claims using just plain belief and not certainty or assertion, you start claiming I’m putting words in your mouth, being disingenious, and other niceties …

In the process, you are managed to insult and alienate every single person in this thread. And somehow “hope some fellow atheists will speak up, or even a good theologist or philosopher in logic and reason, to help me point out the obvious.” – sure, you really encourage debate so well, I’m sure people are really keen of joining in now.

By the way you can keep any further insults to yourself. I’m done with this thread.

25 Daniel Murray March 6, 2013 at 3:40 pm

paco, the moment you started re writing my comments when twisting my words wasn’t enough you lost all credibility.

You read my comments with extreme prejudice which warped your thinking. You failed to see my point about the active over the passive and responded in a hostile way.

I am done with your gibberish, I hope calling it gibberish is enough to offend your delicate sensibilities. You can’t call foul after your dishonest dealings with my questions and observations.

That’s it. I am not wasting time talking to someone who doesn’t read what is said but what they want to see, re writes and responds to re writes and gets all precious when confronted.

That is my final word. Please let us leave it there as this is pointless and agravating.

26 Daniel Murray March 6, 2013 at 3:41 pm

last point I never said atheists asserted there was no god. I am an atheist and I don’t and I thought most felt the same. Goodbye.

27 Tony March 6, 2013 at 4:44 pm

How do I make it end?!?

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