Religious discrimination and human rights in Ireland – my speech at IAFT Congress in Paris

by Michael Nugent on September 23, 2017

Higgins PopeI delivered this talk today at the seventh Congress of the International Association of Freethought in Paris, France.

Atheist Ireland has two aspects to our work. The first part of our work is that we promote atheism and reason over supernaturalism and superstition. When doing this, we engage with the general public, and we disagree with and debate people of various religions. We argue strongly that faith is an unreliable way of understanding reality and morality.

The second part of our work is that we promote ethical secularism, by seeking separation of church and state, in our constitution, parliament, laws, schools and hospitals. When doing this, we work alongside Irish religious minorities who also face discrimination, such as Evangelical Christians and Ahmadi Muslims.

I am going to talk today about the second part of our work: promoting separation of church and state, and using human rights principles as the basis for this campaign.

History of religious discrimination in Ireland

When Ireland was partitioned a century ago, we ended up with two sectarian States. Northern Ireland was a sectarian Protestant State that discriminated against Catholics. The Republic of Ireland was a sectarian Catholic State that discriminated against Protestants. And both States discriminated against other minority religions and against atheists.

The 1937 Irish Constitution begins by saying that all authority comes from the Holy Trinity. It goes on to say that the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It includes obligatory religious oaths for President, Judges and Prime Minister. It includes a constitutional offence of blasphemy.

From early in the new State, the Catholic Church took control of most of our schools and hospitals. Today, 90% of our State-funded primary schools are run by the Catholic Church, and they have exemptions from our equality laws that allow them to discriminate on the ground of religion against students, parents and teachers.

In 1983 we added a constitutional ban on abortion in almost all circumstances. In the 1992 we had the X Case, in which the State took out an injunction to prevent a raped teenage girl from traveling to England for an abortion. In 2012 a pregnant woman, Savita Halappanavar, died in an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion.

In recent years, we have had the most serious manifestation of how religion has poisoned politics in Ireland. It was finally exposed that, for decades, while all of the above was going on, Catholic priests were raping and abusing children, and the Catholic Church was covering this up by moving the priests around, while the State did not properly investigate any claims made against the Church.

Atheist Ireland and human rights

This is the context in which Atheist Ireland was founded nine years ago. Our first task was to normalise the use of the words atheism and secularism, which up to then were used mostly as terms of abuse. We have far exceeded that target.

We now feature regularly in the Irish media. We lobby and brief politicians. We have addressed parliamentary committees and constitutional conventions. We are the first atheist group in the history of the State to officially meet with the Irish Prime Minister.

We base our campaigns for secularism on on internationally agreed human rights, such as freedom of religion and belief, freedom from discrimination, equality before the law, and the right to an effective remedy. We work alongside other human rights advocacy groups in Ireland and internationally.

We believe that human rights are the best foundation upon which to build our other secular policies, because human rights are not lofty aspirations, but are the absolute rock bottom minimum standards that we should expect to have without even having to campaign for them.

We brief the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE, on human rights abuses in Ireland.This year we also briefed the UN Human Rights Committee on religious persecution in Pakistan, in a joint delegation from Atheist Ireland Irish Evangelical Alliance and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland.

What does Atheist Ireland do?

In terms of specific issues, we work to end religious discrimination in civil marriages, religious oaths for high office, and the Irish blasphemy law which Islamic States highlight to buttress theirs. The Government has committed to holding a referendum to remove the Irish blasphemy law, and we are working hard to ensure that it keeps that commitment.

After years of robust lobbying, the Government seems to be finally addressing the issue of religious discrimination in schools. However, it is doing so by proposing the smallest changes that it can get away with. We continue to campaign for fundamental reform on the four equally important issues of patronage, access, curriculum and teaching.

In the meantime, we help atheist and minority faith families who schools discriminate against. We have achieved inclusive tendering for third level chaplaincies. We will soon be are publishing a book and lesson plans on freedom of religion and belief for children whose parents opted them out of religious education classes in school.

We were part of the successful campaign to legalise marriage equality. Ireland is now the first country to legalise gay marriages by popular vote of the people. We are also part of the Coalition for a referendum to remove the constitutional ban on abortion, and the Government has committed to holding such a referendum next year.

Ireland is No Longer a Catholic Country

Ireland is no longer a Catholic country. Ireland is now a pluralist country, but with Catholic laws. The most recent census shows one in ten people with no religion, more than all of the minority faith members combined. And church attendance figures are even lower than that. Most people who say they are Catholic are Catholic only in name.

The Catholic Church no no longer controls the people, but it still has sectarian laws in place from when it did control the people. Many of those laws are protected by the sectarian 1937 Constitution, and any changes to the Constitution require referendums of the people.

So progress might seem slow, but I am optimistic. We are living in an age when we do not know when political change might happen, but when it does happen, it can happen suddenly and unexpectedly.

In our lifetime, we have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the IRA campaign in Ireland. More recently we have seen the UK vote to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump elected President of America.

I do not know what will trigger the eventual separation of Church and State in Ireland, but I am confident that it will happen. And when it does happen, it believe it will happen very quickly. And when that happens, all of the work that Atheist Ireland, in preparing detailed policies for an ethical secular State, will become retrospectively useful.

In the meantime, we in Atheist Ireland will continue to work, patiently and strongly, to promote atheism, reason and ethical secularism, both in Ireland and with you, our friends and colleagues around the world.

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