This is a response to Dick Spicer’s open letter to Atheist Ireland last week, followed by documentary evidence that the HAI does in fact promote the political cause of separation of church and state, contrary to the assertions made by the current HAI Board in order to sign up to the Civil Registration Act.
I respect the contributions that Dick Spicer and the current HAI Board members have made to the advancement of secularism in Ireland, and several of them are my personal friends. But I believe that they have lost perspective on this issue.
I have waited a week to respond, because I wanted to enable others to read Dick’s letter on its own merits, without me shifting the focus by immediately responding. I hope that we can tease out or differences reasonably.
Because Dick’s letter says very little about the Civil Registration Act itself, I have confined myself here to responding to the points that he made in his letter, which are largely about the political philosophies of Atheist Ireland and the HAI. These are important issues to discuss, as they go to the heart of this matter.
1. Response to Dick Spicer’s open letter to Atheist Ireland
Dick Spicer: Dear Atheist Ireland members, It has been a great joy to me and other humanists to see the development in Ireland of a determined Atheist group such as yours. I see it as a really healthy sign for Irish society and its development to have secular groups like AI and the HAI in existence pursuing their respective agendas. Indeed this perspective led me to play a modest role in the formation of both groups and decades before that in the Campaign to Separate Church and State (CSCS).
I agree with Dick that it is healthy for Irish society and its development to have Atheist Ireland and the HAI promoting our respective agendas. And I think Dick is modestly understating the role that he has personally played in advancing secularism in Ireland over the decades. We should all remember that we are friends and colleagues, discussing differences of strategy in trying to bring about broadly the same goals over lifetimes of voluntary campaigning.
Dick Spicer: It pains me doubly therefore to see a degree of confusion emerging which might damage the Irish secular movement as a whole.
This is a useful starting point around which we can unite. Dick’s reference to ‘the Irish secular movement as a whole’ only makes sense if both groups are promoting secularism, which is both a social and political cause. Any confusion about this is emerging from the current board of the HAI, and not from Atheist Ireland or from the general membership of the HAI.
The position of Atheist Ireland is crystal clear: we promote the political cause of separation of church and state. We want a secular Irish constitution, a secular Irish parliament, secular Irish government, a secular Irish education system and a secular Irish healthcare system. We promote this by a combination of public awareness campaigns and political lobbying.
The position of the HAI has up to recently been similarly clear. Indeed, the HAI website is explicit about this. It says: “The HAI campaigns for equal treatment by the State of the non-religious with the religious; the abolition of religious privileges; and ultimately the total separation of Church from State. It aspires to a balanced, secular society.”
Some of us as HAI members want the HAI to continue to promote the political cause of the total separation of church and state. However, most but not all of the current HAI board want to change this position, without debate among the members, to a position of the HAI not promoting a political cause.
They want to do this in order to satisfy the requirements of the Civil Registration Act, so that humanist celebrants can also solemnise marriages, despite the fact that the Act discriminates both against nonreligious citizens and between nonreligious citizens, and that the HAI will no longer be able to legally promote the political cause of secularism.
Dick Spicer: I am referring here to the pattern of the AI leadership taking issue with the HAI approach to gradual reform and the ‘Open Letter to HAI members’ being circulated by Michael Nugent and others.
Atheist Ireland is not taking issue with the HAI approach to gradual reform. It is entirely up the members of the HAI what approach the HAI takes. But this issue is not merely about ‘gradual reform’ versus immediate reform. It is also about the HAI having to sign up to a declaration that it does not promote a political cause at all. This prevents the HAI from pursuing even the ‘gradual reform’ that Dick mentions.
Also, the open letter that Dick refers to is not from Atheist Ireland to the HAI. It is from one HAI member, Andrew Rattigan, to his fellow HAI members. The reason that Atheist Ireland published this letter is because the current HAI board had refused to convene a HAI members meeting to discuss the issue, and had refused to allow the issues to be discussed at the scheduled monthly meetings.
Atheist Ireland will continue to facilitate reasoned respectful debate on secular issues, including by publishing letters such as Andrew’s and Dick’s and this. As atheists and humanists and freethinkers and secularists, we should encourage reasonable debate among our members rather than try to close it down.
Dick Spicer: Michael is a talented representative of the Atheist perspective (as I knew he would be when I suggested him as a likely Chairperson) but his approach sits uneasily, clashes even, with the humanist philosophical perspective as I see it.
I appreciate and reciprocate Dick’s compliment. And I accept that my approach may well clash with ‘the humanist perspective as Dick sees it’. But another way of phrasing that would be that Dick’s approach may well clash with ‘the humanist perspective as I see it’. There is no objective ‘humanist perspective’ against which we must all measure our approaches.
Dick Spicer: However, if it did not – then there would be no logical reason for the separate existence of the two groups?
In my opinion, the strongest reason for the separate existence of the two groups is that some people prefer to self-identify primarily as atheists, and some people prefer to self-identify primarily as humanists. Having two groups allows more people to get involved at whatever level of self-identification they feel most comfortable.
Dick Spicer: My expectations were that with the public foundation and existence of an atheist group, an outlet would be given to those secularists of a definite atheist outlook who wished to promote atheism intellectually and politically and garner support accordingly. The role of our Irish humanist group with it’s moderate philosophy and provision of services to those non-religious who require them is obviously somewhat different. A degree of overlap is to be expected of course as humanists look for secular advance in society but the humanist perspective in general could be expected to be a more encompassing less militantly anti-religious one.
That is all fine as Dick’s personal expectations, but it was not the reason that either Atheist Ireland or the HAI were founded. Atheist Ireland is not ‘militantly’ anti-religious. That is a phrase popularised by religious opponents of secularism, and we should not be encouraging its use. Atheist Ireland promotes atheism, reason and ethical secularism.
There is nothing inherent in either atheism or humanism that would make one group necessarily more or less assertive or moderate, or more or less political or non-political. Many countries have distinct atheist, humanist, freethinking, secular and other groups, each of which has an ethos that derives from the wishes of its members, and not from anything inherent in the name.
Dick Spicer: The logic of promoting an atheist group is that one can have a more hard-hitting, focused political pressure group alongside the more service orientated humanist group and no one would deny that under Michael’s leadership AI has functioned thus. The HAI over many years, has developed its services to the non-religious community, (indeed requests for such were the impelling factor in its formation) whilst supporting changes in society which benefit that community.
Again, that is all fine as Dick’s personal preference, but it is not the reason that Atheist Ireland was founded. Committee members of Atheist Ireland and the HAI have met several times to discuss the relationship between the two groups. We have repeatedly agreed the following broad areas of overlap and distinctions:
- Atheist Ireland and the HAI both promote the political cause of separation of church and state.
- Atheist Ireland also promotes atheism and challenges the harm caused by religion.
- The HAI also provides services such as wedding, funeral and baby-naming ceremonies.
- Both groups will encourage members of the public to consider joining either or both of the groups, depending on which suits their personal preferences.
But there is nothing in that scenario that suggests that Atheist Ireland is a purely political pressure group, or that the HAI is a purely service-driven group. For example, Atheist Ireland is also involved in promoting social diversity and inclusiveness, and we raise money for charitable activities including lending to third world businesses through Kiva. And the HAI is directly involved in political lobbying on a range of issues.
Dick Spicer: The damaging confusion I see emerging is that AI seems to be seeking to influence the HAI to become a mirror image of itself – i.e. to become a militant political pressure group.
The confusion is coming from the current board of the HAI, and not from Atheist Ireland. And the confusion is added to by the use of the loaded phrase ‘militant’ to describe Atheist Ireland. It is the current HAI board that is trying to change the HAI’s political position, without debate among the members, to a position of the HAI not promoting a political cause, in order to facilitate the requirements of the Civil Registration Act.
Dick Spicer: By directly intervening as chair of the AI and challenging the HAI to change its perspective Michael is destroying the logic of having two separate groups with differing approaches, agendas and philosophies. He is leading others who might have joint membership of both groups in the same direction and I am saddened by the degree of hostility this is engendering and I hereby appeal to Michael (as one committed to ‘dialogue’) to reconsider his intervention before more serious damage is done.
None of this is accurate. In fact, the opposite is the case. I have on many occasions chosen not to voice my opinion, as a member of the HAI, on issues where I had a valid opinion, specifically because I am also chairperson of Atheist Ireland. I am not leading others who have joint membership in any direction. Please have more respect for the independent thinking of the members of our organisations.
The statements that Atheist Ireland has made on this issue relate to the legal implications of the Civil Registration Act for everybody in Ireland, how it discriminates both against nonreligious citizens and between nonreligious citizens, and the options that are now open to the HAI as a result of the law being passed.
To oversimplify, those options are
- to not solomnise marriages now, and to continue to promote the political cause of separation of church and state;
- to solemnise marriages now, and to cease to promote the political cause of separation of church and state; or
- to sign up to the requirements of the Act by making a false declaration, and supporting that with false documentary evidence .
But whichever option the HAI chooses, this is not a dispute between Atheist Ireland and the HAI. It is an internal policy difference within the HAI, that has leaked into the public arena because the current HAI board has refused to allow internal debate on the issue.
Dick Spicer: I think this does necessarily raise the issue of the advisability of people having joint membership of both groups as the natural tendency (without implying any malice) of this practice is a drift towards a common program which will alienate many. I appeal to those whose commitment is primarily to AI and its political approach to not pursue their agenda within the HAI on the issue of the reforming of legal solemnisation of marriage (and there will probably in the nature of such things be other issues in the future).
There are two assumptions in this paragraph which are factually inaccurate.
Firstly, and to repeat, the HAI does in fact promote the political cause of separation of church and state. Indeed, the HAI website describes its aim as complete separation of church and state. I have included below some further documentation showing that the HAI does promote this political cause.
Secondly, most of the HAI members who are seeking an EGM are not in fact active in Atheist Ireland. They include a current HAI board member, senior activists in the Cork and Galway Humanists, and some former Board members who have a long and proud record of contribution to the HAI.
Dick Spicer: It would be far healthier for both groups continued existence and amity if those with joint membership made their choice of group commitment and wished the others well for the future. That way the non-religious community who both groups exist to serve (from differing perspectives) will continue to have two strings to their bow and draw in support from those who who would balk at the purely AI approach on the one hand or the HAI on the other!
There is no reason to ask people to choose between being members of Atheist Ireland and the HAI. One of the positive aspects of secular philosophy over theology is the recognition that there are nuances and overlaps in life and that we all have multiple layers of self-identity. We are reasonable people. We can work this out together.
2. Does the HAI promote a political cause?
The core of understanding this issue is recognising that the starting point is that the HAI does in fact promote the political cause of separation of church and state.
The current HAI Board and Dick’s letter create the impression that this is not the case. They imply that the HAI has not been involved in promoting a political cause, and that those seeking the EGM are trying the change the status quo.
In fact, the opposite is the case. It is most of the current HAI Board that is trying to change the status quo, without debate among the members, and by instead sending a letter to the members seeking support on the basis of an appeal to authority.
Here are several examples of the HAI promoting the political cause of separation of church and state.
2.1 Examples of the HAI promoting separation of church and state
- About the HAI – as published on HAI website
- Campaigns – as published on HAI website
- Political policy document on Equality for the Non-Religious
- Engaging in dialogue process with Irish Government
- Seeking meetings with opposition political parties
- Making sure organs of the state hear what the nonreligious want
- Supporting legislation to permit and regulate abortion
- Lobbying Taoiseach and Minister for Justice
- Appealing to the electorate to vote for secular candidates
- Working internationally on state and church relationships
- Assessing the dialogue process with the Government
- Campaigning for this law was itself promoting a political cause
2.2 About the HAI – as published on HAI website
The HAI website, as relaunched in April 2013, on its ‘About Us’ page, says the following.
What we do: The HAI provides a forum for Humanists and other non-religious people to meet and share experiences and develop their personal ideals in an informal, friendly environment. More formally, the HAI campaigns for equal treatment by the State of the non-religious with the religious; the abolition of religious privileges; and ultimately the total separation of Church from State. It aspires to a balanced, secular society. Specifically, the HAI [list follows of things that the HAI does, including] … makes appropriate submissions to Government for changes in the Constitution, Legislation and State practices.
2.3 Campaigns – as published on HAI website
The HAI website, as relaunched in April 2013, on its ‘Campaigns’ page, says the following.
The HAI is working towards a secular state and the equal treatment of people of no religion in the Constitution, in legislation and other practices of the State and its agencies by campaigning on behalf of the non-religious in Ireland in a number of areas. On an ongoing basis, the HAI seeks to have a secular Constitution and has identified the need for change in the following areas:
The Constitution itself by deleting:
the religious preamble
the requirement for religious oaths/declarations for judges and holders of high office
its concept of blasphemy
Changes in State practices relating to:
religious oaths for jurors and witnesses
the use of State property for religious purposes
primary and secondary education (including primary teacher training, school chaplains and the religious curriculum)
religious symbols in public places
the national Census
the use of State employees for religious purposes
These and other topics are more fully described in the HAI publication ‘Equality for the Non-Religious’
2.4 Political policy document on Equality for the Non-Religious
The HAI has published a policy document titled ‘Equality for the Non-Religious: The treatment of people of no religion in the Constitution, in legislation and by other practices of the State and its agencies.’ The introduction to this policy document states:
In its relationship with the State the HAI seeks to ensure that State institutions are not biased towards any particular belief group, that differences of belief or philosophy are fully and equitably respected in policy and accommodated in practice by public authorities and that the Constitution, laws and practices of the State reflect this approach.
The document then details the following areas where the HAI is campaigning for political change:
1 THE CONSTITUTION
1.2 Derivation of Powers
1.3 Religious Oaths
1.5 State Endorsement of Religion
2.1 Equal Status Act 2000
2.2 Employment Equality Act 1998
2.3 Civil Registration Act 2004
2.4 Charities Act 2009
2.5 Tax Exemption Arising from Charitable Status
2.6 Electoral Act
2.7 Defamation Act 1961
2.8 Other Legislation
3 STATE PRACTICES
3.1 State Ceremonies
3.2 Dáil and Senate Prayers
3.3 Court Service – Oaths
3.4 Polling Stations
3.5 Use of State Property for Religious Purposes
3.5a State Broadcasting Company
3.5b Burial Rights
3.6 Choice of Primary School
3.7 Choice of Secondary School
3.8 Rights of Minorities in Schools
3.9 Primary Teacher Training
3.10 State Support of School Chaplains
3.11 Religious Education Curriculum
3.12 Provision of and Support for Hospitals
3.13 Rights of Non-Religious Hospital Patients
3.14 Ethics in Denominational Hospitals
3.15 Symbols in Hospitals
3.16 Overseas Development Assistance
3.17 Census of Population
3.18 Prison Chaplains
3.19 Use of State Employees for Religious Purposes
3.20 State Observance of Religious Festivals
3.21 Other State Practices
2.5 Engaging in dialogue process with Irish Government
The HAI is a partner in the structured dialogue process between the Irish Government and religious and nonreligious philosophical bodies. The relevant Minister for State at the Department of the Taoiseach has described this process in the Dail as being intended to assist the Government in developing policies into the future:
I make these comments at a time when the State is undertaking an important process of church-State dialogue, an institutional dialogue not just with the Christian churches, Catholic, Protestant and eastern Orthodox churches, but also the Islamic community, Buddhists and the Humanist Association of Ireland among others. This dialogue which is being established by the Taoiseach’s Department will take place between the State on the one hand and church and faith based communities and non-confessional organisations on the other. This is a healthy, progressive and even historic development, reflecting the Ireland of today which, as we all know, is a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. I have no doubt that these organisations, churches and individuals with their wealth of experience and knowledge will assist us greatly in developing our policies into the future.
2.6 Seeking meetings with opposition political parties
The HAI in its July/August 2012 newsletter, in ‘Board News’, wrote:
The Board also decided that, in addition to meeting with the Taoiseach and other departments and ministers under the stalled ‘dialogue process’, the HAI will try to meet with opposition parties, to present our case on state legislation and practice to make these more secular.
2.7 Making sure organs of the state hear what the nonreligious want
The HAI in its May/June 2012 newsletter, in ‘Board News’, wrote:
Non-religious people need organisations like the HAI to make sure that organs of the state hear what people without religion want. So there is more work to do in communicating with the government and their departments and agencies, and in preparing our submissions and responses.
2.8 Supporting legislation to permit and regulate abortion
The HAI in its May/June 2012 newsletter, in ‘Board News’, wrote:
The Board decided unanimously to support the enactment and implementation of legislation to permit and to regulate therapeutic abortion to the full extent that the Constitution permits, as the Supreme Court decided in the X case in 1982.
2.9 Lobbying Taoiseach and Minister for Justice
The Irish Times wrote on 4 June 2011:
A FEW WEEKS ago Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association of Ireland addressed a gathering that included Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter as well as various religious leaders. He used the opportunity to raise the issue of our religious presidential oath, which he says is just one example of State discrimination against the growing godless community.
The oath, the wording of which is enshrined in the Constitution, is taken in “the presence of Almighty God” and is a non-negotiable promise that must be given by whoever is elected president. It concludes, “May God direct and sustain me.”
“I talked about how embarrassing it would be for this country if a successful candidate decided that in all conscience they couldn’t give that oath because they didn’t believe in God,” says Whiteside. He was gratified to observe Kenny requesting that Shatter make a note of this potentially awkward eventuality…
A referendum would be required to remove these religious references from the Constitution, which Whiteside believes “are not appropriate in a 21st-century modern democratic republic”…
He adds that while their strategy may differ from Atheist Ireland’s, the “endgame” of a more secular country is the same.
2.10 Appealing to the electorate to vote for secular candidates
At the 2011 Irish General Election, Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland jointly asked voters to vote for candidates who support secular policies. We collectively said:
We realise that most people will vote based on economic policies or party allegiance. In such cases we are asking people that, if several candidates share your views on these wider issues, to please choose the candidate that most supports a rational, ethical, secular Ireland.
2.11 Working internationally on state and church relationships
HAI Secretary Ann James wrote in the Irish Times on 23 July 2010:
As Secretary to the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) since it was formed from what was the Association of Irish Humanists in 2003, I have also been HAI delegate to many European Humanist Federation and International Humanist and Ethical Union meetings where the different models of the state and church relationships are often discussed… The HAI has no wish to end the teaching about religion or discussion of it in schools. But neither do we see a place in this day and age for religious instruction/faith formation paid for by taxpayers in State-funded national schools.
2.12 Assessing the dialogue process with the Government
HAI chairman Dick Spicer wrote in the Irish Times on 5 April 2010:
EQUALITY AND parity of esteem for the non-religious community is being achieved – but at a pace so slow it can sometimes evoke justifiable impatience… That said, however, the State and its institutions have made significant beginnings in areas requiring reform. Those registering progress are education, health and law reform. Of these, the key problematic area in our State has long been securing the rights of children in primary education.
In the area of health, one has to give credit to the Health Service Executive for developing and launching a best-practice guide outlining the requirements when dealing with non-religious clientele and other minorities. Again, implementation will take time if it is to be effective, but it is a pointer to how State bodies could set about addressing the achievement of parity of esteem for all.
The Humanist Association of Ireland has been included in relevant seminars and workshops over the past couple of years. In our quest as part of the dialogue process with the Government we submitted a document entitled Equality for the Non-Religious, which laid out our areas of concern. A full consideration of the issues in that document reveals that much has yet to be addressed.
2.13 Campaigning for this law was itself promoting a political cause
The HAI website, on its ‘Campaigns‘ section, says:
A successful HAI campaign, spearheaded by our Director of Ceremonies, Brian Whiteside, came to fruition with the passage of the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill to give legal status to Humanist marriage through the Dáil and Seanad in late 2012. At the time of writing (April 2013) the HAI are in touch with the General Register Office and working through the process of having HAI celebrants approved as marriage solemnisers.
The Irish Times wrote on 1 May 2012:
Brian Whiteside of the HAI said that, in the past, it had been “left out in the cold” but persisted in its efforts to obtain the right to solemnise marriages and have “parity of esteem” with religious bodies. There had been “no real progress” until the change of government last year, when Ms Bacik agreed to take up their cause. “As the law stands presently a couple cannot have a legally binding, nonreligious marriage ceremony on a Saturday, as the State registrars work only Monday to Friday,” he added.
This dilemma was explicitly raised in the Dail by Aengus O Snodaigh TD:
The Humanist Association of Ireland will be one of the main beneficiaries of the provisions in this Bill, which is welcome, but a quick perusal of its website suggests that even this organisation might not satisfy the definition of “secular body” as contained in section 3, with specific reference to the exclusion of any body promoting a political cause.
Its home page, for example, has a campaigns section, one of which is aimed at lobbying politicians to amend the principal Act. Ironically, that very activity could be seen to exclude the organisation under the definition set out in section 3 of the Bill. The content of the website is inherently political, including, for instance, a cheap shot at politicians in respect of holiday entitlements. There is also an inference that Fianna Fáil is bad and the Labour Party good. In fact, Senator Ivana Bacik is described as the perfect combination of lawyer, Senator and atheist. It is fine to express such views but they are undoubtedly political…
The HAI has a record of promoting the political cause of secularism that we should be proud of. Some of us, as HAI members, want the HAI to continue to promote the political cause of the total separation of church and state. However, most but not all of the current HAI board want to change this position, without debate among the members, to a position of the HAI not promoting a political cause.
They want to do this in order to satisfy the requirements of the Civil Registration Act, so that humanist celebrants can also solemnise marriages, despite the fact that the Act discriminates both against nonreligious citizens and between nonreligious citizens, and that the HAI will not be able to legally promote the political cause that would be necessary to change even this Act in the future.
And the HAI Board is trying to take this significant step unilaterally, without allowing any debate among the members. That approach will not work. The Board should reconsider it.