Cora Sherlock of the Pro-Life Campaign and Ian O’Doherty of the Irish Independent have little in common. However, they both make the mistake of thinking, when Atheist Ireland seeks equal rights for all citizens, that the reason we are doing so is because we are offended.
Cora says of my comments about the Carrauntoohill cross:
“After all, he admits that the existence of the cross, never mind its location, wasn’t even on his radar as one of the things to be offended by – not until it was cut down in the middle of the night by angle-grinding vandals, that is.”
And Ian says of the same comments that:
“It’s merely the latest in a long line of ridiculous and some might say, vexatious, complaints by atheists here and abroad who seem to delight in taking offence… [atheism] simply means that you don’t believe in something, not that you should join a collective and look for things to offend your delicate sensibilities.”
Offence versus discrimination
Both Cora and Ian are mistaken in thinking that we are motivated by offence. Religious people have the right to offend atheists, and vice versa. And we completely support the right of religious people to say and do things that offend us. But there is a difference between being offensive on the one hand, and discriminating and denying rights on the other hand.
For example, I am not offended by the Angelus on RTE, or by the cross on Carrauntoohil. And, even if I was offended by them, that would not be a good reason for them to be changed. But I do want them changed. Why?
The Angelus should be changed because the state broadcaster has a duty to treat everyone equally, and the cross should be changed because community symbols should be inclusive of everybody in the community. These are positive reasons for changing symbols of discrimination, independently of how many people are offended by them.
On the other hand, I am offended by the Christian Bible, which says that a man should be stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and that Jesus will kill the children of Jezebel for the sins of their mother. And I am offended by the Quran, which says that a husband can beat his wife and that a woman can inherit half of what a man can.
But I do not want these books banned. Why? Because Christians and Muslims have the right to believe what they want, and to publish and read about what they believe, even if it offends me or other people.
Their right to do this extends until practicing their beliefs starts to infringe on the rights of other people (such as the right to freedom of conscience, freedom from discrimination, equality before the law, bodily autonomy, etc.) But the rights of religious people should not be infringed simply because atheists are offended, and vice versa.
Asking versus insisting
There is also a distinction between us asking religious people to consider being more inclusive, and us insisting that the state protect our rights.
With regard to the cross on Carrauntoohil, we did not demand that anything should happen. We did not even initiate any comment on the matter. We were asked by the media what our opinion was on the matter, and we said that (a) the cross should not have been vandalised, and we hoped that the perpetrators are brought to justice; and (b) the local community who put up the cross in the 1950s, and replaced it in the 1970s, should consider replacing it now with a more inclusive symbol that everyone in the community can identify with.
Some religious people seem to have interpreted that suggestion as (a) a demand instead of a request, and (b) an attempt to impose our beliefs on religious people, instead of an attempt to prevent religious beliefs being imposed on atheists, and to instead have no beliefs imposed on anybody who does not share them.
This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to some religious people (and indeed some atheists) understanding secularism. Secularism is neutral between religion and atheism. It does not favour either atheism or religion.
Where we move from asking to insisting is where the State is involved. The State has a duty to protect equally the human rights of all of its citizens, and Ireland fails to do this with regard to the human rights of atheists and non-religious citizens. Here is what the United Nations Human Rights Committee told Ireland this June, after Atheist Ireland and others had briefed the UN about Ireland’s breaches of our human rights:
The Human Rights Committee is concerned about the slow progress in increasing access to secular education through the establishment of non-denominational schools, divestment of the patronage of schools and the phasing out of integrated religious curricula in schools accommodating minority faith or non-faith children.
It said Ireland should introduce legislation to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion, belief or other status, and ensure that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State party to meet the needs of minority faith or non-faith children.
The Human Rights Committee is concerned that under Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Acts, religious-owned institutions, including in the fields of education and health, can discriminate against employees or prospective employees to protect the religious ethos of the institution (arts.2, 18, 25 and 27).
It said Ireland should amend Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Acts in a way that bars all forms of discrimination in employment in the fields of education and health.
The Human Rights Committee is concerned at the slow pace of progress in amending the Constitutional provisions that oblige individuals wishing to take up senior public office positions such as President, members of the Council of State and members of the judiciary to take religious oaths.
It said that Ireland should amend articles 12, 31 and 34 of the Constitution that require religious oaths to take up senior public office positions, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 22 (1993) concerning the right not to be compelled to reveal one’s thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief in public.
The Human Rights Committee is concerned that that blasphemy continues to be an offence under article 40.6.1(i) of the Constitution and section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 (art. 19).
It said Ireland should consider removing the prohibition of blasphemy from the Constitution as recommended by the Constitutional Convention, and taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 34 (2011) concerning the incompatibility of blasphemy laws with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2 of the Covenant.
Atheist Ireland will continue to insist that the State respect our human rights. These are not lofty aspirations. They are the rock-bottom minimum human rights standards that the State is obliged to respect. The only way for the State to respect equally the human rights of all of its citizens is to be neutral on questions of religion and atheism.
We will also continue to ask religious people to voluntarily move towards a more inclusive society, where everybody’s right to their beliefs are respected equally. We will continue to ask religious people to do this, not because they are offending us, which they are entitled to do, but because we want a more fair and inclusive secular society.