You have the right to offend atheists, but not to discriminate against us

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:

Education System

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.

Religious Oaths

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.

Blasphemy Law

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.

You have the right to offend atheists, but not to discriminate against us

38 thoughts on “You have the right to offend atheists, but not to discriminate against us

  1. My opinion of Ian O’Doherty is that he is a lower-than-the-low gutter-dwelling “journalist” whose job it is to whip up controversy that is appealing to an ill-informed readership.

    His view of organised atheism in Ireland has been held steadfast for years for this reason despite being demonstrably incorrect. This is not the first time he has attempted to conflate Irish atheists with the “happy holidays” atheism of the US. It’s not the first time that he’s been put in his box on the issue.

    In my view he is being disingenuous and knows exactly what he is doing.

  2. Good article, yes it’s all a bit silly. However there is an irony in that you, as an atheist discuss the bible in the most fundametalist and literal of terms that only the only the dreaded biblical fundamentalists accept.

  3. Why would you expect an atheist accept the mental gymnastics that christian theologians go through in order to make it palatable?

  4. “discuss the bible in the most fundametalist and literal of terms”

    Are we wrong to discuss the ideas you’ve written down in fundamentalist and literal terms then, or should the written word always be taken with a pinch of allegory in your view?

    (And please clarify if your response is a literal one…saves us searching for a hidden message)

  5. To add to Michael’s point could be added the wonderful quote from Jerry Coyne: “Some believers are fundamentalists about everything, but every believer is a fundamentalist about something”.

  6. How foolish of atheists to deal with the bible at the level at which the vast majority of rank and file beleivers understand it, rather than the rarified, jejune abstractions bandied about by “sophisticated theologians” who have redefined god out of existence!

  7. I was very surprised by Ian O’Dohertys article about Michael Nugent and Atheists in Ireland. I attended the debate in NUIG (University of Galway) only a few weeks ago and Ian shared the podium with Michael against 3 Islamists all flown over from the UK. 2 of these Islamist gentlemen (my arse) were quite unsavory characters and Ian O’Doherty gave them socks, he went thru them and Islam for a short cut, in fact Michaels contribution was extremely mild in comparison with Ians who came across as the hard line and fundamentilist Atheist in the room.

  8. I wouldn’t presume to tell you or anyone else what to take in one way or the other. However having the studied the biblical literature i do caution against treating the bible in literal terms like that. Obviously you don’t, and i believe most Christians or Jews don’t either, there is a lot of contextual, literary and theological appreciation that is warrented when reading biblical texts. They are not meant to be read literally by believers or even non believers……..Like the website by the way, keep up the good work.

  9. Shane, the Atheist Ireland is indeed excellent and thank you for your kind comments re same.

  10. Hello Shane

    Please could you tell me what the “contextual, literary and theological appreciation” translation of :

    While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses.

    is, other than that the Bible commands that men be put to death by stoning for gathering sticks on the Sabbath? This is the passage Michael refers to in the post.

  11. Apparently, if you read the Bible as metaphor, it is acceptable.

    So presumably , if I say that all Christians are pigs, that is perfectly acceptable.

    It’s metaphor, folks! I’m not saying Christians are literally pigs. That would be a fundamentalist reading of my words.

    So that’s all perfectly acceptable to liberal Christians, who like metaphors and similes , like the swine that they are.

    Provided you never say people are literally pigs, the ‘Bible is not literal’ people can’t take any offence , no matter what metaphors you use.

  12. If it’s literal, a man was killed for gathering sticks. If it’s allegory we are being told that we should all in general kill people (not just this man) for working (not just gathering sticks) on the sabbath.

  13. As i have already stated, it would be wasteful to go through every moral discrepency in the bible. I’m not an expert on the Hebrew bible, but you have to appreciate that the writers of biblical literature were not writing to be in sync with each other. There is a lot of biased and cruel stupidity in the bible, but there is also a lot of great wisdom too, as anyone with a passing knowledge of literature could attest too……..But i don’t appreciate that when we as modern people take snippets of ancient texts and judge them so bluntly. I don’t know, but i’m sure that this stoning is a mere literary affectation, a scare story if you will to preserve the importance of the Sabbath. That is one of the reasons why Jesus got in so much trouble because he seemed to be willingly (he like us thought it was quite stupid too) to break the Sabbath………The ancient world was a vastly different society to ours, they had a sense of morality but it was wildly different from today. For instance they had little sense of fair play, but there comes a point where if we just take bits of these texts and judge them soley with today’s eyes that we may indulge in intellectual showboating…….Sometimes that’s too harsh, it may be fun but it’s not truly appreciative of the texts. Yeah there some big omissions from logic in these texts (read the first few pages of Genesis and you’ll see what i mean) but if people are going to hold the Bible up as an instruction manual, you have to realize that you an instruction manual for the manual sometimes.

  14. Hi Shane,

    I have read most of the bible. Honestly I found it dreadfully boring and repetative but I have heard many times about it’s great wisdom. I didn’t really find much in there.

    Can you give me an(some) example(s) of what you consider great wisdom in the bible. I am not being facecious or sarcastic, I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of the bible containing great wisdom. It would be something of an achievement for that many authors to pen that many books and avoid wisdom entirely. Personally I didn’t find much in there though (at least nothing that could hold a candle to modern moral philosophy) but I may have missed some of it’s better parts.

  15. I think much of Shane’s criticism would hold up if we were criticising the prose of Ulysses (not Joyce) or Mark Twain’s use of ‘nigger’.

    But the holy books in question are still today held up by many as a moral guide that is valid today. They even held up as examples of objective morality and used to poo poo the idea of actually thinking about morality for ourselves.

    In that context, it is perfectly valid to point out aspects of this “morality” that made sense to ancient people that nobody respects today.

    That is not a criticism of the text or a criticism of the ancient people who wrote it. It’s a criticism of the people today who still claim that this text is a valid moral guide for people of today and still claim that the bible gives us objective morality.

  16. Shane, the bible is held up, by Christians, as the source of morality for all people to follow. And that it is the word of God.

    So, how do I choose to believe is the ‘correct’ part of the bible and which part is not? The parts that appeal to me? The parts that agree with my personal morality? What about the part that agree with the personal morality of my neighbor, yet do not agree with mine? Is my neighbor right? Am I right? Who can say? Certainly not theologians, otherwise there’d be just one Christian denomination.

    The Bible is what the Bible is — a rather horrible, iron-age fairy-tale full of brutality and exceptional-ism with a hodge-podge of ‘morality’ that is, frankly, sickening and often contradictory between books and eras. Leaving, in the end, all Christians with no clear guidance and forcing them to either behave in ways that are illegal and immoral by today’s standards or play apologetics games and re-interpret/ignore the parts they don’t like.

    Yet we are told, by these very same people, that despite the obvious contradictions and immoral commandments contained in the Bible, it’s the ‘source of morality.’ Well, clearly (I think) that it’s not. Else we must do things like stone people to death who wear garments of mixed fibers…

  17. I think Michael is exactly right in his concern: everybody has the right to hold any belief, provided its exercise does not encroach upon anybody else’s freedom.

    Christians, Muslims, Jews or any other denomination have the right to believe whatever their holy books say, but they do not have the right to erect a symbol of their faith on public land and with public money.

    They have the right to tell atheists they will go to hell, but not the right to impose restrictions or special rituals involving everybody’s foodstuffs.

    They have the right to believe that abortion is murder, but not the right to impose this belief on anybody else.

    Why don’t believers just bask in the knowledge that they will reap their reward in paradise, and let everybody else go to hell in peace?

  18. Hello Shane

    In my experience, this is how arguments go with theists. “That part of the Bible is not meant to be taken literally”. It seems whatever part I pick is not to be take literally. Then let’s just throw the whole thing away. Why would it be wasteful to go through every discrepancy, since the point is that the whole thing is a discrepancy? Actually, what HH has suggested would be best : find us one quotation of wisdom, and let us see this. We are obviously not finding it for ourselves.

    I appreciate that there are passages of beauty in the Bible. I enjoy the “Nine lessons and carols” from King’s : is has been and possibly always will be, a part of our Christmas. But then so is “The Snowman” and other fantastical stories, and I would not expect you to start worshipping a pillar of snow.

  19. In the past I’ve suggested to theists who bemoan the critics of holy books as too literal that they simply apply the same degree of abstraction to the criticisms as they do the holy texts.

    In other words, if god didn’t literally turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, and it’s just a metaphor for the wages of disobedience – then just regard any umbrage articulated at the story as umbrage at whatever the message behind the metaphor is.

    Makes sense to me – though I admit it never seems to change anyone’s mind.

  20. There’s a reason “sophisticated” theology doesn’t hold much water with the layman, and it’s not due to a lack of training or intelligence. It’s post modern nonsense, thousands of words that communicate no meaningful information.

    I’ll take a swing at HH’s challenge though. I think Corinthians 13 is beautiful, both for its description of love and, my personal favorite, the “through a glass, darkly” line. Even here magical thinking can’t help but poison the affair though, as Paul expresses the concept of Plato’s cave, and immediately insists we’ll be brought outside the cave via supernatural means, thereby lessening our incentive to unravel the mysteries ourselves.

  21. I’ve never understood why claiming something is metaphor means you cannot criticise it.

  22. I appreciate that you are committed Atheists and want to have it out to me, but i’m not really a theist, or Christian or anything really. I just like the study of theology and ancient literature, the historical and theological figure of Jesus typifies that interest for me. I don’t think the bible should be the only moral guide that Christians should take instruction from, i believe that people should take instruction from their own conscience……HH, The bible isn’t exactly a page turner but i find it quite ridiculous that you say there is no wisdom or literary beauty contained in it, i think the books lasting influence on literature proves otherwise. If i was to pick a small thing that i particularly like it would be “For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world. and lose his own soul” from Mark. That’s good advice from anyone.

  23. That is very good advice, provided, of course, that you don’t mean by it what the original author meant.

  24. HH’s position is only a slight exaggeration. It’s certainly the case that the bible’s lasting influence has far more to do with politics than it has to do with any quality found in the writing. For a thousand years you *had* to believe it was the literal word of the creator of the universe. Leave the text to compete on it’s own merits in a free market of ideas and you’ll find it quickly loses relevance.

  25. @Shane –

    May I assume that the label “committed atheist” (no caps needed, thanks) is also a metaphor, because there aren’t many of those running around (especially not here). What you’ll find are committed skeptics who are currently atheists due to the lack of any evidence of a god or gods. They are not committed to their lack of belief; they are only committed to the requirement that claims and ideas have supporting evidence.

    In my opinion, when the use of a metaphor causes you to completely misunderstand the reasoning for something, it’s time to drop it. But please don’t call me a committed literalist because of this belief; that’s close to calling someone a “dictionary atheist” which is terrible slur on the American part of the Internet.


  26. I’m not particularly sure what you mean at all by that comment. I meant exactly what i said, my words construed my message accurately enough. Language and literature is composed of metaphors and allusion, if people do not understand that then it could probably be the fault of the reader, not necessarily the writer.
    To analyse language further would be to delve into hermeneutical semantics, which is not related to the discussion we are having here. And why would i care about how things are perceived in America?

  27. Really? You really didn’t understand my main point? Wow. OK. Let me try again, please.

    There are very few (if any) “committed atheists” reading this blog. In fact, there are very few atheist out there, anywhere; at least, I’ve come across very few and I look for such people. For a majority of us, atheism is a consequence of having an evidence-based approach to the world combined with a lack of objective evidence for the existence of a god or gods. Calling us “committed atheists” implies that we have come to this conclusion without (or despite the) evidence, which is somewhat insulting as it implies a thinking process that we reject and is close to the opposite to what we actually use. In a way, it’s a smear, in that it implies something that is negative and is also untrue.

    Please don’t call me (or anyone else) a “committed atheists”; at the first sign of a god or gods, I, for one, will cease to be atheist and will move directly to asking why He’s a jerk and why, in particular, He seems to hate women.

  28. Ok, well i was just talking about the Atheist Ireland people really. I wouldn’t get too offended over a title though, it’s a very offensive world out there all together.

  29. Is it any more appropriate when applied to Atheist Ireland members? I’d find that to be odd if it’s true.

  30. @Shane –

    Oh, if all you were doing is claiming that a bunch of Irish folks do their thinking conclusion-first and evidence-be-damned, then who I am to either care or comment?


  31. @Shane In Mark 7:9 Jesus requires his followers to kill their children if the children are disobedient, as required by the Old Testament. Do you support that also? I also note that you have avoided answering the question that a few OP have asked, which is how do we know which bits of the bible are to be taken literally and which are not?

  32. I have said what i have said, i’m not on here as any authority, i nor anyone else can tell no one what to believe or what not too believe.. I have previously advised that least some historical and theological context should applied when it come to analysing religious texts……..We could be here for all time if we were to go through everything. In the text you quote, i would take Jesus to being somewhat facetious in regards to the Pharisees strict adherence to Mosaic law. I don’t think any rational exegete would actually council that Jesus proposes killing disobediant children.
    Rather Jesus is an anti clerical figure in the Gospels, he is more concerned with the spirit of the law rather than strict adherence to it. He also says that it doesn’t matter what you eat that affects your purity but it is rather what you say from your heart that defiles you……This is what he is refers to Mosaic law. Some sons may have given their wealth to the temple (the temple was very corrupt at this time, think Fianna Fail kind of corrupt, and also kept a bit for themselves) rather than being dutiful to their parents. In this way some may have used religious law to get of their familial obligations.In the Gospels Jesus is often seen as the fullfillment of Mosaic law or indeed a replacement of it.
    Blueshift, i still don’t understand what your views are sorry. Anyways just wanted to comment on the article, good talking/ debating with you’s.

  33. ‘Some sons may have given their wealth to the temple (the temple was very corrupt at this time’

    According to the Bible, Jesus said the gold in the Temple was sacred.

    ‘I don’t think any rational exegete would actually council that Jesus proposes killing disobediant children.’

    Matthew 15:3-4
    3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.

    Shane is utterly correct that Jesus is anti-clerical.

    Here, he lambasts clerics for breaking the command of God and using their own traditions.

    Jesus clearly states that it was God Himself who said that anyone who curses their mother and father is to be put to death, and yet religious leaders were trying to subvert the very commands of God Himself!

    No wonder he was furious with them.

  34. Shane, thank you for showing one phrase that means something to you, do you feel that this is wisdom, or just a phrase that you like? Considering I am not convinced that anyone has a soul, I am unsure that one can lose it. As a piece of wisdom, then, I feel it’s not particularly useful to me. It seems skewed towards encouraging people to think in terms of souls being saved or damned to hell.

    I think I have derailed slightly, I did want to ask about the “literal bit” from the Bible. Which bit can I take from the Bible to be literal, and how will I know which bits I should and should not believe completely?

  35. Shane Flanagan wrote: ” There is a lot of biased and cruel stupidity in the bible, but there is also a lot of great wisdom too….”

    If you can tell going in which parts are cruel & stupid, and which wise, then the bible doesn’t offer much value-add as a source of morals, does it?

    Still, like any good ‘infallible’ religious text, the bible is full of contradictions. So just keep looking until you find a passage that corroborates your a priori morals. (cf. Luke 6: 1-9)

  36. @Shane Flanagan #33,

    It’s well known that the saying:
    “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

    Is based on a mistranslation from Greek into Latin.
    Kamelos is the Greek word for camel whereas the Greek word Kamilos means cable or rope.

    A non biblical example would be that unless one knows the meaning of the word “silly” then one will not be able to understand Cricket.

    “Silly Mid-On” or “Silly Mid-Off” does not refer to a place on the Cricket field where one puts the most stupid players of the team, but rather that originally the word “silly” meant, “empty”.

    So “Silly Mid-On” or “Silly Mid-Off” refers to parts of a Cricket field that normally wouldn’t have any players covering them – they are normally empty.

    With regard to what @James #16 said with respect to Mark Twain’s use of “nigger” I would suggest one could make the case that proof that the US was extremely homophobic in the 1950’s was the extensive use of the word “gay”.

    This having been said however the Christian Bible is sold as “The inerrant Word of God”, and if some of it is bullshit then the rest of it gets pulled down to that level.

    It’s not exactly the mark of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being to fuck up their autobiography, now is it?

    I am sure that some quote-miners could dig up individual passages of “Mein Kampf” that no person of right mind would object to, that does not mean that one would subscribe to the ideology of the author wholesale.

    Sigmund Freud’s hypotheses have been rejected by clinical psychology: however some of his writings have merit if only in German literature (it might have been shite, but it was well written shite).

    The religious doctrine of Christianity had its day – about 365,000 days of it – and it is now known as the “Dark Ages” where Europe descended to a level below that of the Egyptians for a thousand years.

    I have no problem with keeping the good bits of any writing. I do believe in, “Why dost thou remark on the mote in thine neighbors eye yet neglect the beam in thine own”.

    In the US, religion is an over $100 Billion industry selling an invisible product, and, contrary to the US constitution State sanctioned (through tax exemption), industry selling and invisible product with no overhead to a public; and it is exempt from any industry standards whatsoever.

    Utah is the home of the Mormon church. Utah is also the most Federally subsidised State in the US (to the tune of nearly 70% of the State budget). All Mormons are tithed to 10% of their earnings per year – fuck load of good that does Utah.

    The Mormon church however had many millions that they could spend to prevent Proposition 8 in the California.

    So Utah basically without the US Government is a shithole, but they have money to throw around like a man with no arms in California.

    That religion was based on the ravings of a convicted con-man in reliably recorded history. Jesus could well have been the Joseph Smith of his day – to quote Douglas Adams; “We have an answer to the Question of Life, The Universe and Everything (42), we now just have to have an actual question that sounds credible”.

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