Five steps to peaceful secularism: my talk today at the International Atheist Conference in Germany

This is my talk today at the International Atheist Conference in Cologne, Germany. The theme of the conference was “Give Peace a Chance: Secularisation and Conflict.”

There is a monument in Dublin to Charles Stewart Parnell, the 19th Century Irish politician, who memorably said: “No man has the right to fix the boundary of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

Parnell was talking in 1885 about Irish freedom from British rule, but after independence a different set of boundaries were put in place. The 1937 Constitution became Ireland’s religious Berlin Wall, declaring that all authority comes from the Most Holy Trinity and humbly acknowledging our obligations to Our Divine Lord Jesus Christ.

Yesterday’s historic vote for marriage equality has started the fall of Ireland’s religious Berlin Wall. Finally, love and hope have burst through the boundaries of fear and control that were set in stone eighty years ago. As the first country in the world to endorse marriage equality by popular vote, Ireland can never again be seen as a repressive Catholic State.

I am looking forward to flying back tomorrow to a more compassionate and equal Ireland than I flew out of after voting on Friday.

Other changes in Ireland in recent times

The marriage equality vote was not the only significant moment in Ireland this week.

In 1979, in a seaside village in County Sligo, the IRA blew up a fishing boat, murdering the elderly English Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was the great-uncle of Prince Charles of England, along with Baroness Doreen Brabourne and two children aged 14 and 15.

This week, a few short decades later, Prince Charles of England visited the site of that murder, and while he was in Ireland he shook hands with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, two of the leaders of the IRA who had murdered his great-uncle.

Like marriage equality, these handshakes would have been considered unthinkable up to very recently. Like marriage equality, a referendum in 1998 formalised a change that had been bubbling for years, when an overwhelming 94% of the Irish people voted to endorse the Belfast Agreement that effectively ended the euphemistically described “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The marriage equality referendum also has its roots in violence. In 1982, in a quiet park in Dublin, a gang of self-described ‘queer bashers’ beat a gay man, Declan Flynn, to death. Their judge said they were “cleaning up the area” and gave them suspended sentences. They held a victory march from the court back to the park.

That triggered protest marches by the gay community in Ireland, which gradually evolved into today’s annual Pride Parades, and which have led to the changes in attitudes that have culminated in this week’s marriage equality referendum.

What has caused these momentous changes from an Ireland of terrorism and religious bigotry to an Ireland where, despite those problems not yet being solved, we can at last look to the future with optimism?

Most of it has been the inevitable tide of history, with the developed world becoming more peaceful and secular, with advances in democracy, education, and communications technology. And part of it has been the organised campaigns, by so many people, on both sides of the border, against terrorism and religious bigotry, and for democratic secular values.

Five lessons for peaceful secularism

Today I am going to share the five most important lessons that I have learned from my involvement in those campaigns, from chairing the peace and democracy group New Consensus in the 1980s and 1990s, to chairing the secular advocacy group Atheist Ireland in more recent years.

As an overview, to build just, peaceful, secular communities, we should treat ideas and behaviours differently than we treat people. We should robustly challenge harmful ideas and behaviours, while respecting the people who hold beliefs that we find harmful.

More specifically, with regard to the theme of this conference, I will examine the following five steps to peaceful secularism.

1. Stand up to violence
2. Seek respectful dialogue
3. Start with human rights
4. Be proactive in politics
5. Establish secular schools

All of these five steps have been common to the campaigns in Ireland against terrorism and for secularism, they are all are relevant to the theme of this conference, and I hope that they are all broad enough to be transferable to different situations in different countries.

Stand up to violence

There is, of course, a paradox, in that sometimes we need to use violence to stand up to violence. There was a saying in the American Wild West that the final rule of poker is that a Smith and Wesson revolver beats four aces.

And so as individuals, we need the right to defend ourselves if physically attacked. As a society, we need a police force and, sometimes, an army, to protect our democratic values.

When police forces and armies engage in unjust violence, they need to be reformed. When undemocratic groups engage in violence, they need to be disbanded, if necessary by the use of democratic violence. And that applies to everything from criminal gangs, to terrorist organisations like ISIS, and undemocratic States who infringe on the human rights of their own citizens.

What can we do as citizens, without the power of a State to make enforceable decisions?

When the IRA were murdering people, supposedly in the name of the Irish people, they held annual conferences in Dublin. We held protests outside those conferences, starting with just five people and gradually growing to hundreds, culminating in a rally of over 30,000 people after a particularly horrific atrocity.

When the IRA had the bright idea of trying to unite Ireland by bombing the Dublin to Belfast railway line, we organised a series of Peace Trains, allowing people from both sides of the border to travel in solidarity and meet each other.

After one particularly bad IRA atrocity, we chained ourselves to the gate of the Sinn Fein offices, and refused to let them in. We collected thousands of flowers from Irish people and brought them to the sites of IRA and loyalist atrocities. We also protested when agents of the Irish or British States illegally killed people.

It wasn’t always easy. We faced the usual threats you would expect in such a situation. But as we continued, more and more people got involved. And we realised that what we had thought was public apathy about the violence was actually a sense of helplessness, and that when given a vehicle to express their opinions, the public responded.

Seek respectful dialogue

This brings me my second lesson – the need to seek respectful dialogue.

Our message for peace transcended party politics. We built a single issue campaign supported by Irish and British, left and right, green and orange, businesses and trade unionists. our message was simple: whatever your aims, pursue those aims democratically.

We promoted not any particular political outcome, but the principles upon which a democratic outcome should be based – an end to terrorism, mutual respect, civil liberty and freely-given allegiance to whatever institutions of State may exist.

These values were eventually reflected in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by referendums on both sides of the Irish Border.

And that agreement came about because of complicated patient work in bringing about respectful dialogue, respecting the right of people to hold political aspirations that others found repugnant, as long as they were promoted peacefully and democratically.

Even starting that dialogue was difficult. Many people on all sides confused dialogue with surrender, but that is not the case. We can talk to people without negotiating with them, and we can negotiate with people without surrendering to them. The formula that was used in the Belfast Agreement was starting with talks about talks, in which ground rules were established, such as that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Similarly, with Atheist Ireland, we believe in respectful dialogue. We will robustly criticise harmful ideas and behaviour, and we are prepared to offend people including by opposing blasphemy laws. All ideas should be open to robust challenge, including ridicule. You have rights, your beliefs do not.

But we combine that with constructive dialogue with individual Christian and Muslim activists and groups, many of whom believe just as strongly as we do that what they are doing is morally right, and sanctioned or indeed mandated by the creator of the universe. If you truly believe that, that is a powerful motivating factor to do whatever you are doing.

One of our more surprising allies in some of our campaigns is the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland. Like atheists, they are discriminated against in mostly Catholic Ireland. They recently published a book about the marriage equality referendum, which they opposed, and I contributed some content to that book. Atheist Ireland also hosted a debate about the referendum, at which we gave the No campaign equal time under a neutral chairperson.

The Internet has changed how we communicate. Many of these changes are helpful – we can form new communities of shared interest, energise campaigns, and subvert attempts to silence dissent.

And some of the changes are unhelpful. Bloggers can become desensitised to the fact that they are communicating with real people with real feelings. This includes bloggers within our own community.

We would never have reached the Belfast Agreement or the marriage equality referendum if we had announced that we hate and despise Christians, made outrageous allegations against people, and called people fuckheads and wankers and lunatics. We wouldn’t tolerate behaviour like that from our children, and we shouldn’t tolerate it from our adult colleagues.

Start with human rights

While standing up to violence and engaging in respectful dialogue, Atheist Ireland bases our policies on internationally agreed human rights.

We believe that this is the closest that we can identify to an objective foundation upon which to build our other policies, as 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.

Human rights standards are the most difficult for our opponents to argue against, because they are not merely our personal preferences. And if we find ourselves disagreeing with international human rights standards, we should ask ourselves, is it possible that we are mistaken?

In two weeks time, Atheist Ireland will travel to Geneva, where the United Nations will be examining the Irish State about its human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

We will be briefing the United Nations Committee before it questions the Irish State, and giving the Committee real-time analysis of the answers that the Irish State gives to its questions.

This is the second year that we will have done this, following our successful interventions in Geneva last year when Ireland was being questioned by the UN Human Rights Committee under another important treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

That time, the UN Committee told Ireland that it was breaching fundamental human rights of atheists and members of minority faiths – including freedom of conscience, equality before the law and freedom from discrimination – as raised by Atheist Ireland in our submissions to the Committee.

As with many of our campaigns, we will travel with allies from other human rights advocacy groups in Ireland, including campaigners against poverty, against discrimination against other minorities, and for abortion rights in Ireland.

Last year in Geneva, as well as getting many important decisions in our favour on secular issues, including religious discrimination in schools and hospitals, religious oaths for high office and blasphemy laws, the UN Human Rights Committee made a significant point to the Irish State that applies equally to other States.

During that session, Ireland told the UN that the reason that it denies pregnant women their abortion rights under the Covenant was because they are expressing the will of the Irish people as expressed through referendum.

The UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland that this reason was totally unacceptable. It said that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in Parliament or referendum, and that the whole point of international human rights law is to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

As well as the United Nations, we also attend meetings of the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where we advocate for secularism in the face of many better-resourced lobby groups advocating for religious interests.

I am delighted to have discussed with several people, at this conference, plans to form new secular alliances for these human rights meetings, including with Nada from Croatia, Corinna From Germany, Morgan Elizabeth from Turkey, Maryam from Britain, and Dan and Annie Laurie from USA.

Be proactive in politics

The fourth lesson I have learned from our various campaigns is the importance of being proactive in politics.

I don’t for a moment believe that we, as peace campaigners, directly caused the Belfast Agreement to happen. I don’t for a moment believe that we, as secular campaigners, directly caused the marriage equality referendum to happen.

In both cases, I believe that we were reflecting a public mood that was bubbling away under the surface, that eventually found expression when accidents of history enabled it to do so.

That is how political change happens. We live in a world where, from the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the end of apartheid in South Africa to yesterday’s referendum in Ireland, momentous changes can happen that would have seemed unthinkable just a short time previously.

We don’t know when these changes will happen, or what exactly will trigger them, but we do know that, when they do happen, they can happen with a speed and ferocity that is irresistible.

And when that accident of history comes about, all of the political work that we have been doing will become retrospectively useful, having put in place the foundations on which to institutionalise the new changes that are happening.

In Atheist Ireland we have made it a priority since we were founded in 2008 to normalise the use of the words atheist and secular in Irish public discourse. That is now happening. It is no longer unusual for the Irish media to interview a spokesperson for an atheist advocacy group, and politicians now expect to be lobbied by citizens promoting secular policies.

When laws are being debated, we provide detailed briefing documents to all parliamentarians. And we are also being proactive. Ireland will soon have a general election, and we are meeting, within each political party, the people responsible for preparing their party’s manifesto for the election, to try to have secular policies included in those manifestos.

We bring international pressure through our involvement with Atheist Alliance International and the recently formed International Campaign against Blasphemy Laws.

In February of this year, Atheist Ireland had a breakthrough dialogue with the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny and the Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan. It was the first ever formal meeting between an Irish Prime Minister and an atheist advocacy group in the history of the State.

The meeting lasted more than twice its scheduled time as we explained our philosophy, our aims, and our work in promoting an ethical secular State based on human rights.

It marks the start of an ongoing dialogue process, in which we will have detailed follow-up meetings with Department officials and Ministerial advisors about the changes that we believe are needed to respect our fundamental rights.

I have been heartened by the number of new activists that have emerged during the marriage equality campaign. I hope that many of them will continue to be involved in campaigning for more political changes.

Establish secular schools

The final of the five lessons I have learned is the importance of secular schools.

When Catholics and Protestants grow up never meeting each other as children, it is easier for sectarianism to flourish. When the Catholic Church controls 90% of our primary schools, and Protestant Churches control most of the rest, it is easier for the rights of atheists to be ignored.

When Atheist Ireland met the Irish Prime Minister and Education Minister, we brought an atheist parent, an atheist student at and an atheist teacher to give first hand accounts of the religious discrimination they face in Irish schools.

The parent told of his problems getting his five-year-old son admitted to a local school this year. A principal told Derek that his son, as a non-Catholic, was a “Category 2 boy”, to only be considered if there were any places left over after all the “Category 1” Catholic applicants had been considered.

We heard yesterday of the history of Toledo, in the context of Islam and Christianity in Europe.

In 2007 the OSCE published the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools. The principles were prepared by an advisory council of experts on freedom of religion and belief.

These Principles focus solely on the educational approach that seeks to provide teaching about different religions and beliefs, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, as distinct from instruction in a specific religion or belief.

The only OSCE state that has rejected the Toledo Guiding Principles is the Holy See.

We don’t want to opt our children out of religious instruction classes in religious schools. We want to opt our children in to an education that is objective, critical and pluralistic.

We have had enough of a primary school curriculum that seeks to promote the moral and spiritual development of our children through religious education, as this breaches our Constitutional and human rights.

If the State curriculum was promoting the moral and spiritual development of all children through atheist education, we would never hear the end of it, and everyone would immediately recognise that this was breaching the rights of religious families.


So those are the five lessons that I have learned from campaigning against terrorism and for secularism in Ireland, that I think are relevant to the theme of this conference, and that I think are broad enough to be transferable to different situations in different countries.

To recap, the five lessons are:

1. Stand up to violence
2. Seek respectful dialogue
3. Start with human rights
4. Be proactive in politics
5. Establish secular schools

I am more optimistic about doing this in the Ireland that I will be returning to tomorrow, than I was in the Ireland that I left on Friday to come here.

Five steps to peaceful secularism: my talk today at the International Atheist Conference in Germany

8 thoughts on “Five steps to peaceful secularism: my talk today at the International Atheist Conference in Germany

  1. Hear, hear!!

    Bravo Michael! And congratulations to Ireland for this historic step forward. May many more be forthcoming.

  2. Good job Ireland, and a hearty well done to Michael and all the other members of Atheist Ireland for their effective activism.

    Respectful dialogue which still addresses the problems of certain authoritarian and bigoted opinions is a very good strategy, far better than replicating those authoritarian and bigoted attitudes within groups which are supposed to be working for social progress and the defense of human rights.

    The danger of losing yourself into the abyss by staring too much into it is always there, so people shouldn’t be encouraged to support abusive behavior, allegations made without evidence and hatred.

  3. I wanted to stop by and offer congratulations. This is a historic victory, and no doubt the work you and the rest of Atheist Ireland do played a role in achieving it. There’s always more to be done, but this is a huge step forward. Some celebration is in order I think. Tonight I raise a glass to Ireland.

  4. Yes, bravo to Ireland’s grand folk, and to AI and Michael Nugent.

    It is very compelling and inspiring to watch real people do real work for and towards atheism, rather than just sit behind a keyboard and rage, spit, spin, and fester.

    Keep up the good work, folks.

  5. “real work for and towards atheism….”

    Meant to be:

    “real work for and towards atheism and actual human rights and social justice….”

  6. Congratulations Ireland for a landmark decision (voted by the people no less). It is always good to see positive news make the headlines. I am always inspired when I read about the hard-work you and AI put into the promotion of secular values and it is especially wonderful to see this work paying off.

  7. KiwiInOz: the Nobel prize may be a bit of a stretch, but Michael ought to be a front runner for Humanist of the Year, especially considering that a certain previous recipient was much less deserving!

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