A Secular State Protects a Pluralist Society

I gave this talk this weekend at the Rationalist International Conference in Cambridge, UK

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Dublin, Atheist Ireland held our usual monthly information table, where we promote atheism and reason as more reliable world views than faith and dogma.

We discussed the improbability of gods with atheists, doubters, and religious evangelists. And we discussed the importance of separation of Church and State, both to protect the right to freedom of belief, and to minimise the harm that religion can cause, particularly in our State-funded schools.

We have hosted these information tables around the country every month for eight years. Along with our website, debates, and mainstream media appearances, they provide a sustained flow of information as well as a campaigning platform for separation of Church and State.

A few days later, we attended a meeting of a dialogue process between the Irish Government, Irish churches, and nonreligious philosophical bodies. We discussed effective dialogue, inclusive and diverse communities, and education.

At that meeting we sat alongside the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland, two minority religious groups who we work with, who also support Separation of Church and State.

Atheist Ireland is now working on a follow-up policy document from that meeting, which will form the basis of our political lobbying for the coming years. That document is called How a Secular State Protects a Pluralist Society.

The Balance we try to Reach in our Work

This shows the balance that Atheist Ireland tries to reach in our work.

When we are dealing with our fellow citizens, we promote atheism and reason, because they are more reliable approaches to seeking truths about reality and morality. And we also promote separation of Church and State.

But when we are dealing with the State, we explicitly do not promote atheism. Instead we lobby the government to be secular, to be neutral between religious and nonreligious beliefs.

We are confident that, in a democratic secular State, we can effectively put the case for atheism to our fellow citizens, because our arguments are reasonable and persuasive.

That is, of course, different in authoritarian States, where the problems are as much based on totalitarian human rights abuses as they are on faith and dogma.

But in Ireland, we overtly tell the Government that we would be just as opposed to the State promoting atheism as we are to the State promoting religion.

A Pluralist Society with Catholic Laws

This balance is one part of why Ireland, which was once a Catholic country, is now a pluralist society with Catholic laws that we are gradually dismantling.

In recent years, the Irish people have voted, by a consistent two to one majority, to remove our constitutional bans on same sex marriage, abortion, and blasphemy.

Atheist Ireland was part of the alliances that won the first two of these referendums. And we led both of the campaigns on removing the blasphemy law: both our decade-long fight to get the referendum called, then the referendum campaign itself.

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.

An opinion poll at the time of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin showed that 15% of Irish Catholics do not believe Jesus was the Son of God, and 8% of Irish Catholics do not believe in God, which is a pretty low hurdle for being a Catholic.

This is all consistent with the patterns uncovered by the World Values Survey, which has been conducted by a team of interdisciplinary social scientists over recent decades.

It suggests that, as individuals move from survival values towards self-expression values, societies move from traditional religious values towards secular values.

Based on this research, the developed world is relentlessly becoming more secular, with some fundamentalists fighting a rearguard action against it. Ireland is following that trend.

Our biggest remaining challenge is getting secular schools. The Catholic Church still controls 90% of our State-funded primary schools, and is still allowed to discriminate against pupils, parents, and teachers based on religious ethos.

We also still have compulsory religious oaths that prevent a conscientious atheist from becoming president, a judge, or Taoiseach, and we have other overtly discriminatory laws.

But we will get there. And the sooner we attain a secular State, the easier it will be for religious and atheist citizens alike to work together to shape a just society based on human rights.

Atheistic beliefs are more reliable than religious beliefs

There are good reasons to believe that atheistic beliefs are more reliable than religious beliefs.

Faith and personal experience are the worst and least reliable ways of identifying what is true. They result in different people coming to different beliefs about the same reality.

Applying reason to evidence is the most reliable way. Because it can more reliably result in different people coming to the same beliefs about the same reality.

When we apply reason to evidence, we notice that the idea of a God seems to be implausible, that reality and morality seem as we would expect them to be if there was no God, and that there is a relentless pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural explanations.

Theists typically believe that their God is a pure mind without a body. But this is an invented convenience, because we have no evidence that a mind can exist without a body or a brain or a source of energy.

Theists typically believe this God created the universe out of nothing in order to have a special relationship with human beings on planet Earth. But instead we see a vast universe based on scientific laws, with two hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars like our sun.

Theists typically believe this God is the source of our morality. But instead we see morality evolving in the brains of social animals, including humans, and we see that humans have been able to refine our morality because of our ability to reason.

Protecting Equally the Right to Atheistic and Religious Beliefs

So there are good reasons to believe that atheistic beliefs are more reliable than religious beliefs. However, that is not the reason why we should insist that our right to hold our atheistic beliefs should be protected.

Indeed, we should also protect the right of religious people to hold their religious beliefs, as long as they are not infringing on the rights of other people. And we should protect their right to not be persecuted because of their beliefs.

There are two reasons for this.

One, we should be willing to constantly test our beliefs rationally, and we should always be open to changing our beliefs if we get new evidence.

And two, if the rights to Thought, Conscience, Belief and Expression are indeed fundamental rights, then we should protect equally the rights of those with whom we disagree.

Again, with the important proviso, that the right to freedom of belief does not extend to carrying out actions that infringe on the rights of others.

The right to believe in a God does not grant you the right to indoctrinate other people into your beliefs, or to prevent people from criticising or ridiculing your beliefs, or to treat women as second class citizens, or to prevent people from consensually exercising their sexuality, or to have any other privileges over other citizens.

The State Must be Secular to Protect a Pluralist Society

But we still have to embed the message that the State must be secular to maintain the progress of recent years. To do this, we should start, not with final policies, but with the principles upon which a Secular State should be based.

The five most important principles are:

One: The first duty of the State is to protect the rights of its citizens. This includes the unconditional right to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief, and the conditional right to practice those beliefs as long as we don’t infringe on the rights of others.

Two: To do this, the State must remain neutral between religious and atheistic beliefs. This is both a requirement of international human rights law, and also the only way that the State can protect these rights, equally and fairly, for every one of us.

Three: People have rights, beliefs do not. The State must protect the right of every person to be respected and treated with dignity, but it must not protect the contents of our beliefs or insist that we respect beliefs, if we consider them to be irrational or harmful or unjust.

For example, many people, who unthinkingly say that we should all respect the beliefs of others, would never suggest that we should have to respect the beliefs of racism or antisemitism.

This distinction has been stressed by various UN and Council of Europe Human Rights Rapporteurs and Commissioners, as well as by the Venice Commission. Indeed, it is the foundation of international campaigns against blasphemy laws.

Four: Individual people, not majorities, have human rights. Indeed, as the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland, the whole point of human rights law is to protect individuals from the tyranny of the majority, and majority votes cannot be used to deny human rights.

Here’s the context. The UN Human Rights Committee had asked Ireland why it was in breach of the human right of pregnant women to an abortion in wider circumstances than was then allowed by Irish law. The Irish State replied that Irish abortion law reflected the will of the Irish people, as allowed under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The UN Human Rights Committee said that that was a completely unacceptable reason for denying human rights, and that the very core of human rights law is a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. After a break in the session, the Irish Justice Minister formally withdrew the remark and accepted that “the majority will does not and can not derogate from human rights obligations.”

Five: There must be one law for all, with no place for quasi-legal religious courts that infringe on the democratic rights of members of one religious community. And in Ireland this includes our latest campaign, One Oath For All, in which we are challenging the religious oaths required to be President or a judge or Taoiseach.

Secularism Correlates With Many Aspects of a Just Society

There are many practical arguments for secularism.

In general, secular countries, which include atheist and religious people, have lower rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion.

Studies published by social scientist Phil Zuckerman and others have shown that secularists are typically less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less closed-minded and less authoritarian; and more politically tolerant and more supportive of gender equality, women’s rights and gay rights.

There is a pathway to secular rational values. The World Values Survey has been conducted by a team of interdisciplinary social scientists over recent decades. It suggests that, as individuals move from survival values to self-expression values, societies move away from traditional religious values and towards secular rational values.

This change is triggered by investments in health, education, communication technologies and democracy, and more self-perceived control over your life.

Based on this research, the developed world is relentlessly becoming more secular, with some fundamentalists fighting a rearguard action against it. Ireland is following that trend.

The sooner we attain a secular State, the easier it will be for religious and atheist citizens alike to work together to shape a just society.

Atheist Ireland Promotes Ethical Secularism

Atheist Ireland promotes not only secularism, but ethical secularism. In an ideal society, it would not be necessary for us to add the word ‘ethical’. But unfortunately, many people still believe that ethics and morality are determined by gods and interpreted through religions, and that atheists have no basis for behaving morally.

But morality and ethics are products of our brains, part of the natural evolution of generations of living together as sentient beings. We see three phases of evolving morality among social animals. The first phase is empathy and compassion. The second phase is cooperation and reciprocity. The third phase is understanding fairness and justice.

John Rawls’ social contract theory of morality is based on the following question: How would a perfectly rational set of people design principles of justice for a society, if we don’t know in advance what position we would hold in that society? That is, we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick. This veil of ignorance forces us to be impartial, and to develop universally just principles.

My personal addition to the theory, which is not an Atheist Ireland policy, is that we also should not know what species we would be. I believe one of the greatest injustices in our world is how we treat nonhuman animals. Every year we kill over 50 billion farmed animals, and up to a trillion fish. These sentient beings suffer unjustly for our convenience, and our slaughter of them is an ongoing moral atrocity.

On this basis, as a minimum, we should seek to minimise suffering and maximise flourishing of sentient beings, and to treat ourselves and other sentient beings fairly and justly. We do not need to invoke supernatural sources of ethics, and we should challenge such supernatural theories where they have the effect of causing injustice and unnecessary suffering.

Atheist Ireland Promotes Internationally Agreed Human Rights

We promote internationally agreed human rights. In particular, we support the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, the right to equality before the law, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to private and family life, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to an effective remedy to vindicate rights that are breached.

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is a strong foundation upon which to build ethical secular policies, along with the two main treaties that seek to implement it: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. There are also other agreements based on particular areas of rights.

While these agreements are not perfect, they provide the strongest approximation we have to a set of human rights that can be objectively monitored. And while the UN Human Rights Council is political in nature, the UN Human Rights Committees are composed of independent legal experts who regularly question every State about their human rights record.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and its supporting treaties, stand in stark contrast to the rival Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. This was developed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 1990. It filters human rights through the supremacy of Sharia law, and is more focused on protecting Islamism and Sharia than protecting human rights.

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 opponents to argue against, because they are not merely our personal preferences, but minimum standards agreed by many States around the world.

We Must Support Secularists in Repressive Theocracies

Finally, those of us who live in relatively secular democracies should actively support those who courageously promote these ideas in more dangerous regions, including but not limited to Islamist theocracies.

Under such regimes, Islamism is an integrated religious, judicial, political and military ideology and system of social governance. These States persecute atheists and members of minority faiths, including Ahmadiyya and other dissident Muslims.

The laws of secular liberal democracy have evolved over the centuries to gradually reflect more nuanced ideas about freedom of conscience, and equality before the law, and individual human rights.

But the values of Islamist Sharia are shackled to the Quran and the Hadiths, documents that are up to thirteen centuries old. And any proposed changes must be made consistent with those texts, that reflect the values of a more violent and undemocratic era.

Also, supporters of Islamism, unlike secular democrats, must believe that the creator of the universe dictated the book that Islamism is based on, and that book simply cannot be wrong.

And so you see Verse 24:2 of the Quran saying: flog adulterers 100 times each, and do not let your compassion stop you. Because clearly some early Muslims knew that this punishment was disproportionate and immoral, and so they had to be specifically told to not let their compassion stop them.

Of course, the Christian Bible is no better. Just see Deuteronomy and 1 Samuel in the Bible, where the Christian God repeatedly commands the Israelites to attack the cities of other tribes, to show them no compassion, and to completely destroy them, putting to death man woman child and infant, and leaving nothing alive that breathes.

Fortunately, in most of the developed world, Christianity is now closer to being subject to democracy than it used to be, but we cannot yet say the same about Islam in Islamist theocracies, or even in some Islamist-led communities in Western countries.

The Injustice of both Islamism and Anti-Muslim Bigotry

This is an overlap between two challenges here: One, we must protect people everywhere, who are mostly Muslims, from the human rights abuses of Islamism. And two, we must protect Muslims in the West from anti-Muslim prejudice, including bigotry and violence, from authoritarian thugs.

While doing both of these things, we must also stay alert to the recent attempts to revive the silencing term ‘Islamophobia’.

It is typically used to conflate two ideas (criticism of Islam, which is just, and bigotry towards Muslims, which is unjust) and it uses language that suggests that those who criticise Islam have a mental illness.

By building the term around the word ‘Islam’ rather than the word ‘Muslim’, some people can use it to try to silence criticism of Islam, even when that criticism is aimed at protecting Muslims, who are the most common victims of Islamist human rights abuses.

We should remember that, after the Ayatollah Khomeini hijacked the Iranian Revolution, and Iranian women protested against being forced to wear veils, the new regime called those Iranian women Islamophobes. That is the ethos behind the word.

So we must oppose the injustices both of Islamism and of anti-Muslim Bigotry.

Challenging human rights abuses by theocracies is another area where Atheist Ireland’s secular alliance with the Ahmadi Muslims and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland has proved useful.

When the UN Human Rights Committee was questioning Pakistan in 2017, we sent a joint delegation to Geneva to speak out for persecuted atheists, Christians, and Muslims who could not speak out for themselves.

To Review:

When Atheist Ireland is dealing with our fellow citizens, we promote atheism and reason, because they are more reliable approaches to seeking truths about reality and morality.

But when we are dealing with the State, we do not promote atheism. Instead we lobby the government to be secular, to be neutral between religious and nonreligious beliefs.

This balance is one part of why Ireland, which was once a Catholic country, is now a pluralist society with Catholic laws that we are gradually dismantling.

We should actively promote the reasons why atheistic beliefs are more reliable than religious beliefs.

We should also protect the right of religious people to hold their religious beliefs, as long as they are not infringing on the rights of other people, along with our right to challenge those beliefs.

The State Must be Secular to Protect this Pluralist Society. The five most important principles to underpin this are:

  1. The State’s first duty is to protect the rights of its citizens, including freedom of belief.
  2. To do this, the State must remain neutral between religious and atheistic beliefs.
  3. People have rights, beliefs do not.
  4. Individual people, not majorities, have human rights.
  5. There must be one law for all, with no place for quasi-legal religious courts.

Secularism correlates with many aspects of a just society
Atheist Ireland promotes ethical secularism
Atheist Ireland promotes internationally agreed human rights
We must support secularists in repressive theocracies
We must oppose the injustices of Islamism and of anti-Muslim bigotry

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