Video interview about Atheist Ireland, secularism, blasphemy and faith

Here’s a video interview that I did last week with Randall Calvin for skyzthelimi7 and Atheism TV. We discuss the formation and activities of Atheist Ireland, our campaigns for secular education and against the Irish blasphemy law, and the difference between religious and secular faith and dogma.

We must respect human rights of parents who want secular schools

The Irish Independent today published this article that I wrote about the human right to a secular education. It includes the key points that Atheist Ireland made in our response to the interim report of the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism in Irish Education.

The final report will be given to the Minister for Education later this month. If you live in Ireland, please contact the Minister and your local TDs, and say that you want the Minister to respect the rights of secular parents when he responds to the final report.

We must respect human rights of parents who want secular schools

Most of the 3,300 primary schools in the Republic of Ireland are run by church patrons, about 97% by the Catholic church. These schools use an integrated curriculum, in which Catholic teaching permeates every subject. They are legally allowed to discriminate on religious grounds, and it is often impossible for parents to opt their children out of religious instruction.

Soon the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism will advise Education Minister Ruairi Quinn on how to ensure a more diverse range of school patrons. On the surface the Forum seems to be moving in the right direction, but its interim report proposed a gradual approach that will not in practice vindicate the rights of nonreligious parents.

In particular, the Forum does not seem to appreciate the legal obligation to respect the human rights of parents who want a secular education for their children. This right is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights has upheld it. Also, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has told Ireland to make secular schools more widely available throughout the state.

A secular school is not the same as either a religious school or an atheist school (if such a school existed). Secular schools teach children about all of the the different beliefs that exist, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. Ideally the State should run secular schools directly, but the most important thing is that all schools must be run in a way that respects the human rights of all parents, children and teachers.

This means including effective remedies that enable people to vindicate their rights in practice, not just in theory. Parents cannot in practice vindicate their right to opt their children out from religious instruction, if they have to personally come to the school to supervise the children during that period. Teachers cannot in practice vindicate their right to freedom of conscience, if schools are legally allowed to discriminate on grounds of religious ethos.

When the interim report was launched, Father Michael Drumm said that Catholics would have difficulties attending multi-denominational prayer services. He is of course correct. They should not have to do this. And neither should non-Catholics have to attend Catholic prayer services.

The Forum’s interim report also fails to include several specific recommendations made by the Irish Human Rights Commission such as amending the Employment Equality Acts to ensure respect for the private life of teachers. The Forum should include all of these recommendations in its final report.

The key tests of the final report will be whether its advice includes effective remedies that make it enforceable in practice, whether all schools must convey all parts of the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, and whether secular schools are to be made widely available in all regions of the State.

80% of Irish people want total separation of church and state

More than eight in every ten Irish people want the church and state to be totally separate, 65% strongly agree that this should happen, and less than three in ten have quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in religious groups.

That’s according to a survey of 1,242 people conducted in June for We The Citizens, who today launched a report calling for a national Citizens’ Assembly to give ordinary Irish people a structured direct say in our political decisions.

The report also found strong support for secular education.

  • Seven in every ten Irish people want religious education to focus on teaching students about different religions rather than promoting one set of religious beliefs. And less than two in every ten disagree that this should happen.
  • 46% would welcome most primary and secondary schools being taken out of church control, compared to just 36% against this. Even in Connacht/Ulster, where people were less supportive, more were still in favour than against.
  • And seven in every ten want the Irish education system to encourage more creativity and independent thought.

The report describes how We The Citizens organised a series of regional events and independent surveys, followed by a pilot CItizens’ Assembly, in which a representative group of citizens was randomly chosen, then given expert information and the opportunity to deliberate on particular policy issues.

It covers opinions on a wide range of issues, including proposals on defect reduction, participation rates of women and young people in politics, the need for civic and social education, and the need for openness, transparency and accountability in government.

It concludes that an ongoing Citizens’ Assembly mechanism would strengthen our democracy by helping to restore trust in the democratic system of government. You can read the full report on the We The Citizens website.

The Parable of Tinker Bell and the Dying God

This is part of a talk that I gave last night at a debate in NUI Maynooth on the motion ‘That This House Would Kill God.’ I argued that I would not kill God if he existed, as I don’t believe in capital punishment, but that, as he is a fictional character, I would write a sequel that writes him out of the plot. As part of my talk, I told this parable that was revealed to me by the fairy Tinker Bell.

Once upon a time our favourite god is living in Supernatural Land with all of the other gods. All of the gods are competing with each other to win believers on earth, by a combination of promises and threats and magic tricks. Some of the people on earth believe that there is only one god, and some of them believe that there are a lot of gods, and some of them believe there are no gods.

But sometimes some of the gods gets weaker, and can’t continue to do their magic tricks, and people on earth become less convinced by their promises and less afraid of their threats. And sometimes, tragically, one of the gods becomes so weak that he or she dies, and his or her followers have to turn to another god or else become atheists.

Naturally, the gods sometimes wonder what happens when they die. Some of the gods believe that there is an afterlife beyond Supernatural Land, and other gods believe that is just wishful thinking and that there is nothing after gods die. And some of the gods believe that they have made contact with gods who are dead, and they conduct seances to try to get messages.

Then our favourite god finds himself getting weaker. And more of his believers on earth are turning to other gods or becoming atheists. So our god goes to a supernatural spiritualist to try to find out what happens after he dies. And the spiritualist conducts a seance, in which they make contact with a fairy called Tinker Bell.

Tinker Bell tells our god that he can stay alive, but only if people continue to believe in him. She explains that it is not the case that people are stopping believing in him because he is getting weaker, instead it is that he is getting weaker because people are stopping believing in him.

Our god asks Tinker Bell what he can do to make more people believe in him. And she says that he can’t do anything, that people are increasingly paying more attention to reason and evidence, and that he will have to accept that. So our god, who is now a wise god, accepts his fate and dies peacefully.

And as he dies, he sees a bright light and Tinker Bell brings him into his afterlife, where he meets all of the other dead gods, as well as Batman and Superman, and Dorothy and the Wizard, and Peter Pan and Wendy, and all of the other fictional characters that nobody believes are real.

And they say to him, welcome to Fiction Land. You’re now in a different part of people’s brains. Supernatural Land contains invented ideas that the brain believes are real, and Fiction Land contains invented ideas that the brain realises are fictional. But don’t worry, you can have as much influence on people while you are here, as you did when they believed you were real.

Religion has poisoned politics in Ireland

This is my talk last night at the debate in Queens University Belfast, supporting the motion that Religion has Poisoned Politics on the Island of Ireland. It also includes some points that I made not in the speech but in the questions and answers.

Thank you for inviting me. On the way in, I saw a poster for this debate, and after the words ‘Religion has Poisoned Politics on the Island’, somebody had handwritten ‘Especially Taigs’. So I thought, that’s the debate won already, and I’ve brought in the poster as exhibit one in favour of the motion.

I think it is clear that religion has poisoned politics, and indeed that politics has also poisoned religion, not only on the island of Ireland but also everywhere that the two exist together.

This is because politics should be about governing the world that we live in, and there is enough to deal with in governing this world. People have the right to believe whatever they want about the supernatural, and to manifest those beliefs without infringing on the rights of others. And in order to protect equally everybody’s right to believe all of these different things about the supernatural, the State must remain strictly neutral on these questions, and leave it up to individuals and churches and other groups to deal with them.

In effect, the partition of Ireland gave us a sectarian Protestant State in Northern Ireland and a sectarian Catholic State in the south. The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland was large enough to ensure that they were not completely oppressed, but the Protestant minority in the Republic was too small and most of them either emigrated or kept their heads down.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Catholic Church started poisoning politics from the time the State was founded, through both its Hierarchy in Ireland and its pretend State in the Vatican. Our first film censor said his philosophy for his job was “I know nothing about films, but I do know the Ten Commandments.”

The 1937 Irish Constitution includes a preamble that says all authority comes from the Holy Trinity, and an article in which the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. This article is not even protecting the right of the citizens to worship this god, it is protecting the right of this god to be worshiped by the citizens. The idea that a being that created a universe of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains a hundred billion stars like our sun, would need to have its rights protected by Eamon de Valera and the Irish Catholic Hierarchy is a bit bizarre.

During the 1940s to the 1960s, we had the Noel Browne and John McGahern cases. Browne had to resign as Health Minister when the Catholic Hierarchy objected to a welfare scheme that he introduced called the Mother and Child Scheme, and McGahern was dismissed as a teacher in a Catholic-run school because he had a novel banned and married an English Protestant woman in a registry office. These cases demonstrated the two obsessions of the Catholic Church in Ireland: sexual morality and control of the education system.

In the 1970s, the IRA used condoms in the internal mechanisms of bombs, and some IRA members objected to using condoms on moral grounds. And Charles Haughey introduced a Health Bill that allowed people to buy condoms, but only if they were married and had a doctor’s prescription saying that they needed the condoms for bona fide family planning purposes.

In the 1980s, a vote to remove the ban on divorce from the Constitution was defeated. This was around the time that Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland were campaigning against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The day after the result, Martin Turner had a great cartoon in the Irish Times titled ‘United Ireland At Last’. It had a cartoon Protestant Orange Man wearing a large rosette saying ‘Ulster Says No’, linking arms with a cartoon Catholic Paddy Irishman wearing a large rosette saying ‘So does Munster, Leinster and Connacht.’

In the 1990s we had the X Case, in which the Irish State took out an injunction to prevent a raped teenage girl from traveling to England for an abortion. And we had a great example of how silly sectarian bigotry can be, when Ireland played Denmark in Lansdowne Road at football. Irish fans of Glasgow Celtic were booing Peter Lovenkrands of Denmark because he played for Glasgow Rangers. Or at least, they thought they were. Actually, they were mistakenly booing Peter Madsen of Brondby, who must have wondered what he had done to deserve such a reaction.

In the 2000s, we had the most serious manifestation of how religion has poisoned politics in Ireland. It was finally exposed that, for decades, while all of the above was going on, Catholic priests were raping and abusing children, and the Catholic Church was covering this up by moving the priests around, with the passive acquiescence of the Irish Government who did not properly investigate any claims made against the Church.

It is in this context of all of this that Atheist Ireland was founded as an advocacy group a few years ago. We promote not only atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, but also a secular State where religions do not have undue influence on political decisions. A secular State is different from either a religious State or an atheist State. And moving towards a secular State is how we will move towards a situation where religion no longer poisons politics on the island of Ireland.

How and why I became an atheist

Back in the 1960s, when I was in primary school in Drumcondra in Dublin, we were given a project to do over the Easter holiday. We had to read the Gospels, and rewrite them in our own words. I spent ages doing this, rewriting the stories and drawing pictures to accompany them.

Midway through doing this, it dawned on me that none of this ever happened. These were comic-book stories about a comic-book character, a superhero who could do magic. From then on, I didn’t believe in gods.

My parents were cultural Catholics from Tipperary and Clare. They often went to Mass, but always told me that I should make up my own mind about religion when I was old enough. While I didn’t believe in gods, I was fascinated by the big questions that religion claimed to have the answers to. How did the universe come to be? What is the meaning of life? How should we live together?

The religious answers seemed flawed, particularly as I learned more about the scale of the universe and how life on Earth evolved. Why would a supreme being create such a vast universe for just one of millions of species living on just one of billions of planets? Why would such a supreme being care about what we did in our bedrooms, or what we chanted on Sundays? Why would he give different messages to different people in different places at different times?

And yet for years I described myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Saying for certain that there was no God just seemed to be a step too far, as nobody could prove one way or another whether or not it was true. And so I started to believe in the analogy of the three blind men and the elephant.

One blind man touches the elephant’s trunk and says, “The elephant is like a hosepipe.” Another blind man touches the elephant’s leg and says, “No, the elephant is like a tree trunk.” And the third blind man touches the elephant’s tail and says, “No, you’re both wrong; the elephant is like a piece of rope.” In the same way, I believed there was a universal reality and that all religions had a limited glimpse of some of it.

That grated with me, because it seemed to suggest all religions were equally true, though equally flawed. But it also seemed almost infinitely more likely that there were no gods than that there were gods. And yet I could not, with 100 percent certainty, discount the possibility. The dilemma seemed irresolvable, until I realised that I was applying different standards to my beliefs about gods than to my beliefs about anything else.

Strictly speaking, we cannot be certain about anything, even that we exist. What appears to be consciousness might be an illusion, and reality may be nothing like it appears. And so, in order to function sanely, we assume that reality is broadly as it appears, based on applying reason to the apparent evidence of our senses. And the best way to test this is the scientific method: make an educated guess, conduct unbiased experiments to see how that guess matches up to the evidence, and then reject or refine your idea based on the outcome of the experiments.

When we do that, we realise there is no need to invent gods in order to explain either reality or morality. Every generation, the scientific method teaches us more about how the universe operates. Every generation, religious people describe the bits that we don’t yet understand by saying that “God did that.” Every generation, we patiently move more and more answers from the “God did that” category into the “we now understand how it happens naturally” category. And we never move any answers in the opposite direction.

Crucially, the scientific method never claims to be 100 percent certain about anything. All it says is that, based on the best currently available evidence, this is what seems to be the case so reliably that, in practical day-to-day terms, we describe it as being true beyond reasonable doubt. However, if we ever get any new evidence that shows that we are mistaken, then we accept that we were mistaken and revise our ideas to match the new evidence.

If we apply the same reasoning to the question of whether gods exist, we can reliably say they do not exist based on the best currently available evidence. This is not a claim of certainty, and it is open to change based on new evidence, but it is a reasonable response to the best currently available evidence, and to centuries of related evidence. There is no good evidence that gods do exist, and lots of good evidence that the idea of gods was invented by human beings. It was realising this that enabled me to feel comfortable describing myself primarily as an atheist rather than an agnostic.

Atheism is also a better basis for investigating morality. Right and wrong are ultimately about how we affect the suffering and wellbeing of other sentient beings. Helping other sentient beings to flourish is good, and causing other sentient beings to suffer unnecessarily is bad. It is complicated to figure out what is right and wrong in any given situation, because there are so many permutations of the effects of your actions.

However, religion distracts us from identifying what is right and wrong by adding in answers that are unrelated to suffering and wellbeing in the real world, but are based on imaginary souls and imaginary consequences in imaginary afterlives. And so you get contradictory messages in books like the bible, which tell us to love our neighbour but stone him to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. We know that this last command is morally wrong, and so we ignore it. This shows that we do not get morality from the bible, but apply our morality to what we read in it.

But aside from the science and theology, it was the behaviour of many religious people that caused me to become an atheist activist. Not all religious people, of course, but many of those that have influence. The Catholic Church has influenced many Irish laws, and has a widespread culture of covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests. Islamic states infringe on the human rights of their citizens, and Islamic extremists fly airplanes into buildings.

And so I helped to found Atheist Ireland, an advocacy group that promotes atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and that lobbies for a secular state that shows no favour to any religious belief. We want a secular Irish constitution, a secular education system and an end to the many links between church and state in Ireland. Everyone has a right to believe what they want about the supernatural, but the state should be strictly neutral about this.

This article was first published in September in The Hibernia Times.

Government forum must vindicate right to secular education

Atheist Ireland has responded today to the interim report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in primary education. The Forum is to send its final report to the Minister for Education by the end of December.

On the surface the Forum seems to be moving in the right direction, but the interim report proposes a very gradual approach that does not in practice vindicate the rights of nonreligious parents. My greatest concern is that they do not seem to appreciate the legal obligation to respect the human rights of parents who want secular education for their children.

For example, during the opening presentation of the interim report, an unscripted remark described the suggested removal of crucifixes in classrooms as “sensationalist nonsense”. While I did not expect the forum to support the removal of crucifixes from classrooms, I suspect that they would not even consider explicitly disrespecting any religiously-inspired suggestion in this way.

The right to a classroom free of religious symbols is central to mainstream secularism, and is not an extremist position. The European Court of Human Rights upheld this right in Italy as protecting freedom of conscience. This was overturned on appeal, citing the otherwise secular nature of Italian state schools. The situation is different in Ireland, where we do not have secular state schools to counterbalance the influence of symbols.

The key tests of the final report will be whether its advice includes effective remedies that make it enforceable in practice, whether all schools must convey all parts of the curriculum in an “objective, critical and pluralistic manner”, and whether secular non-denominational schools are widely available in all regions of the State. These tests are not only compatible with, but required by, rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and/or the terms of various human rights treaties which ireland has signed up to.

You can read our full response here.

It’s on our campaign website for a secular education, TeachDontPreach.ie.

Debates about religion next week in Belfast and Maynooth

I’ll be taking part in two debates next week, in Belfast on Monday 5th December, and in Maynooth on Tuesday 6th December. And one of my opponents in the Belfast debate is Rev Chris Hudson, with whom I worked together on many peace campaigns during the euphemistically-called “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Monday’s topic is that “Religion has Poisoned Politics on this Island”. I will be speaking in favour, along with author Malachi O’Doherty and Jon Dickinson of the Queen’s Humanist Society. Speaking against the motion will be Leon Litvack and Paul Shannon of Queen’s and Rev Chris Hudson of the All Souls Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. The debate starts at 8.00 pm on Monday in Room 2.26 Peter Froggatt Centre, QUB. All are welcome, and admission is free.

Tuesday’s topic is that “This House would Kill God”, which I will of course approach from a metaphorical perspective as God doesn’t exist. It’s organised by the NUI Maynooth Literary and Debating Society, and starts at 7pm in Lecture Theatre four of the John Hume building on the north campus. There will also be a member of the theology faculty and student speakers.

Myth of Jesus is no basis for building world view today about reality

Here is a link to the last of my series of five articles for the Irish Times on atheism and its relationship to reality, morality, faith and Jesus.

Myth of Jesus is no basis for building world view today about nature of reality

And here are links to the previous four articles in the series:

1. We atheists will change our minds if evidence shows we are wrong

2. If there is a natural explanation then there is no reason to invent a god

3. Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality

4. Faith ceases to be a virtue when it has little connection with facts of reality