Is Scientology legitimate? Debate at TCD Philosophical Society

This is my contribution to a debate on Thursday at the TCD Philosophical Society on the motion that Scientology is as legitimate as any other religion. Other speakers included Mike Rinder, former chief spokesperson of the Church of Scientology, Irish anti-Scientology activist Matthew McKenna, and former Scientologist John Duignan.

Members of the philosophical society, ladies and gentlemen, fellow Thetans, I have a lot of sympathy with the Church of Scientology, because I am also a member of a small church that is ridiculed by society.

When Atheist Ireland started campaigning against the blasphemy law a few years ago, one of the things that we did was to set up a new church that worshiped Dermot Ahern, the Minister who brought in the law, and that church is the Church of Dermotology.

Our beliefs are pretty similar to mainstream religious beliefs. We believe Dermot Ahern created the universe out of nothing. We believe ice cream wafers are literally the body of Dermot Ahern. And like the Mormons, we have magic underpants. We have over a thousand Facebook members, which makes us bigger than the Baha’is in Ireland.

And like the Scientologists, we have a free personality test to judge members. Ours is slightly simpler than the Scientology test. We have only two questions. Number one: are you vulnerable? Number two: have you money? If you answer yes to both of these questions, you’re in.
Continue reading “Is Scientology legitimate? Debate at TCD Philosophical Society”

Irish Presidential candidates reply to questions on secular issues

Four of the seven Irish Presidential candidates have committed to recognising equally the rights of atheist and agnostic citizens if elected President, in replies to questions from Atheist Ireland. Currently an atheist or agnostic cannot become President as there is a constitutional requirement for the President to swear a religious oath asking God to direct and sustain them.

Michael D Higgins has said: “There is to be a constitutional convention in the new year – which I fully support – and it is at this forum that matters such as the (religious) oath (for becoming President) ought to be examined. It is of great importance that the Presidency and all surrounding it ought to be fit for purpose for a modern state with a population comprising a large number of different religious beliefs as well as none.”

Mary Davis has said: “As President, I would recognise the rights of all Irish people, including atheists and agnostics… I believe that Article 44 (the religion clause) of the Constitution should be amended to reflect and recognise the right of non-belief. I believe that the best way in which this can be achieved is via constitutional referendum.”

Gay Mitchell has said: “I believe that all citizens should have the right to run for president. A constitutional convention is due to review the constitutional text next year. I would suggest you lobby it on the issue. As president, I could not possibly intervene to advocate a specific constitutional change. But I would be comfortable with a change that recognises the rights of believers and non-believers equally by making declarations to God optional.”

David Norris has said: “During my life and political career I have always treated all citizens as equal… While I believe in God, I believe in a total separation between the State and church, and therefore would consider myself secular in this regard… Look at my record and what I said about the prayer on the order of business on the Senate.”

The Martin McGuinness campaign sent an interim reply, and Sean Gallagher and Dana Rosemary Scallon have yet to reply, to the questions asked by Atheist Ireland three weeks ago.

Here is a link to the full replies by Mary Davis, Michael D Higgins, Gay Mitchell and David Norris:

Presidential candidates reply to questions on secular issues

Debates about religion this week in UCD and TCD

I’ll be taking part in two debates about religion this week, in University College Dublin on Wednesday 26th October and in Trinity College Dublin on Thursday 27th October.

On Wednesday 26 October I will be in UCD, debating the motion ‘This House Believes That the World would be a Better Place Without Religion’. This debate is organised by the Literary and Historical Society and takes place at 7pm in Theatre P In the Arts Block on the main UCD campus.

I and Rita Harrold of the Humanist Association will be proposing the motion, and Fr Peter McVerry, Founder of the Peter McVerry Trust, and Dr Bernd Wannenwetsch, Former Head of Theology at Oxford University, will be opposing the motion.

On Thursday 27 October I will be in TCD, debating the motion ‘This House Believes that Scientology is as Legitimate as any other Religion’. This debate is organised by the University Philosophical Society.

I and Mike Rinder, a former global spokesperson for the Church of Scientology, will be proposing the motion, and former Scientologist John Duignan and Matthew McKenna of Anonymous Ireland will be opposing the motion.

Mike Rinder will also be appearing on TV3’s Midweek, presented by Colette Fitzpatrick, at 10 pm on Wednesday night ahead of Thursday’s debate. This show will also be available online at www.tv3/ie/midweek.

Five questions on secular issues for the Irish Presidential candidates

Atheist Ireland has written to the seven Presidential candidates asking them five questions about secular issues that are relevant to the position of President. We will publish the results when we receive them.

Mary Davis is the first candidate to respond. If you want to help us to establish the other six candidates’ positions on these issues, here are the questions that we have asked them and to the candidates’ postal addresses, email addresses and phone numbers.

Please contact them and remind them to respond to the questions as soon as possible, so that we can make an informed decision when we vote for our next President.

The five questions that we have asked the candidates

1. If elected President, what specifically will you do to ensure that you and the institutions of the State treat atheists and agnostics as equal citizens? What specifically will you do to make atheist and agnostic citizens feel welcome and included under your Presidency?

2. Do you personally agree that, as a President elected by the people, many of whom do not believe in a god, you should be required to publicly ask a god to “direct” you in your work as our President?

3. Are you comfortable with the fact that you are running in an election that excludes many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?

4. Are you comfortable with the fact that as President your Council of State must exclude many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?

5. If elected President, will you seek to address the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Nation under Article 13.2 of the Constitution about the following matter of national and public importance: that the Irish State should treat atheist, agnostic and religious citizens and organisations as equal under the law.

How you can remind the candidates to reply

The questions were sent two weeks ago, and were followed up with reminders. The campaigns have each told us that they will reply, but only one has done so to date. In fairness, from the tone of the follow-up contacts, it seems to be because they are busy and not because they are unwilling to reply.

That is why we are now asking other people to remind them, in order to focus their attention on it. Ideally we want to publish the responses together but if there is much more of a delay we will publish those which we have received.

Please ask them to reply either to the postal address on the letter that they received from Atheist Ireland, or by email to chair (at) atheist.ie

You can contact them at:

Sean Gallagher
14 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2
together@seangallagher.com
085-8831155

Michael D Higgins
17 Ely Place, Dublin 2
info@michaeldhiggins.ie
01-6784710

Martin McGuinness
101-102 Capel Street, Dublin 1
admin@thepeoplespresident.ie
01-8740194

Gay Mitchell
Fine Gael, 51 Upper Mount Street, Dublin 2
gay.mitchell@europarl.europa.eu
finegael@finegael.com
01-6198444

Senator David Norris
Seanad Éireann, Kildare Street, Dublin 2
david.norris@oireachtas.ie
01-6183104

Dana Rosemary Scallon
c/o Lindsey Holmes Publicity,
The Rere, 6 Cullenwood Park, Dublin 6
lindsey@lhpublicity.ie
01-4970313

Some background information on the questions

In the 2006 census, almost a quarter of a million people either ticked the ‘No Religion’ box or else did not answer the Religion question. In the 2011 census we believe that figure will be considerably higher.

Yet the Irish State discriminates against atheists and agnostics in many ways. This discrimination includes imposing religious declarations on the President, Judges and members of the Council of State; failing to provide a secular education system that respects the right to freedom of conscience of atheist and agnostic citizens; explicitly allowing religious organisations but not nonreligious philosophical organisations to opt out of equality, employment and taxation laws; and passing a blasphemy law that treats religious beliefs with more respect than nonreligious philosophical beliefs.

Two of these matters relate directly to the role of President.

Under Article 12.8 of the Constitution, the President must, in order to take office, take and subscribe publicly a declaration that begins with the words “In the presence of Almighty God…” and that ends with the words “May God direct and sustain me.” This religious oath effectively prevents Irish citizens who are conscientious atheists or agnostics from becoming President. It is the equivalent of requiring a religious citizen to swear an oath that begins with the words “In the absence of Almighty God…” This requirement runs contrary to case law in the European Court of Human Rights. The State should not require a citizen, even indirectly, to reveal information about their religious beliefs in this way.

Under Article 31 of the Constitution, the President is aided by a Council of State, consisting of certain serving and former politicians and judges, and up to seven other persons appointed at the absolute discretion of the President. The members of the Council of State must, at their first meeting, take and subscribe publicly a declaration that begins with the words “In the presence of Almighty God…” This religious oath effectively prevents Irish citizens who are conscientious atheists or agnostics from serving as members of the Council of State, and it prevents the President from appointing such persons as they would be unable to accept the appointment.

Why atheism provides a better basis for examining reality and morality

Here are links to the second and third of my series of five articles for the Irish Times on atheism and its relationship to reality, morality, faith and Jesus.

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

Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality

Atheism, impersonal forces, love, goodness, Stalin and Pol Pot

I’ve written a series of five articles for the Irish Times about atheism and its relationship to reason, morality, faith and Jesus. You can read the first article here on the Irish Times website:

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

A few people have taken issue with one sentence in it, which reads

“Atheists agree that there are impersonal forces in the universe, and that values such as love and goodness are part of our experiences as human beings.”

Their concern is that not all atheists believe this, and that some atheists such as Stalin and Pol Pot do not fit into this analysis. So I’d like to clarify the point I was making. I’ve used qualifiers like ‘some’ and ‘most’ elsewhere in the article, but I didn’t think such a qualifier was needed here. If you read the sentence in the context of the sentences before and after it…

“In recent centuries, at least in the western world, science has weakened the idea of gods as intervening supernatural beings, and secular democracy has weakened the idea of gods as moral guides. And so a growing number of religious people are redefining the idea of god to mean an impersonal force, or a set of universal values such as love and goodness, or even suggesting that the laws of nature are god. Atheists agree that there are impersonal forces in the universe, and that values such as love and goodness are part of our experiences as human beings. But describing such natural phenomena as “god” creates an illusion that there is a wider acceptance of the idea of a personal intervening god, because it uses the same label to describe a very different type of idea.”

…it means that religious people claim that certain things are evidence of a god, and that atheists agree that such things exist but argue that they are natural phenomena. I think that is true for such an overwhelming majority of atheists that, outside of an academic treatise, it doesn’t require qualifying. That said, it would have been technically more accurate to qualify it with something like “virtually all atheists agree”.

With regard to the Stalin and Pol Pot argument, there are broadly two possible responses.

  • Yes. Values such as love and goodness were part of the the experiences of Stalin and Pol Pot as human beings. So were values such as hate and badness. All of these values are part of the overall experience of being human and interacting with other sentient beings. For the purposes of this argument, the important point is that these experiences are natural and not supernatural. We shouldn’t just cherry-pick the positive experiences, and either attribute them to a god or say that they actually are god.
  • No. Michael is mistaken about this. Here’s why. (insert explanation.) However, that doesn’t invalidate other things that he says about atheism, which on the basis of the best currently available evidence seem to be correct, such as (insert examples). Also, if atheists are fundamentally mistaken, and there is a god, that would raise other moral questions about Stalin and Pol Pot. Did this god know they were doing bad? Was this god unable to stop them doing bad? Or was this god able but unwilling to stop them doing bad?

The remaining four articles will be published in the Irish Times on the next four Tuesdays.

Atheist Ireland attends OSCE human rights conference in Warsaw

Jane Donnelly and I are in Poland today for the OSCE Human Rights Conference on Human Rights. This is the first time an Irish atheist advocacy group has taken part in an OSCE event. We will highlight the need for a secular Irish Constitution, education system and laws where the state is neutral about religion and protects the equal right of each citizen to freedom of and from religion.

The OSCE is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It includes 56 States from Europe, North America and Asia. Next year Ireland will chair the OSCE for the first time. This week’s conference in Warsaw is about how the OSCE States address human rights issues, and Atheist Ireland will take part in the session this morning on freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

Earlier this year, the World Atheist Convention in Dublin launched a new umbrella advocacy group called Atheist Alliance International, which we hope will be liaising with the OSCE on a regular basis in future years. Delegates at that Convention also debated and adopted the Dublin Declaration on Secularism and the Place of Religion in Public Life. Today we urge all OSCE States and NGOs to discuss, adopt and promote the principles in the Dublin Declaration on Secularism.

In particular, we urge the Irish State to hold referenda to remove the religious clauses of our Constitution, to establish a secular State education system that respects the human rights of all citizens, to replace religious oaths for officeholders and in courts with neutral declarations, and to repeal the Irish blasphemy law and the clauses that exempt religious organisations from complying with Irish equality laws.

Religious States promote religion. Atheist States promote atheism. We want a secular State, which promotes neither. We want a secular State for a pluralist people, where citizens behave ethically and the State does not take sides on religious issues.

Does God exist? An interview, a debate and an article

I’ll be discussing whether god exists today, Wednesday 21 September, on the Pat Kenny radio show on RTE in the morning, and in a debate at the Trinity College Dublin Historical Society in the evening.

The RTE interview will be at 11 am with Pat Kenny talking to me and Miguel DeArce of TCD Genetics Institute. You can listen to it on the RTE website.

The Historical Society debate will be at 7.30 pm where Miguel and I will be joined by philosophers Lynne Rudder Baker of University of Massachussetts USA and Peter Simons of TCD, plus student speakers. This debate is only open to members of the Historical Society as it is the first debate of the term and is expected to be oversubscribed.

The core point of my argument is that there is no reliable evidence to suggest that gods exist, and lots of reliable evidence to suggest that the idea of gods was invented by humans. Here is an article that I have written for The Hibernian Times on how I came to be an atheist:

Realisation That Gods Are Human Invention Leads to Better World

Atheist Ireland meets Government Forum on Primary Education Part 2

This is a summary of the questions and answers part of the meeting last Tuesday between Jane Donnelly and I on behalf of Atheist Ireland, and the Department of Education’s Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.

We were questioned by the Advisory Group to the Forum, which consists of Chairperson Dr. John Coolahan, Professor Emeritus at NUI Maynooth; Dr. Caroline Hussey, former Registrar and Deputy President, UCD; Fionnuala Kilfeather, former Chief Executive of the National Primary Parents Council; and the Secretary to the Forum, Breda Naughton.

See also our opening comments to this meeting, and our written submission to the Forum.

The Forum asked us our views on the community national schools.

Jane: Well, the system as it is undermines our convictions. And the way the community national schools are set up, nothing will change, because the legal framework which they are in has not changed. Section 15.2(d) of the Education Act is still there. And these schools are segregating children on the basis of religion. But if you look at freedom of expression, you have a negative right not to reveal your convictions, for the school not to do anything from which they could infer your religious or nonreligious convictions. So that is a human right. Every positive right also has a negative right. So if your child goes into the school and they are segregating children, they have to know, when they are saying you go off into this group and you go off into that group, what your religious convictions are. I have read their submission, and if you look at their submission, the school ethos recognises belief in a God. But we don’t want to bring up our children to believe that there is a God. We want to bring them up with the possibility that there might or might not be, but they can’t teach it as truth. So if they teach that this religion believes in this, and that religion believes in that, and some people don’t believe in any religion, then that’s fine. But they’re not going to do that, because they have guaranteed Catholics and other religions education on a denominational basis. And this means teaching as a truth the existence of a God. And how are we to opt out of that ethos generally, or without being segregated for specific classes? The problem with the Catholic faith, with regard to teaching about religions objectively, is that they believe that teaching about religions objectively is saying that there is no God. We do not object to any school that implements the Toledo guiding principles, and that says Catholics believe in this, Protestants believe in this, Muslims believe in this, and atheists don’t believe in this.

Michael: If I could go back to the point I was making earlier about this, using the crucifix as an example. We don’t want a crucifix on the classroom wall, but neither do we want a sign on the wall saying “There is no God.” Atheists believe that there is no God, or at a minimum don’t believe that there is a God; there is an almost theological distinction there, but that isn’t critical to the point I’m making! The point is that atheists believe that there is no God, but we are not looking for schools that teach that there is no God. It’s the religious people that are looking for schools that will teach that their beliefs about the supernatural are true. What we want are schools that teach, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, that different people have different beliefs and that doesn’t take any position on the truth of those beliefs. Also, as I’ve said earlier, I think that your terms of reference will force you to be more pragmatic on this than I think the process should be, but even if you take it on the basis of pragmatism, the idea, in the current circumstances, that any new schools should also have a religious dimension just seems to be adding to the problem, rather than helping to resolve it.

The Forum asked us our views on the Educate Together schools.

Michael: They are far better than the religious schools, but they are still multidenominational rather than nondenominational. I’m trying not to be too critical of them, because they are as good as you will get today in Ireland, but they fail to make a distinction that we think is important, which is that they have a section which they call moral and spiritual education. So they are linking morality with spirituality, which is not as bad as linking it directly with a particular religion, but it is still a linkage that should not be made. Morality is something that individual people have, irrespective of where they believe that it derives. And, given that the state has a duty to require a minimum level of moral education, that should be done in a way that all parents can feel comfortable to send their children to those aspects of the curriculum.

The Forum asked us our views on the post primary religious education programme.

Jane: We’ve already complained to the Department of education and to the NCCA about the post primary religious education program in detail. It is not in compliance with the Toledo guiding principles. It could not possibly be. If you look at the purpose of it, it actually says that it is only looking for meaning through religion, and it only acknowledges the nonreligious interpretation of life. And, as I’ve said before, the verb respect means more than acknowledge or take into account. They are actually forcing parents into this course at second level, because I get complaints all of the time, and the Irish Human Rights Commission acknowledges that. And in their guidelines for other faiths, they actually say that the course is delivered through the eyes of the Catholic Church. Now the NCCA must have known, with the system that was set up, that that was going to happen: that they would combine the right to have a religious instruction class with this other class, that was supposed to be about all religions and none. And that is what they have done. The module may be optional, but it is happening in nearly all schools. And they never tell parents that they have done this. So in effect what is happening, for a child at second level, is that your child is being formed in the Catholic faith. And that is what is happening. I get so many e-mails of complaint about this. I don’t know if you read the guidelines, but one thing in particular about the state course is that they have us, atheists and humanists, in a section called “challenges to faith”, alongside materialism and fundamentalism. And then when they combine the section from the Catholic guidelines for the faith formation of Catholic students into that, that says that “atheists are running away from the ultimate existence that is God”. How can you even think all of that could constitute respect for our convictions? I mean it’s appalling, that course, absolutely appalling. We’ve done our best to complain about it, and were going to take it to the United Nations and to the Council of Europe.

The Forum asked us our views on the argument that every child has a right to a broad-based education, and if they are opting out of the religion part, they are being left with a vacuum in terms of ethical and moral development within the education system.

Michael: What should be happening is that the state should be ensuring the requirement that all children get a minimum level of moral education. And, as per the Constitution, that is a distinct issue separate from religious education. So there should be, however it is incorporated into the curriculum, a mechanism whereby children can have a moral education class that is not based on religion but on universal principles, like justice and compassion and empathy. Then you have religion, and there are two aspects to religion. There is education about religion, which children should have access to, and then there is education that a particular religion is true and that is what they should have the right to opt out from. There is also a further Constitutional distinction between religion and morality. In the Constitutional section on religion, it says that the profession and practice of religion is guaranteed subject to public order and morality. So morality supersedes religion in the Constitution. It’s not even that they are distinct but on the same level. It is that the practice and profession of religion is subject to morality. So morality should be the main focus of the type of education that you’re talking about there. And then religion should be taught, within the subject of morality, as one of the ways that people believe that they get morality. But it shouldn’t be on a par, and it isn’t, either in terms of human rights law or even in terms of our own Constitution.

Jane: We don’t have any problem with our children being taught about religions and beliefs if it is done consistently with the Toledo guiding principles. But that is against Catholic church teaching. They object to those. They have rejected them, because it is not their conviction. If you look basically at what Catholic teaching is, it must permeate the whole school day. That’s what they’re saying. It has to integrate with other subjects. And that’s coming from the Vatican. It is the state’s responsibility to provide an objective curriculum. But as it is, maybe the state doesn’t understand its obligations to us. It’s looking at ethos in a different way that human rights law looks at it. There is an incompatibility between the two, and a misunderstanding of the two, because if you are delivering the curriculum, or a specific subject under the curriculum, through the eyes of the Catholic Church, that cannot respect minorities.

Michael: If you look at the teacher’s guidelines for the first year of the Alive–O program, it says things like “some children won’t have had the advantage of learning about God in their home”, and that is the role of the teacher to give them that information. And whatever may happen in practice in different schools, that is what the teachers are being given to teach. Teachers are not taught to teach the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, because that is not Catholic church teaching. Another problem is that the Catholic Church uses language where words that mean one thing to us means a different thing to them. And so it can seem at times as if you’re on common ground, but then you discover that in fact they mean something entirely different.

Jane: If you look at submissions from Catholic groups to this forum, and to the human rights commission, they all seem to have a problem with the word objective. They complain about even using the word objective in connection with religious instruction and education. But the words objective, critical and pluralistic key human rights terms. The Human Rights Commission use those words because those words are the basis of what constitutes respect for our convictions. Indoctrination also mean something different under human rights law than the Catholic Church seems to believe that it means. For them it seems to mean sitting somebody down by force and teaching them that Catholicism is true. Actually, influencing children to believe Catholicism is true, in a way that disrespects the philosophical convictions of the children’s parents, is indoctrination.

The Forum asked us our views on the argument that it is not just the schools, but also parents, churches and other communities that people belong to, that actually all cooperate together to give children their beliefs.

Michael: Well, the schools have a particular role. And state funded schools have an even narrower role. The whole wider area of cooperation between different groups in society is really a civic issue, rather than a state issue. The state’s minimum role is to provide a minimum level of moral education. But in order to referee that wider cooperation, to ensure that, as it is happening, everybody’s fundamental rights are respected, the state has to be neutral. If the state, or state funded institutions, are in effect playing in the game as well as refereeing it, by identifying with one of the belief systems, it makes it impossible for the state to ensure that everybody’s rights are respected equally.

The Forum asked us our views on the pragmatic reality that we are starting with an existing embedded system and not a blank sheet.

Michael: Obviously we understand that we live in the real world, and that things are not going to happen overnight, but I think that the tone of whatever you produce as a report will be important. Your report could either say “this is what we think should be done”, or else it could say “it is impossible to do what you have asked us to do, so as an interim compromise we are suggesting that this should be done”. And in pragmatic terms, that second option is a far more honest response to the task that you have been given. And it would also set a tone that would enable people to realise that this is all going to continue to evolve as society evolves.

The Forum asked us if we had any final comments we would like to make about any relevant issues.

Michael: I would like to conclude with an analogy. We have a default situation in Ireland where people are used to Catholic schools, and they are seen as the norm. But to put it into perspective, can you imagine hypothetically, if there was even one school in Ireland that had an atheist ethos? And imagine that that school’s ethos was explicitly to produce good atheists, and the entire curriculum was permeated by the belief that there is no God, and children regularly had to learn chants and incantations about there being no God? Can you imagine if even one Catholic parent was forced by circumstances to send their child to that school? We would never hear the end of it from the Catholic Church. And it would constitute disrespect for the convictions of the Catholic parents.

Jane: I’d like to say one other thing about the manifestation of religion. That is about the school uniform. Children can be forced to wear a religious symbol on their school uniform. It is like sending children to school with “there is no God” emblazoned on the uniform. My own children had to wear a religious symbol to get an education, and I found it very offensive. In the Lautsi judgment, the European Court of Human Rights appeal court found that it was permissible to have crucifixes on the walls of classrooms in Italy. But the context in which it made that judgement was that the crucifixes were not accompanied by denominational religious education. They said that it was okay in the particular context of the Italian secular education system. So that does not mean that religious symbols would be okay in an Irish context, where they are accompanied by denominational religious education.

Michael: Finally, I was saying earlier that I felt that your terms of reference were unhelpful. In particular, your first term of reference is to advise the Minister on “how it can best be ensured that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none”. And I think that that encapsulates the problem with the way that people look at this issue. Because the purpose of the education system is not “to cater for religions”. The purpose of the education system is to cater for the education of children. Yet that is your number one term of reference. And I really think that you should highlight that in your report: that you have to follow the terms of reference that you were set, but that if you had been given terms of reference asking you to advise the Minister on “how it can best be ensured that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all children and their parents”, that you could have come up with a much more useful report.

See also our opening comments to this meeting and our written submission to the Forum.