Remembering my wife Anne on the first anniversary of her death

A year ago today, my wife Anne Holliday died of cancer. I miss her every day, and I would like to thank everyone who has been so supportive during the past twelve emotionally difficult months. I’m in Scotland this week visiting Anne’s sister Carrie, and we are reminiscing about Anne’s life. Here’s a tribute to Anne that I wrote shortly after she died, which I hope conveys her inspirational character and her many contributions to Irish society:

My tribute to my late wife Anne Holliday

Atheist Ireland to assist Hibernia College with pluralist curriculum

Jane Donnelly and I met today with Hibernia College to discuss the course notes that made untrue statements about atheism and atheists. The meeting was very productive. The relevant course notes have been removed, and I am preparing an initial one-hour introductory lesson for Hibernia College on atheism and nonreligious ethics.

After that, Atheist Ireland will discuss with Hibernia College how we can make a more comprehensive contribution towards developing a more pluralist religion and ethics curriculum. Hibernia College will reassure students about its existing commitment to encourage them to give feedback about any concerns they have about the course.

Here is a more complete report of the meeting:

Atheist Ireland chairperson Michael Nugent and Education Policy Officer Jane Donnelly met today with Dr. Nicholas Breakwell, Hibernia College’s VP for Academic Affairs and Knowledge Management and Dr. Siobhan Cahillane-McGovern, Hibernia College’s Course Director for its Higher Diploma in Arts in Primary Education.

The meeting was very productive. Atheist Ireland is very happy with Hibernia College’s commitment to developing a pluralist curriculum and we will be working with Hibernia College to assist them in this outcome.

Hibernia College has explained to us the context in which the religious education element of its course has evolved. We are happy that Hibernia College did not intentionally include the sections that we found to be inaccurate about atheism and atheists.

Hibernia College has removed the sections of the course notes that we have raised concerns about.

Michael Nugent will initially prepare a one-hour introductory lesson for Hibernia College on atheism and nonreligious ethics, in conjunction with the College’s technological and presentation team.

After that, we will discuss with Hibernia College how we can make a more comprehensive contribution towards developing a more pluralist religion and ethics curriculum, that is consistent with the human right of all students to freedom of conscience regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Hibernia College will continue to offer, as a private business institution, whatever courses and qualifications its students require in order to be able to work as primary teachers in Ireland.

The Higher Diploma in Arts in Primary Education has a religious curriculum module that covers what the State requires for a teacher to to teach religion in any primary school, and a module that covers what the Roman Catholic church requires for a teacher to teach in Roman Catholic schools. Hibernia College will review these existing two modules to ensure that the curriculum module contains everything as required by the primary school curriculum.

In the medium term, Hibernia College will examine offering two separate qualifications, with the State curriculum requirements for teaching religion in any primary school remaining part of its overall Higher Diploma in Arts in Primary Education, and the Roman Catholic Church requirements for teaching in Roman Catholic schools being offered as a separate qualification.

Hibernia College will reassure students about its existing commitment to encourage them to give feedback about any concerns they have about the course.

Hibernia College teaches defamatory allegations about atheists

Hibernia College Dublin, in its Higher Diploma in Arts in Primary Education, is teaching as part of its Religion module several untrue statements about atheism and at least two defamatory allegations about modern atheists.

This includes course notes that claim that “What bothers very few of its latter-day exponents is the fact that atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed, namely Nazism, Fascism and Marxism…” and a mock examination where the student is expected to answer that it is “True” that “Atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed.”

Atheist Ireland is requesting that the untrue statements and defamatory allegations be immediately removed from the course notes and examinations, and then that the Religion module be entirely revised so that it teaches students about religion in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. We have offered to assist in this by providing accurate information about atheism and atheists.

We have today sent the following letter to Hibernia College, the Minister for Education, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council; the Teaching Council; the Irish National Teachers Organisation; the Union of Students in Ireland; and selected politicians with an interest or responsibility in this area. We have already raised the matter with two Council of Europe delegations who are in Dublin this week monitoring Ireland’s record in protecting human rights. They are the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), and the Advisory Committee for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM).

Letter sent by Atheist Ireland to the bodies listed above

28 February 2012

Dear [name],

In Ireland, we have got used to Roman Catholic educational institutions discriminating against atheists and against religious people who are not Roman Catholics. It is sad that we now find Hibernia College in Dublin, a nonreligious educational institution, doing the same in its Higher Diploma in Arts in Primary Education. Can you please let us know what you are empowered to do, and what you intend to do, to address the following concerns?

Overview

1. Hibernia College should not be teaching the disgraceful libel that very few modern atheists are bothered about the causes of the worst atrocities in history, and that we feel that anything is morally justified in the absence of gods. Nor should it be teaching untrue statements about atheism, such as atheism is a religion; atheism generally places its faith in some other absolute; atheism produced Nazism, Fascism and Communism; and atheism is not a benign force in history.

2. Hibernia College should not be setting online examination questions, presented in factual multiple choice format rather than discussion format, where the student is expected to answer that it is “True” that “Atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed,” and that “Atheism has had, historically speaking, a negative effect on society.”

3. Hibernia College should not be teaching the subject of Religion in accordance with the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Its course notes should not include phrases like “As Catholic educators…” Hibernia College should be teaching about Religion in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

4. The Equal Status Act 2000 states that it is illegal for an educational establishment, whether or not supported by public funds, to discriminate in relation to any term or condition of participation in the establishment by a student on the grounds of religion. Also, the teaching of Religion in Hibernia College contravenes the College’s own Equal Opportunities Policy, which states that the College promotes dignity and respect for all individuals and groups.

5. We are asking you and other relevant bodies to please let us know what you are empowered to do, and what you intend to do, to address these concerns. Specifically, we are requesting that the untrue statements and defamatory allegations be immediately removed from the course notes and examinations, and then that the Religion module be entirely revised so that it teaches students about religion in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. We have already raised the issue this week with two Council of Europe delegations on monitoring human rights.

1. Teaching about Atheism

The course notes on Religion, Lesson on Morality, Section 3 on Religion and Political Life, Slides 3 and 4, contain at least six untrue statements about atheism and at least two defamatory allegations about modern atheists.

1(a) Hibernia College should not be teaching that “What bothers very few of its latter-day exponents is the fact that atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed, namely Nazism, Fascism and Marxism…” This is a disgraceful libel on modern atheists and humanists, suggesting that very few of us care about the worst atrocities history has ever witnessed. The College would not dare to teach this shocking statement about any other group of people, simply on the basis of their beliefs about supernatural claims.

1(b) Hibernia College should not be teaching “the fact” that “atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed, namely Nazism, Fascism and Marxism.” This is simply untrue. Hitler was not an atheist, and he wrote in Mein Kampf that he was doing the Lord’s work in fighting the Jews. The Vatican signed concordats supporting both Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin was a Seminarian and his Marxism was based on totalitarianism. Also, the notes ignore atrocities that were explicitly religious, such as the Crusades and the Inquisitions.

1(c) Hibernia College should not be teaching that “Atheism seems to be fashionable in Ireland at present. It is seen as rational, progressive and compassionate. But above all, it is ‘in’, not to mention convenient, since as Dostoyevski said in 19th century Russia, where it was likewise ‘in’, that if there is no God then anything can be justified.” This is another defamatory statement about Irish atheists today. In reality, most Irish atheists are ordinary decent people who behave ethically and compassionately towards our fellow human beings.

1(d) Hibernia College should not be teaching that “Atheism is not a benign force in history” where the context of the paragraph makes this a euphemism for teaching that atheism is a malign force in history. The course notes inaccurately ascribe malign effects to atheism in factual terms, and dismiss any perceived positive effects by describing them in terms of “is seen as…”

1(e) Hibernia College should not be teaching that atheism is a religion. The course notes list “Atheism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam” under the heading of “various religions”. In reality, atheism is either believing there are no gods or not believing that there are gods. This does not constitute a religion. Indeed, it typically indicates the absence of a religion.

1(f) Hibernia College should not be teaching that atheism “generally places its faith in some other absolute, be it humanism, the march of history, materialism, the economy, or even hedonism, cuius venter deus est (‘whose belly is their god’), as Paul once put it.” In reality, most atheists are reluctant to place faith in any absolute. Also, if atheists do place faith in other ideas, it is because of factors other than their atheism.

2. The Online Examination

In the mock online exam two weeks ago, under HDAPE Religion Sample Assessment, the following two questions were asked. They were not presented as questions that were open for discussion. They were presented as factual questions with a limited range of multiple choice answers to select from. If the student wished to receive marks in the examination, he or she was expected to answer the question in accordance with the course notes.

(a) Question 12 of 20. Moral Theology: “Atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed.” Options: “True” or “False”.

  • It is clear from the course notes that, if the student wishes to receive marks in the examination, he or she is is expected to answer “True” to this question.
  • The course notes on Atheism state it as a fact (not as an opinion) that “What bothers very few of its latter-day exponents is the fact that atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed, namely Nazism, Fascism and Marxism.”

(b) Question 13 of 20. Moral Theology. Which statement is false? Options: “Hinduism is a positive force for change in society” or “Atheism has had, historically speaking, a negative effect on society” or “Islam is based on the identity of religion and society.”

  • It is clear from the course notes that, if the student wishes to receive marks in the examination, he or she is is expected to answer that the false statement is “Hinduism is a positive force for change in society”; and that the true statements are “Atheism has had, historically speaking, a negative effect on society” and “Islam is based on the identity of religion and society.”
  • The course notes on Hinduism state: “Hinduism induces fatalism, namely a religious sanction of the status quo, which comes from their understanding of karma and reincarnation. Thus, the ruling classes are destined to rule and the outcasts must accept their lot at the bottom of the social and economic pile, since they merited their present social rank by their behaviour in their previous existence.”
  • The course notes on Atheism state, among other things, that “Atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed,” and “Atheism is not a benign force in history.”
  • While the examination question about Islam is somewhat incoherent, the course notes on Judaism and Islam include the statements: “Islam too is by nature political, and it has as its temporal goal the subjection of the world to the truth or law as revealed to Mohammed,” and (with regard to Islamic monotheism) “that means that for them there is only one truth and thus only one embodiment of truth in law and society.”

3. Teaching about Religion

3(a) Hibernia College should not be teaching the subject of religion in accordance with the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The course notes assume either that all students are Catholics, or that it acceptable to discriminate against students who are not Catholics.

  • The course notes are presented entirely from a Roman Catholic perspective. The College’s Grade Moderator or Lead Tutor in the subject of Religion is Father Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth. He also wrote the course notes for the module on Atheism.
  • The course notes on lesson 2 about the New Testament, Slide 13 on reading the Bible, explicitly state: “As Catholic educators, it is essential to remember that the Spirit that inspired the writing, collection and passing on of the Scriptures is the same Spirit that inspires our reading of them. So, always use the rule of thumb provided by St Augustine: ‘If our reading of the Scriptures does not help us to love God and love our neighbour then we are reading them incorrectly’.”
  • The course notes include short disparaging caricatures of other religions, presented as if they were serious examinations of those religions. For example, “Hinduism indices fatalism, (thus) the outcasts must accept their lot at the bottom of the social and economic pile,” and “fundamentalist Mohammedans have set their goal on world domination by force.”

3(b) Hibernia College should be teaching students, who will themselves become teachers, how to teach the subject of Religion in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, as recommended by the Irish Human Rights Commission, in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

  • The Toledo Guiding Principles are based on human rights law. On page 68 (State neutrality and opt out rights – State Competences on Education vis-a-vis the Rights of Parents) it says that the State must take sufficient care that the information and knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.
  • The European Convention obliges the State to respect the right of parents to ensure that the education and teaching of their children is “in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” (Article 2 of Protocol 1). The ECHR has stated that the secular viewpoint is worthy of respect in a democratic society, and must be regarded as a “philosophical conviction” within the meaning of the Convention.
  • The European Court of Human Rights has said this obligation on the State: (a) presupposes that the parents’ choice between public and private education be respected, and also that teaching be neutral; and (b) is binding upon the State in the exercise of “each and every” function that it undertakes in the sphere of education and teaching. The State cannot absolve itself from responsibility by delegating its obligations to private bodies or individuals. The State must provide itself with the means of efficiently establishing and punishing violations.

4. Equality Law and Policy

4(a) The Equal Status Act 2000 states that it is illegal for an educational establishment, whether or not supported by public funds, to discriminate in relation to any term or condition of participation in the establishment by a student on the grounds of religion.

  • Section 7(1) and (2) of the Act state that it is illegal for an educational establishment, whether or not supported by public funds, to discriminate in relation to any term or condition of participation in the establishment by a student.
  • Section 3(1) and (2) of the Act state that discrimination shall be taken to occur where a person is treated less favourably than another person is, has been or would be treated, on the grounds that that one has a different religious belief from the other, or that one has a religious belief and the other has not.
  • Section 7(3) provides some exemptions where where the establishment is an institution established for the purpose of providing training to ministers of religion, or where the objective of the school is to provide education in an environment which promotes certain religious values. Neither of these exemptions apply to Hibernia College.

4(b) The teaching of Religion in Hibernia College contravenes the College’s own Equal Opportunities Policy, as described in the College’s 2010 Quality Assurance Manual:

  • Hibernia College is committed to equal opportunities and endeavours to provide a work environment and access to study that promotes dignity and respect for, and from, all individuals and groups.
  • The College aims to remove and prevent direct and indirect discrimination, by individuals or College policies and procedures, on the basis of gender, marital or family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, disability, race or membership of the Traveller Community. College policies, practices and procedures do and will continue to treat people on the basis of their ability.
  • The College will continue to review its’ policies and procedures to ensure continued compliance with relevant legislation.
  • The implementation of the Equal Opportunities Policy remains the responsibility of the Executive Vice President. However, all managers are responsible for effective implementation and adherence to the procedure in their team.
  • Notwithstanding the above responsibilities, each individual employee and every student is accountable for her/his behaviour and for following the procedures associated with Equal Opportunities.
  • In order to raise awareness and in an attempt to ensure compliance, the College will draw the Equal Opportunities Policy to the attention of all employees, students and applicants.
  • The same Equal Opportunities values and practices are expected of any external partner / body with whom the College works.
  • Communication, be it electronic, written, spoken or otherwise, which may cause offence to particular groups of employees, students and members of society is not permitted.
  • Any practice deemed to be discriminatory to an individual or group on the grounds of gender, marital or family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, disability, race or membership of the Traveller Community may result in disciplinary action.

5. What we are Requesting

We are asking you to please let us know what you are empowered to do, and what you intend to do, to address the concerns we have raised in this letter.

We have sent this request to Hibernia College; The Minister for Education and the Department of Education; the Higher Education and Training Awards Council; the Teaching Council; the Irish National Teachers Organisation; the Union of Students in Ireland; and selected politicians with an interest or responsibility in this area.

We have already raised the matter with two Council of Europe delegations who are in Dublin this week monitoring Ireland’s record in protecting human rights. They are the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), and the Advisory Committee for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM).

Specifically we are seeking the following outcomes:

We request that the untrue statements about atheism and the defamatory allegations about atheists be immediately removed from the course notes and examinations, before the next cohort of students begins this course. Hibernia College is currently accepting applications (deadline March 9th) for this next cohort of students.

We request that the Religion module for this course be entirely revised so that it teaches students about religion in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, as recommended by the Irish Human Rights Commission, in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

We are willing to assist in this by providing accurate information about atheism and atheists.

Yours sincerely,

 

Michael Nugent
Chairperson
Atheist Ireland

Religion v Secularism – My debate with Brendan O’Neill and Adnan Rashid

Last Monday in University College Cork, I debated with Brendan O’Neill of Spiked magazine and Adnan Rashid of iERA on the merits of Catholicism, Islam and secularism. The debate was jointly organised by the UCC Philosophical, Atheist and Muslim Societies. Continue reading “Religion v Secularism – My debate with Brendan O’Neill and Adnan Rashid”

Has religion poisoned Irish politics? Debate in Queens University Belfast

Has religion poisoned politics in Ireland? I took part in this debate last December in Queens University Belfast. It was organized by the Belfast Humanist Group. Speaking along with me for the motion were journalist Malachi O’Doherty and Jon Dickinson of QUB Humanist Society. Speaking against the motion were Leon Litvack of Queens University Belfast, Rev Chris Hudson of Elmwood Church and Paul Shannon of Queens Literific Society.

Is the world better with religion? My debate with Hamza Tzortzis at DIT

Is the world a better place with religion? Here are the opening speeches from my debate in Dublin Institute of Technology Bolton Street, on Tuesday Feb 7 2012, with Hamza Tzortzis of the Islamic Education and Research Academy.

Michael Nugent opposing the motion

Hamza Tzortzis proposing the motion