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.

Irish Government demands full cooperation from the Vatican

On Monday I analyzed how the Vatican, in its response to the Irish Government about the Cloyne sex abuse report, had said only that its Bishops should “cooperate” with the Irish civil authorities, and had failed to say that they should “cooperate fully”. Since then the Irish Government has twice highlighted this important distinction. On Tuesday Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that “the failure of the church to fully cooperate with the inquiry” amounted to unwarranted interference, and that “nothing less than full cooperation” was required.

And in a statement yesterday the Irish Government said that the 1997 letter from the Papal Nuncio to Irish Bishops provided a pretext for some members of the clergy to “evade full co-operation with the Irish civil authorities” in relation to clerical child abuse. The Government welcomed the commitment of the Holy See to “a constructive dialogue and cooperation with the Government”, and added that “In welcoming this commitment, the Government expects the fullest cooperation” from the Holy See, the Catholic Church in Ireland and all other relevant bodies.

This distinction is important because the Vatican’s omission of the word “fully” is not an accident. In 1997 the Dublin Archdiocese issued a press statement claiming that it had “cooperated with police” in relation to a child abuse case. When later challenged about this, the Archdiocese said that they had not lied because “we never said we cooperated ‘fully’, placing emphasis on the word ‘fully’.” And the latest Vatican document calls on Bishops to “fully implement” canon law but merely to “cooperate” with the civil authorities.

We must be absolutely clear about this. Full cooperation with the civil authorities is what is required from the Catholic Church. Not cooperation so long as it is consistent with canon law. And not the barest minimum of cooperation to technically comply with the strict letter of the law. We need the fullest possible cooperation, the type of cooperation that we would expect from good citizens who want to actively help the civil authorities, aimed at bringing to justice anybody who has raped or abused children, and anybody who has covered up or facilitated these crimes.

Atheist Ireland meets Government Forum on Primary Education Part 1

Yesterday, Tuesday September 6, Jane Donnelly and I attended the Department of Education’s Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector. We were there to elaborate on, and answer questions about, the written submission that Atheist Ireland previously made to the Forum.

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.

As we arrived early, we first had refreshments in a pub across the road from the Department called The Confession Box! With our consciences thus cleared, the following are our introductory comments to the Forum session:

Michael Nugent, Chairperson Atheist Ireland

As an overview, we’re approaching this from a secular perspective, and our position is that the state should fund a secular education system. We believe that if other people want a religious education system, then that should be their right to provide it for themselves, but the default position from the state’s perspective should be a secular education system.

We want to stress as well in that context the difference between a secular education system and an atheist education system. A lot of religious people sometimes merge those two concepts together. What we find useful to symbolise that distinction relates to the debate about crucifixes on classroom walls. We argue that their presence disrespects the rights of nonreligious parents, and religious people sometimes counter that removing the crucifixes disrespects the rights of religious parents. And our counter to that is that what would be required to disrespect the rights of religious parents is to have a sign on the classroom wall saying: “There is no God.” That’s actually the other end of the spectrum. You can have a religious education system, which many religious people want. You can have an atheist education system, which most atheists don’t want. And you can have a secular education system, which is neutral on the issue of religion or its absence.

The second distinction that we want to stress is that between religion and morality. A lot of religious people, particularly in educational terms, tend to equate religious education with moral education. If people do believe that, it is an understandable reason for them to be concerned about an education system that isn’t religious, if they believe that those two things are inextricably synonymous. Now I’m sure that you are familiar with the distinction in the Irish Constitution between religious education and moral education. It is the duty of parents to provide religious and moral education, and is the duty of the state to require a minimum level of moral education, but not of religious education. Currently in Catholic schools, even if the opt out provision was a practical one, a child has the option between a Catholic moral education and no moral education, given that the moral education in Catholic schools is conducted through religious education. And so the state is failing its constitutional duty to require that that child has a minimum level of moral education. We believe that this moral education should be based on empathy and compassion and justice and maximising flourishing and minimising suffering. These principles are consistent with belief in any religion or no religion. And we believe that by definition, a minimum level of moral education has to be a level that can be taught equally to all children. We also believe that the only way to effectively provide it is through a secular education system funded by the state.

However, we recognise that you as the Forum have to deal with a set of terms of reference that are about providing diversity in patronage. And 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”. We’re asking you to say that the answer to this question is that this cannot be ensured. It is impossible to provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none. And so you should be explicit that whatever recommendations you make are in the realm of compromise. And those compromises should not be simply about creating a numerical diversity of patronage, but they should also be about putting in place requirements on existing patrons as well as new patrons, based on human rights law and freedom of conscience, and on the need for a minimum level of moral education that is not transmitted through religion. And in circumstances where the ethos of a school or a patron clashes with these requirements, it is these requirements that must take precedence rather than the ethos of the school or patron.

Jane Donnelly, Education Policy Officer Atheist Ireland

Under Article 40.3.1 of the Constitution, it says that the state guarantees in its laws to respect and as far as possible by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen. Now, the right to respect for our moral convictions is a fundamental right, and it is a personal right of the citizen as an individual. We believe that the state has failed in that regard. They haven’t taken that positive obligation to respect our rights as moral agents, and our right to freedom of conscience in the education system. We also believe that they have actually undermined our rights, and they have failed in every regard, and I will go through some of that now and explain where they have failed in their duty to respect our moral rights under the Irish Constitution, and under international human rights law. Because the state, by ratifying the various conventions, have said that the Irish Constitution and human rights law are compatible with each other, and they are not.

First of all, let’s look at the right to respect, which comes under article 42 of the Constitution, for the religious and moral rights of parents. This is an absolute right under human rights law. It is not subject to the rights of others and it is not one that can be gradually achieved. There is human rights case law to confirm that. That does not mean that the state is obliged to fund a religious education for every family of every religion in the country.

We would like, then, to look at the education act, and see how that has failed to protect our right to respect for our moral convictions. Section 30, the opt out, says that we can opt out of any thing that is against our conscience. But we do not know, when a child starts school, what the ethos of the school is in practice. We are not given a written ethos that tells us in detail where, in the curriculum, that it is not teaching the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralist manner. I’ll give you just a small example. Say if you have a nature class or something, and the teacher tells the children that God made all of the birds and the bees, then that is not objective, and disrespects the rights of nonreligious parents, and especially if they say it’s the Christian God, then it disrespects the rights of parents of other religions. So it is our right to opt out of that, but the ethos of the school does not specify when and where throughout the curriculum we would have to avail of that right.

So it’s not just a question of saying “we respect all religions and none”. That really means nothing. There is a different interpretation of what constitutes respect in the Irish education system and what constitutes respect in international human rights law. There is a general principle of the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations. It says that the verb respect means more than acknowledge or take into account. In addition to a primary negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on behalf of the state. The term conviction is not synonymous with the words opinions or ideas. It denotes views that attain a certain level of cohesion, seriousness and importance. So the state has to respect our right that our children are not indoctrinated or disrespected in any way.

So in practice we cannot opt out of an ethos. First of all, we don’t know what it is in detail. When you look at the education act, and the debates in the Dail and Seanad about the Act, the Labour Party at the time tried to get the Fianna Fail government to write down exactly what an ethos was, and there was no specific reason for not doing that, other than Micheal Martin said that standardisation could lead to down a more difficult route and may be less desirable than local interpretation and that the perceived wisdom of all involved have brought us to this stage. So the perceived wisdom at that time was not to write down what an ethos meant, which means that individual parents around the country cannot identify the aspects of the curriculum that are not in accordance with their conscience, so they cannot ensure that the teaching of their children is in accordance with their philosophical convictions. That is a very serious point under human rights law, because the rights to respect means that a parent must be able to ensure that the teaching of their children is in accordance with their philosophical convictions.

And the Catholic church has admitted, in the guidelines for second level education, to what they call pre-evangelisation. That involves influencing children into a religious belief, and that is against human rights law because it does not constitute what I have just outlined as respect. How does pre-evangelising our children respect our convictions? This is a very important point. It means that Catholic education and human rights law are incompatible in this context.

Another area which we would like to bring up is the rights of the child, and freedom of conscience of the child. That is a very significant area for nonreligious parents. Section 30 of the Education Act only allows a student to opt out when they are 18 years of age, and we believe that this is completely wrong, because we see our children as having a right to freedom of conscience. They have that right under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we want to respect that right, and it is part of our convictions to recognise their right to freedom of conscience. That is why we want our children to have an education that is objective, critical and pluralistic. That does not mean that they cannot learn about religions and beliefs, but they should learn about them in an objective critical and pluralistic manner. So we would like to see that section of the education act amended to take into account the rights of the child, and the evolving capacities of the child. That is also one of the recommendations of the Irish Human Rights Commission. We and they would also like to see section 15 amended as well to include respect for our rights and convictions.

Also, section 7.3 of the Equal Status Act, and the Employment Equality Act, allow religious discrimination which is contrary to our philosophical convictions. In practice, we often have no other choice than to send our child to a school that can legally discriminate on religious grounds. We believe that that type of discrimination undermines the dignity of the human person. We also believe that discrimination against teachers, or firing a teacher because they were living in a same-sex partnership which is legal in the state, undermines the dignity of the human person. And we do not want to be coerced into sending our children to schools where that type of discrimination is part of their ethos, part of who they are and of what they do. It should be easy to understand that if you understand where we are coming from, because we are secularists, and we believe in the separation of church and state.

Ethos, or characteristic spirit as they sometimes call it, presupposes that one could learn about Christianity and the Catholic faith without being subjected mentally to what might constitute unwanted influence or indoctrination. They accept that that religious education permeates the whole school day but they do not see it as having any influence on children of nonreligious parents. But there was a Supreme Court case involving the campaign to separate church and state in which Barrington J said that if you did choose to send your child to a school with a religious ethos, the child could not help but be influenced by the religious ethos. So the state is recognising that our children are going to be influenced, but this influence is not respecting our philosophical convictions. And, if you don’t respect our philosophical convictions, then the state is effectively pursuing an aim of indoctrination.

Questions and answers

The above our introductory comments to the Forum session. A later post will include a summary of the questions and answers part of the session.