Yesterday I attended the annual general meeting of Atheist Ireland. As I rushed into Wynns hotel in Dublin as a result of being considerably late and as I pushed open the doors into the conference room, a pervading thought suddenly entered my mind. Many within Irish society might have believed such a thought to be of how we would persecute religious believers and rise the dreaded Atheist flag over the national parliament. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Despite it being near on 20 years since I attended mass with any degree of frequency, the sound of the doors being pushed open into the conference room immediately reminded me of the feeling of being late for mass. Such thoughts speak volumes on the psychological impact of having grown up in 1980s Catholic Ireland. It is the societal legacy of this that would inevitably fuel the growth of rationalist movements within Ireland. The first being the Humanist Association of Ireland then followed by the inception of Atheist Ireland in November 2008.
Ireland’s dark past necessitates the normalising of religious dissent and the active promotion of rationalist evidence based values.
It could have been said that Ireland since the foundation of the free State under Eamon De Valera became unwittingly involved in a mass psychological experiment of the most iniquitous kind. Such experimentation would never be permissible by the ethical standards of present day research bodies. It was the same social experimentation that bought the Nazis to power in Germany and aided the growth of ISIS in present day Iraq and Syria. It is the utterly destructive power of bad ideas that fuse the insatiable lure of false hope, rampant evidence denial and the inevitable growth of delusional and malignant organisations that result in endless misery before their eventual collapse.
I have often compared the Irish Republic between 1930s-1980s with the Islamic Republic of Iran, albeit a slightly milder version. Both Ireland and Iran had an illusory democracy. The fact that both countries have an elected government masked the ultimate and totalitarian nature of theocracy in both jurisdictions. Since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 the country has appointed an Islamic supreme leader. Its first supreme leader was the mastermind of the revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini held this position until his death in 1989 and was then succeeded by Ali Khamenei. Following Khomeini’s rise to power he used Islamism to achieve absolute power and a god like status among his people. The complete shutdown of a nation’s ability to think critically and objectively resulted in Khomeini’s unbridled ability to silence his critics by execution and torture. The status of Islamic theocracy within the country was on naked display for the world to see. The country was named the Islamic Republic of Iran. No veil of pretence around human rights was necessary. This was an Islamic State for an Islamic people under one man’s version of Islam and those who spoke out against his many maniacal rulings risked extreme torture or execution. Despite parliamentary elections, the supreme leader of Iran holds absolute power. They are commander and chief of the armed forces, they have absolute control over State media and no law can be enacted by parliament without their prior approval.
Despite the absence of mass killings in the name of Catholic theocracy, Irelands system of governance was remarkably similar to that of Iran. As the Ireland of 1930s – 1980s was situated within Western Europe, the State had to be more subtle about its theocratic nature. The naming of the State the Catholic Republic of Ireland would be a step too far for the fledgling governments of the newly founded Irish Free State. However despite the naming of the Irish State, it was in fact the Catholic Republic of Ireland in everything but name and its supreme leader was Bishop John Charles McQuaid.
The Irish Constitution enshrined the Catholic religion with a special status and was sculpted by De Valera under the absolute authority of Bishop John Charles Mc Quaid. Just as was the case in Iran, the Irish equivalent of Ayatollah Khomeini, Bishop McQuaid had total control over what became law. Just as in Iran censorship was rife and the Irish censorship board under the auspices of the Catholic Church censored countless books, films and songs. Even the Dubliners 7 drunken nights fell foul of the censorship board because of its suggestion of adultery. Divorce and contraception became outlawed and Protestants and those of other religions and none became more and more demonised and many sought refuge by moving to Northern Ireland or simply emigrating from the island.
The Irish supreme leader Bishop McQuaid had absolute authority over the national parliament. Most parliamentarians never questioned him as it was not in their political interest to challenge the Catholic Church’s position for the same reason that Iranian secularists could not challenge the status of Islam within their country. Catholic Church propaganda had created a nation of Catholic zealots that would be beyond the reach of even the most committed secular activists. There was one such occasion where an Irish politician, years ahead of his time, did in fact stand up to the Catholic Church but unfortunately had disastrous consequences for his political career. Noel Browne who had become minister for health was impressed with the newly founded British National Health Service. He set about trying to establish a national health scheme known as the mother and child scheme whereby mothers and children up to age 16 would receive free health care at the taxpayers expense. Despite the massively high infant mortality rate that Noel Browne was trying to combat, the idea was dead in the water before it even got promoted. McQuaid feared that the Church’s control over national health care would be threatened and that abortion and contraception would be granted by the State. Browne became a bit of an eccentric within the Irish Parliament of his day and while other politicians gave up on the plan, Browne continued to advocate for it. He ended up alienating himself from other members within the Clann na Poblachta party. As a result of this and other issues in 1951 the leader of the party sought his resignation. Several more decades would pass before substantial criticism would be levelled at the Catholic Church by any politician. Unfortunately this would only come about as Irish society learned the lessons of the dangers of evidence denial on a national scale, the malignant institutions such preoccupations result in and the horrors of abuse within almost every section of Irish society, not least thousands of children who were unfortunate enough to end up in the care of the Catholic Church. It would take such horrors to finally disintegrate the illusion of Irish Catholic moral superiority over their British and European neighbours. “Pagan Britain and Europe” remained misunderstood by the majority of Irish who felt they had something special that was lost in Europe. These delusions would persist despite the nation being both morally and financially broke and relying on the very European “pagans” to help us gain some semblance of a modern democratic State.
Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland are not the opposite extreme of religious organisations like the Iona Institute.
Irish people above the age of about 40 have inherited the malign legacy of growing up in a Catholic theocratic parallel universe and have acquired values that run diametrically opposed to western values of enlightenment and regard for evidence in our arguments. This legacy has endowed us with a skewed compass when it comes to discerning what constitutes moderate verses extremist discourse. If one happened to be born into Afghanistan society under the Taliban one might view an extremist position as shooting a 14 year old girl in the head for wanting an education but yet view those who argue the need to remove Islam from the governance of the State as an even greater act of terrorism. Most international observers would describe the latter view point as not only being normative but essential if Afghan culture is to advance. It is considered normal within Afghan society to wish for Sharia law and being publically opposed to the death penalty for apostates would lead to one being perceived as a dangerous eccentric. Immediately such a person would be subject to all manners of prejudice and be shamed within their community.
A milder version of this thinking exists within the wider Irish society for the same reason that it does in the above mentioned example. One perverse consequence of this skewed thinking is that organisations that actively promote the institutions and practices that caused the implosion of Irish society are likely to be seen as less extreme than rationalist organisations who challenge them. We have been socially conditioned not to challenge religious belief by decades of Catholic propaganda. Such examples include those who say there is nothing wrong with being an Atheist but just shut up about it. Unfortunately heeding that advice would allow vast amounts of destructive religious rhetoric to go unchallenged. If the same people who tell Atheists to shut up also told school boards who indoctrinate kids into delusional belief systems against their will and other countless examples of religious encroachment into public life to also shut up then that would indeed be a legitimate order. Unfortunately most members of Atheist organisations only become outspoken activists after passively witnessing years of religious abuses of human rights and societal brain washing to the point where they morally believe they must take a stance.
Atheist Organisations defend human rights not just for Atheists but for everyone. Religious organisations do the exact opposite.
Despite the implosion of the Catholic Church in Ireland and ever decreasing mass attendance, Irish society including many educated so called moderate people grossly misunderstand and more importantly mistrust the objectives and ambitions of those actively campaigning for a secular world.
Atheist Ireland and Atheist Alliance International are not only fully committed to the UN charter on Human rights but have an unblemished record in their advocacy work. They have never been criticised on any of their proposals and the UN commission have on several occasions acknowledged that human rights violations have been perpetrated against them. This is in stark contrast to the human rights record of the religious institutions that Atheist campaigners oppose. Both the Catholic Church and the Islamic world are consistent and unrepentant perpetrators of human rights abuses not just in Ireland but around the globe.
Atheist movements around the globe are committed to secularism and not to installing an Atheist State being the equivalent of religious human rights abuses. Secularism is the belief that religious belief or lack of it should not be promoted by national governments but is a private matter. Religious belief being a private matter doesn’t mean banning the preaching of it in the public square which should be protected under free speech laws. It is the forbidding of the State in taking an active position in promoting any one belief system.
Religious organisations confuse human rights with the denial of others human rights.
Because historically religious organisations had unquestioned power they became the custodian of rights not granted to other organisations and groups. One such example within the Irish education system is the assertion within the Irish constitution of a right to a religious education. This is not an internationally recognised human right anywhere in the western world and firmly aligns the Irish State with those who are governed by Islamic dictatorships. The UN freedom of conscience clause only affirms the right of religious parents not to have their kids indoctrinated into a belief system other than one of their parents choosing. This is exactly the model that Atheist Ireland wish to seek implemented. There is absolutely no internationally recognised legal or moral imperative on the Irish State to use taxpayers money to fund religious education, yet Catholic parents believe it is their inalienable right. Yet again this supposed right was added into the Irish Constitution at the behest of John Charles McQuaid.
Unchallenged Catholic propaganda has resulted in an Irish education system that has levels of human rights abuses not seen anywhere in Europe. Atheist Ireland education spokesperson Jane Donnelly rightly pointed out at the AGM yesterday that under the UN charter on human rights, secular convictions of parents are every bit as enshrined as those of Catholics. Other philosophical convictions protected include pacifism etc. It would be impossible for schools in rural Leitrim to cater for all these philosophical positions. That is the very reason why Atheist Ireland promote a secular education system. It is the duty of parents to indoctrinate and the school system to educate. Another often cited prejudice against Atheist movements is that they wish to silence religious viewpoints. Again nothing could be further from the truth. Atheist Ireland supports the teaching of cultural and philosophical belief systems including the arguments for Atheism. However it is vigorously opposed to indoctrinating children within the school system into any one of these belief systems.
Another right conferred upon religious that is not granted to others is the legal right not to be religiously offended. Ireland is the only western country in the 21st century to reintroduce an anti-blasphemy law. Atheist Ireland Chairman Michael Nugent again reiterated that Pakistan (a State that regularly executes people on blasphemy charges) praised the Irish government for legislating on this.
Yet another right granted to religious bodies is the right to hold an ethos of discrimination and bigotry that would rightly be otherwise outlawed. A primary school teacher at the conference told the audience yet again of how Atheists and non-Christians are forced to teach religious edicts that go against their freedom of conscience and as the vast majority of primary schools are under the auspices of the Catholic Church, non Catholic teachers have little choice other than to operate under a veil of hypocrisy.
Why don’t Atheists just campaign for human rights and leave religion alone?
Atheist movements throughout the world have been powerful campaigners for social reform. They vigorously campaign against the religious oppression of women and the LGBT community. They actively promote fair and equitable education systems and highlight the importance of a scientifically literate population. They have allied themselves with other organisations both religious and secular who share the above objectives.
However unlike many of the non-Atheist organisations who are doing very good work. Atheist campaigners including myself believe that secular values are best protected within non-religious societies. The best interests of society as a whole are achieved by having a population who have a healthy degree of scepticism for beliefs held and publically proclaimed which lack supporting evidence. Organisations who otherwise do very good work are often still in denial when it comes to religion as a motivator for persecution and oppression. Atheists recognise that religion can sometimes inspire people to do good but however it is far outweighed by the bad. Devout religious societies have achieved nothing that secular evidence based cultures have not. The history books are littered with examples of malignant forms of evidence denial and if we are to learn anything from history, it is that evidence is important. Despite the fact that most Atheists do aspire to live in a world governed by evidence and actively campaign for it, we also recognise the right of people to private religious belief and the public expression of such belief in a private capacity.
It is important that Atheists and those who wish for an evidence based world overcome the fear of cultural stigma that is undoubtedly still present within Irish society. Only when Atheists and sceptics are seen as contributors to controversial debates will attitudes begin to change. Only as a secular and enlightened Ireland can we hope to make an impact on countries around the world that are even greater victims of magical thinking.
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