From the introduction of divorce to the legal recognition of same-sex partners, the past 20 years has seen the Irish state on an inexorable journey away from Catholicism. One group leading this journey in recent years is Atheist Ireland, a collection of activists from across the country whose goal is the complete separation of church and state.
Established in 2008 after a group of like-minded people from an online forum came together, Atheist Ireland have advocated for a secular society both at home and abroad. Whether it’s challenging blasphemy laws, stopping religious discrimination in schools, or campaigning for a repeal of the 8th amendment, they have taken on religiously embedded institutions while helping ensure the ‘atheist’ identity becomes part of the Irish conscience. With around 500 members, their chairperson Michael Nugent is an active voice in Irish media and public life. Also playing an integral part in the organisation is the Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly, who has appeared numerous times in Irish media and other platforms to discuss their advocacy work.
I sat down with Michael and Jane in Dublin’s Gresham Hotel last week, where we discussed the organisation’s advocacy work over the years, the current state of secularism in Irish society, and issues pertaining to freedom of speech, ‘new atheism’, and Islam.
‘Atheist’ wasn’t always the most saleable word in Ireland, even in the mid-late 2000’s. Was it a challenge getting people on board at the start, and have we reached a point of normalisation?
M: It was something we were aware of from the very beginning. There was a good bit of debate over whether we should have instead used the term ‘humanist’ or ‘secular’, as some people were concerned having ‘atheist’ in our name may have put people off. But ultimately we felt it was important to break down barriers, and I think the numbers joining the organisation in the early years speak for itself. And yes, I think ‘atheism’ is something which is gradually becoming more and more recognised by the Irish state.
For example we are starting to hear regular references to atheism in the Oireachtas when TDs are discussing submissions that we have made about Bills. In 2015 they used the words ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ 26 times, as many times as they did in the fifteen years combined before Atheist Ireland was founded. So what was once considered a derogatory or even funny term, is now becoming an active part of our institutional and political discourse.
And I think fundamental to this has been our openness as an organisation. We have always worked very well with other advocacy groups, both locally and internationally. These range from the Irish Human rights committee, Children’s Rights Alliance, Travellers groups, Ahmadi Muslims, the UN Human Rights Committee, and many others. So persons and groups, who may have previously had prejudice against atheists or atheism, are now seeing the role we can play in promoting a civil and equal society.
And has it been a difficult line to straddle in promoting your goal of a secular society while also respecting freedom of religious belief and conscience?
M: Not in the slightest. We actively support the human right to freedom of religion and belief. Our position has been to promote our atheist and secular beliefs, but to always be civil and polite to those who hold different views to us. Yes we will disagree with the content of people’s beliefs, but we will always respect their right to retain that belief. Over the years we have even debated fundamentalist Christians and Islamists, yet it’s always been respectful. Sure, there is a ‘battle of ideas’ going on, but it never goes beyond that into personal smears and abuse.
Stopping religious discrimination in Irish schools and promoting secular education is something which you are heavily involved in Jane. What are the main challenges you face in this area?
J: Some of it is in regards to access to school, and one of the things that most concerns us at the moment is so called ‘lawful oversubscription criteria’. This basically means that if a school is oversubscribed, the school retains the right to admit Catholics first. But most of the complaints from parents that we deal with are not about access. They are about children being indoctrinated and evangelised into Catholicism within the schools. There is no point in winning the right to be admitted into a school that discriminates against you in this way.
And while the state has supposedly introduced bills to prevent religious discrimination in schools, it has actually just been blurred under different language. This is something we brought to the attention of the UN Human Rights Committee, and they then questioned the Irish state on the true nature of the ‘changes’ being made.
There is also an intersectionality between race and religious discrimination in Irish schools. For example in 2008 there was a school set up where the junior infant class was made up of just African children. The reason why is because these children were refused admission to other local schools due to not being able to produce proof of their Catholic faith. So this intersection between race and religious discrimination in Irish schools is something that needs to be looked out for.
Finally, another area of concern for us is the teaching profession. If a teacher is of an ethnic minority or indeed atheist, then they can’t get a job as a teacher in a Catholic school. When you consider that out of 3300 primary schools in Ireland there are only 85 ‘Educate Together’ schools, and a small number of minority religion schools, then this is something that needs to be addressed urgently.
How about your role in the newly formed Citizens Assembly? Do you see it as a useful platform for progress on abortion rights and other secular issues, or is it merely a distraction?
J: I think it’s just important for us to have our voice heard there. Ideally there shouldn’t be any religious groups consulted on medical issues like repealing the 8th amendment. But obviously if Christian groups are being invited to have their say, then I don’t think they could refuse the request of a secular voice. So for us it really is just a matter of balance and making sure our voice is heard on these issues along with everyone else’s.
M: Overall I suppose the Assembly probably has been set up to stagnate and delay things a bit. But as Jane said it’s just a matter of keeping the secular voice in the public. And when everything finally clicks and we get where we want to be, it could perhaps then be seen as a valuable part of the process.
Ireland’s blasphemy law is something you have also challenged over the years, including by posting 25 blasphemous statements on the Atheist Ireland website. Where do you stand on the issue of blasphemy, and by extension freedom of speech? Is it an ‘all or nothing’ issue for you?
M: It’s not an ‘all or nothing’ issue for us and we do believe in some restrictions on speech. For example we support defamation laws, and we also believe you shouldn’t be allowed to incite people to commit crimes or violence. However, in terms of criticising ideas – such as in the case of blasphemy – you should be allowed to say whatever you want provided you don’t infringe on people’s rights.
And while Ireland’s blasphemy law has not been officially enforced to date, it has been used in practice which has led to media outlets self-censoring themselves. But the thing about Ireland’s blasphemy law is not just what it means for our country, but also the impact it is having globally. Take for example the blasphemy laws in some of the Islamic Nations, which have resulted in people being executed and murdered. Unfortunately these countries are able to use Ireland as almost a convenient excuse, by pointing to us and saying “but there is a Western democracy who introduced a blasphemy law in 2010”.
J: Indeed, and for example The Organisation of Islamic States at the UN actually cited wording from the Irish law as something to spread internationally. Luckily that wasn’t implemented but we need to continue campaigning internationally to make sure this is not the case. And sometimes when we’re at the OSCE or UN we actually have people from other countries coming up to us and asking what we’re doing about our blasphemy law. So it’s almost as if the blame for the atrocities being committed worldwide falls on Ireland, which is frustrating as we are genuinely campaigning and lobbying on the issue. Even now, Atheist Ireland, the Ahmadi Muslims and Evangelical Christians are preparing a joint submission to the UN on the persecution of secular bloggers, Christians, Atheists and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.
At times in recent years so called ‘new atheism’ has come in for criticism, with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens being accused of going beyond reasoned critique of religion and into the realm of distasteful ridicule of religion. What’s your take on this?
M: I think this perception is actually quite misleading. And definitely in regards to Richard Dawkins, where I feel there has been a process of misrepresenting and demonising him. In truth he is a kind and gentle man who cares a lot about people. But he is passionate about the subject of religion and truth, and therefore he will use ridicule to challenge ideas he thinks are ridiculous. Ultimately that is the essence of challenging something like blasphemy laws – being able to use ridicule to challenge ideas that you think are worthy of ridicule.
And most would agree that Islam is the most contentious world religion under debate at the moment, given the atrocities being committed in the Middle-East purportedly in its name. You had a blog post last year Michael, where you talked about the importance of “challenging the word Islamophobia”. The post brought mixed reactions at the time, so what exactly was meant by this?
M: Overall there was a lot of support for the post, and it was only a small percentage who objected to it. But what I meant by this was being able to criticise the harm and human rights abuses caused by ‘Islamism’ – which is the political manifestation of Islam. And by challenging that harm, we are actually protecting Muslims, as most victims of Islamist regimes are Muslims. Unfortunately some people are incapable of distinguishing – or knowingly blur the distinction – between criticising an ideology and criticising individuals.
Indeed we have always supported the rights of Muslims to their religious belief, and have worked with Muslims many times over the years in various ways. So the distinction we make is that we are opposed to anti-religious bigotry – be it against Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc – but we are not opposed to critique of ideology.
But many scholars and the like would instead define ‘Islamophobia’ as hatred or prejudice against Muslims as individual followers of the Islamic faith – So is the distinction really that easy to make and can you give some examples?
M: Most academics acknowledge the problems with the word, yet some justify using it simply because other people are using it. That’s not a good reason to further normalise a word that entrenches abuses of human rights. There are many examples of this:
After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini passed a new law forcing women to wear the hijab. When thousands of Iranian women took to the streets in protest, they were called Islamophobes.
There is also the case of Ana Pak, an Iranian secular feminist who grew up during Khomeini’s rule. Having escaped prison in Iran for campaigning against theocracy, she moved to France, where she said: “I was shocked to find that the French Left was capitulating to the Islamists, and that I was soon labelled as Islamophobic for resisting its doctrine.”
And it was Runnymede Trust Report in 1997 that popularised the word in the West, but to quote the report: “The term is not, admittedly, ideal. Critics of it consider that its use panders to what they call political correctness, that it stifles legitimate criticism of Islam, and that it demonises and stigmatises anyone who wishes to engage in such criticism.”
Also, the Organisation of Islamic States has an ‘Islamophobia Observatory’ that produces annual reports on ‘Islamophobia’. In the past few years these reports have complained about Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka criticising the Quran, supposedly blasphemous songs by Katie Perry and a South Korean girl band, and intolerance against the sacred symbols of Islam.
This is a very different agenda to that of Western liberals and academics, who rightly want to protect Muslims as people from prejudice. But if you normalise the idea that it is wrong to criticise Islam, you end up encouraging the mobs who hack secular bloggers to death in Bangladesh and who lynched university student Mashal Khan in Pakistan last week.
Moving forward, will there still be a need for ‘Atheist Ireland’ in 20 years time?
M: It would be ideal if the answer was no. And the fact is that there is a global shift to secularism, and this is something that has been detailed in studies by the World Values Survey which takes into account many variables. So hopefully we are reaching a point where it will all ‘click’ and our hard work over the years pays off. We do this entirely voluntarily without any government assistance or grants, so it would be great to reach a point where our work is done.
J: Hopefully there won’t be. As Michael said this is something completely voluntary, and we’re always busy doing something – be it general advocacy work, attending committees both at home and abroad, or else just spending time researching issues which relate to the separation of church and state. And while it is something we are passionate about, it can take its toll and prevent you from missing out on other things or events in your life. But we like to think we’re slowly getting where we need to be.
Lastly, do people ever ask why you celebrate Christmas?
M: Because it’s fun! In all seriousness though, Christmas was being celebrated long before Christianity and has always been about the changing of the seasons. The church were happy to make a link between the two so as to attract Pagans to Christianity. So really, it’s what you make of it.