In Theo Dorgan’s otherwise very commendable article on expressions of faith in response to Katie Taylor (‘Nobody should be rebuked or mocked for personal beliefs’), he drew a distinction between atheism and agnosticism that I think misrepresents atheism. A letter to the editor the following week from Allan Deering made the point that they are answers to separate question. Atheism is an answer to whether or not one one believes in a god; agnosticism is an answer whether or not this question can be answer.
Atheism should not be mischaracterised as being inherently assertive. One call oneself an atheist without thereby adopting a ‘hectoring tone and hysterical righteousness’, to use Dorgan’s phrase. It can be meant in either a weak form, someone who does not believe in a god, or in a strong form, someone who believes that there is no god. It is the former that I would use to explain my own views. I am not claiming to know for certain, or for near certain, that there’s no god, but for me there’s no reason to treat it as an open question, any more than other issues.
I did in the past believe in the Christian God, and was a practising Anglican for a few years. Tho I cannot imagine it now, there is no way to know for certain that I might not again in the future come to a religious understanding of the world. But to describe myself as an agnostic as opposed to an atheist would be to emphasise something which does not play into my understanding of the world.
Atheism and politics
Inasmuch as there is a political aspect to my atheism, it would be about hoping for society and the state to take a position of neutrality between belief or lack thereof. I think it quite possible that our current President, Michael D. Higgins does not believe in God. Yet were he to have decided to omit the references to God in the presidential oath (‘In the presence of Almighty God … May God direct and sustain me’), it would have been portrayed as somewhat provocative, rather than simply being his own view of the world and so a personal matter. The same is true of a judge who would wish to omit the references to God in their oath of office. Our training of primary teachers makes religious training a default part of the course, making life more difficult for anyone who is not religious who wishes to become a teacher, and leading to the odd situation from the point of view of religious parents, that their children could be trained in their beliefs by teachers who have no religious beliefs themselves.
But more broadly, religions should have as much of a voice as any other part of civil society, with neither preference nor disability. The fact that a political opinion has a religious derivation does not make it any less valid as part of public debate. For many people, it is how their understanding of the world and society makes sense. But yet each claim to public policy should be subject to similar scrutiny, regardless of derivation.
I don’t believe Minister Pat Rabbitte was asserting much different to this in his response to Seán Brady on This Week yesterday. Separately from this question, I cannot understand how Seán Brady is treated with any respect on questions of morality given the consequences of his failure of action in 1975. Rabbitte did not deny any right of the Roman Catholic Church to play a role in society. With the freedom of association and freedom of religion comes a freedom of others to disagree with the actions of any organisation, and I don’t think Rabbitte did any more than that. Subject to the same restrictions as any other organisation, the Roman Catholic Church can lobby politicians. Ultimately, they cannot dictate policy; they can only recommend it, however forcefully. And much as one may regret their role, they maintain their right to take part in any debate.
This week, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Sean Brady, claimed that proposals that would remove the legal exemption from the confessional seal represent a challenge to the right of freedom of conscience and to the basis of a free society.
To my mind, this misunderstands what a free society and the free exercise of religion means in its traditional sense. Or at the very least, is not the most classical interpretation of the republican ideal.
The principle of a free and equal society is characterized well by Atticus Finch, who in response to his daughter’s query of the meaning of democracy in To Kill a Mockingbird answers “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none”. In other words, law must apply to every citizen, without a rational basis for distinction such as age. What is lawful for one, is lawful for another; what is wrong for one person to do, does not become right when done by a group.
What does the principle of not prohibiting the free exercise of religion mean in conjunction with the equal right of all? In the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, where it was first most clearly formulated in a legal context, it is linked with the right of free assembly and free speech,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This should be considered in its context in 1789, and in the context too of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration of 1689. The case then was against the established Church of England and the establishment of particular religions in some of the US colonies. Coupled with establishment had been a legal intolerance for the religious assembly of dissenters.
The free exercise of religion guarantees that a meeting of a community which would not otherwise be challenged cannot be prohibited simply that it is a religious meeting. It does not give a cleric the legal right to evade prosecution for not reporting a crime because of the strictures of canon law, just as it would not give an imam the right to oblige members of their community to be subject to Sharia law to their detriment.
As outlined in the Constitution of Ireland, this is even clearer, with a qualification for public order and morality:
Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
It is apparent to me that the code that would allow for the horrific incident outlined in The Irish Times editorial on Thursday, where a priest received absolution on 1,500 occasions for sexually abusing children, lacks basic concepts of morality. But we need not go as far as Australia to find a cleric who would have been charged has a law such as is proposed been in place.
As Carol Hunt recently reminded us, in comparison with another case, Sean Brady was in 1975 party to swearing two children not to reveal that Brendan Smyth had abused them, a man who continued to rape and abuse children until his arrest in 1991, after the Roman Catholic Church moved him from parish to parish. Brady’s fears of the implications of such a new law holding everyone, be they priest or layman, equally accountable for crimes they are aware of, have to be seen in the context of his own digression. It is indeed difficult in this context to understand how he can lay claim to speak with any authority on the subject of morality, or more importantly, how it is that continues to receive an audience.
I must admit that I was first drawn to two of the political commentators whose work I most enjoy for reasons that could be dismissed as being based on group identity: First, Christopher Hitchens as an atheist, later Andrew Sullivan as a gay man. In both cases it is as much their wider political outlook that I relate to, given my admiration for both Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Both are Englishmen, born in 1949 and 1963 respectively, now resident in Washington, D.C. Hitchens became a United States citizen in 2007, and Sullivan is in the process of becoming one. Hitchens spend his youth on the Luxemburgist wing of international socialist politics, while Sullivan studied the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Both initially supported the 2003 war in Iraq; Hitchens has remained hawkish while Sullivan has since regretted this stance. Were they to return home, Hitchens would be on the Euston Manifesto wing of New Labour, while Sullivan would be on the Alan Duncan—David Davis libertarian wing of the Conservative Party.
Last week, both Hitchens and Sullivan wrote on the crisis within the Roman Catholic Church, which extends from parishes in Ireland, Massachusetts and Bavaria to the Vatican, with even Pope Benedict XVI himself implicated.
In response to the news that he was present in 1975 during an investigation into acts of child abuse by Brendan Smyth, Cardinal Seán Brady, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, has stressed in his statement that he followed the procedure that was in place at the time.
That is really not good enough. He said that he would not have been the appropriate person to have referred the matter to the Gardaí. That probably seems reasonable at the point of the investigation itself. One could imagine that in an analogous circumstance, a school might have a designated person, such as the vice-principal, whose role it would be to refer a matter to the civil authorities, and that another teacher there taking notes during an investigation would let them handle that part of the matter.
But if a teacher in such a position were ever to realize that the matter had not been referred to civil authorities, they would then have a moral duty to determine why, and then to refer the matter themselves. So in the case of the then Fr Seán Brady. He may not have engaged in a direct cover-up, but given that he had heard first-hand the crimes committed, he had the evidence to secure a criminal charge against Brendan Smyth nearly two decades before he was finally convicted. This is in addition to his being party to an investigation that swore two children from telling others of what had been done to them.
Whether he resigns is a matter for the church itself. But he would undermine its credibility in further investigations if we were to stay.
Good news from Dermot Ahern, who has said in a Sunday Times interview that he now supports holding a referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, contained in Article 40.6. 1°. i., three months after the blasphemy provisions of the Defamation Act 2009 came into effect. He said that “he never regarded the provision in the new Defamation Bill as anything more than a short-term solution” (via Atheist Ireland).
It’s strange that he didn’t make more of the fact that he did believe it should be removed from the Constitution last year. I think it likely that he expected that no convictions would ever be made under its provisions, but I had thought that it was some sort of way of appealing to religious voters. So I wonder what it was that made him change his mind, to see it as an issue that deserved immediate Constitutional change. It’s quite possible that it was the recent arrests here in Ireland of members of a plot to kill cartoonist Lars Vilk, who had drawn a cartoon of Muhammad, showing the danger of laws infringing freedom of speech, by granting any merit to extremists’ arguments. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure he wouldn’t become known as a right-winger.
In any case, it’s welcome news. With the announcement from Fine Gael leaked in Saturday’s Irish Times, we’ve had a lot of Constitutional changes proposed recently, and it’s probably worth while going through from start to finish to see what else should be changed, as we approach in 2012 the 75th anniversary of its adoption.
I had a letter published in today’s Irish Times, in response to Breda O’Brien’s article on Saturday, “Genuinely tolerant society will not be a cold house for religion”.
A chara, – Breda O’Brien writes that “how we handle gay rights versus religious rights will determine whether we become a polarised society that is a cold house for religion, or a genuinely tolerant society”.
Implicit in this comparison is a faulty assumption these rights fall under equivalent categories. Ms O’Brien might plausibly contrast religious views of society against secular views, both being deeply held outlooks.
However, the same cannot be said of gay rights, which are a recognition of an innate characteristic. In classical liberal terms, the rights afforded to religion are derived from freedom of speech and association, and in a pluralist society we should naturally be respectful of differences in such matters, whereas the rights recognised for gay people are a matter of equality before the law, which surely ranks higher in any estimation of rights. – Is mise,
Bray, Co Wicklow.