The need for a secular state
The following is the text of an article I wrote for Trinity News, published 10 February 2008
Last weekend, I saw Milk, the newly-released biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. While a Supervisor in San Francisco, he led the campaign against Proposition 6, which would have banned gays or lesbians from teaching in the California’s public schools. It seems far removed from modern Irish society, but Irish legislation allows for such a situation. Under the terms of equality legislation, religious organizations are given exemptions on moral grounds, so that a school board could refuse to employ someone who did not comply with their ethos, including a matter of sexuality.
In calling for a secular society, it is not then simply an abstract philosophical position, but a call for the state to be neutral on religious grounds, granting no particular privilege or status to a belief because it is a matter of faith. Though discrimination might be distasteful, I have no strong objection to the right of religious organizations or any other private group to do so on whatever basis they choose. What matters is when such discrimination is allowed in public sector, in this case in schools. However infrequently such privileges are exercised by the religious, the fact that they exist does create a burden for some people, restricting the areas they feel confident that they could look for work in.
The state has progressed a long way since there was significant collusion between those in political and religious power in shaping policy, with particularly shameful episodes such as Magdalene laundries, with girls taken away from their families and children for not conforming the Roman Catholic Church’s view of morality. Thankfully, such situations no longer occur, and it would be unhelpful to make too much of a point of these past events. But they do highlight the problems that can emerge when power is given to an organization which is not accountable to the people. Equally, there should not be particular consultation with religious officials when drafting legislation that has ethical implications. I have no objection whatever to priests preaching politics, but it is only by the electorate subsequently contacting their TDs that they should expect to effect change in a republic.
It is not my desire as an avowed atheist and secularist to encourage those who have religious faith to abandon it, as it is fundamentally a very personal matter. I do think, however, that those who lack a belief in a god should recognize the significance of such a position, and that some level of the promotion of the rationality of nonbelief is a good thing in the context of the presumption of belief that often exists. This should not mean railing against religious faith as irrational, as this serves only to make others feel uncomfortable, including many atheists who have no desire to be aggressive.
It is precisely because religious faith or the lack of it is such a personal matter that I would advocate a secular state. It was not originally as an atheist that I first became a committed secularist, but as someone who had received a Roman Catholic primary education, including the administration of sacraments, but found my beliefs and religious sensibilities more akin to Protestantism. It was only when I read the work of Thomas Paine at 19 that I questioned religion wholesale. Even leaving aside cases of conversion or apostasy, there are many who receive sacraments through their school system who are not fully aware of their religion’s doctrines. While the various denominations do not want their nominal figures to decline, so might see removing religious instruction from classrooms as against their interest, if such instruction took place only in religious settings by those who have trained for that specific purpose, their faith would surely be more sincere.
It is in the classroom that I think that a secular society matters most of all. It is not just that at times the teachings of religion can conflict with educational value of teaching objective truth; it can be an issue, but the nature of religion in Ireland is such that there is little reason to fear teachings such as creationism or, what is a more modern version of it, intelligent design. It is because there will be one child in that classroom who questions religion, either from their own reflection or because of family background, or one of another religion. As Toby said to Leo in Season Two of The West Wing, on the reason the state should maintain objectivity in religious affairs “It’s not religious freedom, it’s not church and state, it’s not abstract…It’s the fourth grader who gets his ass kicked at recess because he sat out the voluntary prayer. It’s another way of making kids different from other kids.” The state should be secular because of this real difference it makes to individuals’ lives, and this objectivity is then the proper stance of a republic.