Why I am not an agnostic; and church/state separation
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.