Michael Nugent is a co-founder of Atheist Ireland and campaigns for the right to assisted dying for terminally or seriously ill people. He has previously campaigned against terrorism in Northern Ireland, including founding and chairing the peace group New Consensus.
Michael's speech, edited for space, was delivered on May 3, 2014, at FFRF's regional convention in Raleigh, N.C.
He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:
Dan and I have been privileged to attend several events in Ireland with Atheist Ireland and Atheist International. It was a valuable perspective to see that, although half of our nation believes Jesus is in our Constitution, in the Republic of Ireland Jesus really is in their constitution. So it's a different kind of battle between church and state. We're very pleased to have Michael Nugent here.
By Michael Nugent
Thanks to everybody here for being part of the growing international movement for what we at Atheist Ireland describe as promoting atheism and reason and secularism. As individuals move from survival values toward self-expression values, societies move toward secular rational values and away from traditional religious values. So we are swimming with the tide of history with the work that we are doing.
Until very recently, Ireland was a monolithic Catholic state. Northern Ireland is different, but south is a monolithic Catholic state, dominated by two institutions: the Catholic Church and the Fianna Fáil, which is a populist political party infested with corruption.
For most of the last century, those two institutions have worked to keep Ireland Catholic. We have a clause in our constitution that says that the state acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to almighty God. If you think about it for more than a second, it's not even a clause vindicating the rights of citizens to worship a god, it's a clause vindicating the right of this god to be worshipped by the citizens. As if the creator of the universe needs the Irish Constitution to vindicate his rights.
I was born in an Ireland in the 1960s where, in the first census after I was born, 95% of people said they were Roman Catholic; 99.5% said they were Christians of some variety. Less than half of one-tenth of one percent said that they had no religion. Divorce was illegal, abortion was and still is illegal, contraception was illegal. The Catholic Church, in the meantime and in the background, was covering up the rape and abuse of children with the active complacency of the Irish state in many cases.
But Ireland has changed a lot.
The most recent surveys in Ireland showed that 47% of Irish people say they are religious. That's less than half, which is a massive, massive change in a short period of time. And that's compared to 59% internationally.
Ireland is now one of the least religious countries in the world. So the Catholic Church has lost the moral influence that it had claimed and pretended to have for so long. Fianna Fáil is also out of power. Ireland, once a Catholic country, is a pluralist country, but unfortunately still has Catholic laws.
Still a ways to go
We still have that constitution that I was telling you about. And there are other things in that constitution, including the offense of blasphemy. The president, judges and members of the council of the estate, which includes the prime minister, are required by the constitution to swear a religious oath in order to take office. Which means that a conscientious atheist cannot legally hold those offices in Ireland.
The Catholic Church officially runs 90% of the primary schools in Ireland, funded by the state. Teachers' salaries are paid by the state, run by the Catholic Church with an official Catholic ethos that is not restricted to the religious instruction classes, but permeates the entire curriculum. So you cannot even opt your child out of the formal religious instructional elements because in nature study they'll be taught that God created the birds and the bees and in the music classes they'll be singing hymns. That's just a really difficult situation to deal with.
We also have a clause that was largely influenced by the Catholic Church, put into our constitution in the 1980s making abortion unconstitutional. The situation in Ireland with abortion is that the government has been forced by a combination of legal factors to bring in the most restrictive version of abortion laws that they could get away with and that the citizens could respect. Even in cases like rape and incest and fatal fetal abnormalities, abortion is still illegal in Ireland. We still have such a long way to go.
Also in Ireland, assisted dying is illegal, and I know that's the case in a lot of parts of America, as well. But that's a campaign particularly close to my heart because my wife died a few years ago of cancer. And she had made preparations to take her own life if she needed to, to avoid unnecessary suffering. And what's really important for people to understand is that it's portrayed as if it's about people wanting to die. But it's not about people wanting to die, it's about people wanting the peace of mind that they can have from knowing that they have the option to avoid unnecessary suffering. And when you're talking about people who are terminally ill and it is purely a question of when and how they die, rather than whether they die, the only argument against that is theological. And it is a purely secular issue to have assisted dying in those circumstances made legal.
So that's the context in which Atheist Ireland was founded five years ago. We campaign to promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism. We campaign for an ethical secular state where the state doesn't give any support or preference to either religion or to atheism. We involve ourselves in political lobbying both of the government and opposition political parties. We provide briefing documents to parliamentarians when bills are going through that are relevant to secularism. We regularly make submissions to and appear before both parliamentary committees in Ireland, but also international human rights regulatory bodies like the United Nations and the European Union.
As Annie Laurie was saying earlier on, we are kind of like in the opposite position to what you have here. You have secular laws that you are trying to have enforced. We are still trying to get secular laws implemented.
One of the most serious is the blasphemy law. Ireland passed a new blasphemy law in 2009, and on that day, Atheist Ireland published 25 blasphemous statements on our website. What we said is, "One or two things will happen: Either we will be prosecuted, in which case we could challenge the constitution, or we won't be prosecuted, in which case that strengthens the political case for appeal of the law, because if they are not going to implement it, then it brings the Parliament and the laws into disrepute."
We take a human-rights-based approach to all of the political positions that we argue for, particularly in terms of blasphemy laws. Our position is that we can respect their right to hold their beliefs, but we don't have to respect the content of their beliefs. And a slogan that we used to articulate: "You have rights, your beliefs do not."
It's astonishing how fundamental the infringements of human rights are, particularly in Islamic states. I'll give you one quick example, which is a woman named Aasia Bibi, a middle-aged mother who is currently in jail in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for allegedly blaspheming Muhammad. And two politicians in Pakistan who spoke up for her — the Muslim governor of Punjab and the minority's Christian minister in the government — were murdered.
In Aasia Bibi's case, as is the pattern for most blasphemy cases, it was because of a trivial dispute — a goat broke a trough in a neighbor's garden. That had created tension between this woman and her neighbors. And then when she was out working in the fields picking fruit, she went to get some water. But because she had drunk from the water bowl and she was a Christian, they said she had contaminated the water. And when she said something about Jesus doing more good for people than Muhammad, she was accused of blasphemy. A mob gathered to attack her. The police were called, and instead of dispersing the mob or arresting the mob, the police arrested her. So this is really important.
I've had a lot of discussions just over the last few days here with people from the Triangle Freethought Society about the work that they're doing, work that atheist groups are doing similarly in Ireland. I'm going to suggest that we need to normalize the use of the word "atheist."
I think that we need to be seen to be doing good things while self-identifying as atheists. And that's the only way and practice that we are going to chip away at the prejudice about the word "atheist" that exists. Because if we retreat from the word atheist while we are doing good things, then people never see self-identifying atheists do good things. The prejudice continues.
In theory, atheism can be any position on a scale from passively not believing in gods to actively believing that there are no gods. I believe that atheism in real life is necessarily more than a dry disbelief in an assertion about gods. If you don't believe in gods, then it necessarily follows that you don't believe that morality comes from gods.
That is a significant position to take. It's a significant worldview in a world where the majority of people do believe that morality comes from gods. Morality does not come from supernatural commands, it comes from our natural compassion and empathy and cooperation and reciprocity and sense of fairness and sense of justice. Atheism doesn't guarantee that you will reach the right decisions morally, but what it does do is it removes a significant obstacle.
That obstacle is not actually religion. It's an underlining obstacle — faith. Faith and dogma. By "faith," I mean believing something disproportionally to the currently best available evidence. And by "dogma," I mean believing in things without questioning them.
Those faiths and dogmas can be applied just as easily to secular projects as they are to religious projects. But the difference between religious faith and dogma and secular faith and dogma is that with secular faith in dogma, eventually it bumps into reality. And you notice that it's not working and you notice the consequences, whereas religious faith and dogma hides its testability in an imaginary afterlife. And so you don't get to notice whether it's working and can perpetuate itself more easily.
Obviously, another issue is that religious faiths and dogmas promote these kind of fantastic rewards for eternity that atheism doesn't. It can seem like a negative thing, and it's one of the things that portrays atheism as a negative concept. But I don't think it is. That argument is largely based on etymology. I believe that it is reasonable to say that atheism is a positive concept.
Now, I'll briefly go over four principles that I think we should use to promote ethical secularism.
The first is promoting reason and science over faith and dogma. If I was to wander around the town of Raleigh today and tell people I had good news for them, that I had just been talking with Bill Gates, who said he's going to give every person $10 million if they do what I say, they would apply their critical thinking skills and probably wouldn't believe me.
But if I was to go to the same random group of people, tell them I have good news for them, that I was talking to the creator of the universe and that he has promised an eternity in paradise if they do what I say, a significant proportion of those people would actually believe me.
That's because religion corrupts our sense of reality. Normally, when we are asked to believe something, we weigh it against the evidence: What is most consistent with the evidence? And as the claim becomes more implausible, we raise the bar of the evidence that we need in order to satisfy ourselves that it is true.
But with religion, we do the exact opposite. As the claims become more implausible, we lower the bar of evidence. Religion encourages us to believe not only implausible claims, but literally untestable claims. And then it insists that we live our lives on the basis of those untestable claims. And that corrupts our sense of reality.
That leads into the second principle that I think we should promote: our sense of morality.
Morality is a natural function of our brains. We have evolved morality in order to live together as social animals, as have other non-human animals. Cooperation and competition are useful in terms of survival. So we feel empathy for each other, we feel compassion for each other, we cooperate, we feel a sense of fairness and a sense of justice. It's not something that is just unique to humans. We increasingly respect the rights of the non-human animals. We just generally refine and increasingly nuance our sense of morality.
It's a difficult enough thing to do. What religion does is add in a corrupting factor to that which is already a difficult task. What religion tells us is that even if this is the compassionate thing to do, even if this is the fair thing to do, even if this is the just thing to do, you shouldn't do it . . . because somebody wrote something down in a book 2,000 years ago.
And so many Catholics use that to justify denying condoms to potential AIDS victims in Africa. And many Muslims use that to justify the command in the Koran that husbands can beat their wives. In Surat 24-2, it says: "The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with a hundred strikes, let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah."
So clearly the reason that this is in there is they were having a problem with people who were supposed to be flogging adulterers, but those people were allowing their compassion to prevent them from doing it to the satisfaction of the people that were making the rules. And so they had to add in another rule that they said was supposedly sent from Allah saying, "Don't let your compassion prevent you from doing what we are telling you." So not only is religion not necessary for morality, but religion actively corrupts morality.
The third of the four principals I want to talk about is promoting exclusive and caring and supportive atheist groups. This is one of the things that the Triangle Freethought Group is doing very effectively.
We should try to communicate with each other as respectfully as people. We can disagree with principles and we can disagree with each other. But we can respect each other as individuals while disagreeing with the content of our beliefs. I think that we've got to start treating each other with respect.
The final point I want to make is that I think we should be promoting fair societies with secular government, working in terms of improving our own ethical behavior within our organizations, but also tackling specific injustices within society that are relevant to religious dogma.
And also we should campaign actively to separate church and state. That should continually be the basis of what we are doing politically.
However implausible the claim I made earlier — the one about Bill Gates and the $10 million — surely it's even more implausible to suggest that the creator of the universe — with a hundred billion galaxies, each of which consists of a hundred billions stars — created it so that he could tell one member of one species on one planet to stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath and then impregnate a virgin in order to give birth to himself.
On the basis of absurd claims like that, Aasia Bibi is currently languishing in prison in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad. So I think we have to redouble our efforts to challenge blasphemy laws.
We should promote reason and science over faith and dogma. We should promote natural ethics over religious commands. We should promote inclusive caring support of atheist groups. We should promote fair societies with secular government and in doing that we should be optimistic about what we are doing. We live in an era where in my lifetime there have been massive changes in world geopolitics that we would have never thought would happen.
We can be optimistic that we are swimming with the tide of history in promoting atheism and ethical secularism.