By Michael Nugent
Many people misunderstand the difference between atheism and secularism. Both are forces for good, but for different reasons.
Atheism can mean actively believing gods do not exist, or passively not believing gods exist. Most atheists believe gods exist only as ideas in the minds of humans. Most atheists are open to new evidence that we might be mistaken.
Secularism can mean philosophically focusing on the natural world, or politically separating church and state. Many religious people support political secularism.
Atheist Ireland, of which I am chair, believes that reason and science are more reliable ways of understanding reality than are faith and religion, and that morality is a natural process based on evolved attributes such as empathy, compassion, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness, justice and reason.
But we respect the right of others to believe differently, as long as the state does not assist any group to impose their beliefs on others.
Today, the Irish state funds Catholic schools that evangelize the children of atheists into Catholic beliefs, against their conscience. It funds Church of Ireland schools that insist Evangelical parents must prove their church is genuine before their child can attend school.
It funds Sunni Islamic schools that discriminate against Ahmadi Muslims, who they claim are not real Muslims. And it funds all schools to discriminate against teachers based on religion.
We promote a secular education system, where state-funded schools will treat all children equally, without reference to the religious or nonreligious beliefs of their parents.
Secular schools will not ignore religion; they will teach children about religions and beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralist manner, while respecting everybody's human rights.
Political secularism is a force for good in three ways.
Firstly, secularism protects everybody's freedom of conscience and religion and belief by staying neutral between them. Religious states promote religion. Atheist states promote atheism. Secular states promote neither.
Secondly, secularism allows religious people to focus on preparing for whatever next world they believe in, based on applying faith to their beliefs about divine revelations, and it allows the state to focus on governing this world, applying reason to the best available evidence.
Thirdly, secularism can combine with human rights standards as a foundation stone on which we can build a liberal democracy. This can, in turn, combat other threats from such ideologies as fascism and totalitarianism and communism and the unregulated free market.
Secularism also has many practical advantages. The happiest countries are secular liberal democracies, including Scandinavian countries and Northern European states.
In general, secular countries have lower rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion.
Studies published by social scientist Phil Zuckerman and others have shown that atheists and secularists are typically less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less closed-minded and less authoritarian; and more politically tolerant and more supportive of gender equality, women's rights and gay rights.
There is a pathway to secular rational values. The World Values Survey, conducted by social scientists, suggests that as individuals move from survival values to self-expression values, which are triggered by investments in health, education, communication technologies and democracy, societies move from traditional religious values to secular rational values.
How do we achieve state secularism, in Ireland or elsewhere? We need to remove from the Constitution religious oaths for president and judges, and the crime of blasphemy.
We need a government that does not start each day with a prayer asking the Christian God to direct every word of our parliamentarians.
We need secular state schools that teach children freedom of thought, based on human rights, and without religious segregation or indoctrination.
We need secular state hospitals based on compassion, human rights and the medical needs of patients, and not on religious ethics.
International trends are clear. The developed world is relentlessly becoming more secular, with some fundamentalists fighting a rearguard action against it.
Ireland and the world will follow that trend, and the sooner we attain a secular state, the better it will be for religious and atheist citizens alike.
Michael Nugent is an FFRF member and chair of Atheist Ireland.
This article first ran in the Irish Times.