Wednesday 21 March 2018

Will it ever be Ireland without a prayer?

John Meagher

John Meagher

It was the front page headline of The Times -- "Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer" -- that captured the mood of conservative Britain this week.

In a decision that is seen as a significant breakthrough for the secular movement in the UK, a High Court outlawed formal acts of prayer in the chambers of town and city halls across the country.

Senior figures from the Church of England and other Christian denominations reacted angrily to the ruling, with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, saying it represented the "marginalisation of Christianity".

He added: "I am horrified by this. It does look as though the Christian voice is being silenced and I am very worried by the dangers of a creeping secularism."

The landmark case has attracted plenty of attention from secular groups here, and it has prompted Atheist Ireland to send a letter to all members of the respective Committees on Procedure and Privilege of both the Dáil and the Seanad to ask them to stop the practice of saying prayers before every session of both houses.

Chairman Michael Nugent writes: "We request that the Oireachtas cease the practice of starting daily business with the prayer: 'Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended; through Christ our Lord. Amen.'

"It is inappropriate that any of our parliamentarians should publicly ask a god, particularly a specific variation of a specific god, to direct their actions and every word and work of theirs. It suggests either (a) that they are being directed in their work by messages that they believe come from a supernatural being, or (b) that they are taking part in the prayer without believing it to be true."

The Labour Senator, Ivana Bacik, has been vocal on this issue in the past. "I don't think the prayer as it exists is appropriate in a pluralist society," she says. "I think the Dublin City Council policy of starting sessions with a minute's silence is far more fitting."

Bacik has championed secularism since entering public life. "My views annoyed a lot of people early on, and I suppose they still do," she says. "But let's just say the hate mail isn't as frequent as it once was.

"Ireland has changed enormously over the past couple of decades and it's a markedly more secular country than it was even 20 years ago. Just look at the proportion of people who are opting for a non-religious wedding nowadays."

Bacik has drafted a bill which aims to give humanist wedding celebrants the same legal status as civil registrars and clergy. The bill was passed unopposed in the Seanad and she fully expects it to be ratified by the Dail later this year.

The Humanist Association of Ireland spokesman Brian Whiteside believes this Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill will be a significant milestone for secularists. "It's in keeping with the changing face of the country we live in today," he says.

'We're doing 10 times more humanist wedding ceremonies than we were doing as recently as five years ago. A new generation of people don't want to have a church ceremony because they have no religious beliefs.

"It's the same story with funerals -- we're doing more and more humanist ceremonies, including that of [acclaimed documentary maker] Mary Raftery that got quite a bit of attention last month. Every single day, I receive calls from people who ask me how they can ensure that they receive a humanist funeral when they die. I tell them to make their wishes clear to their nearest and dearest."

Whiteside says the growing acceptance of the humanist movement can be gauged from the high number of official invites the association now receives, not least when a representative from the Humanist Association was formally asked to be present for the inauguration of President Michael D Higgins.

"I think that came at the behest of the President himself," Whiteside says. "It was an acknowledgement that many people in our society do not believe in a god, but their moral compass is no less for that."

The religious dimension of the Presidential Oath -- and the oath sworn by all judges -- has long been criticised by secularists. The Humanist Association has been running the "Unbelievable" campaign to raise awareness of the issue for the past three years, and it is a central plank of an Atheist Ireland programme called "Five Steps to Civil Rights in Secular Ireland".

Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper and a former press officer at the Vatican, is concerned about the growth of "aggressive secularism".

"Despite what they say, these people are not interested in pluralism," he says. "Instead, they want to push religion into a completely private sphere. It's like the 1950s in reverse.

"The Catholic Church abused its power in many ways in the past -- but the church that some secularists rail against is consigned to history.

''The fact remains that the majority of people in this country consider themselves to be Christian and I think some of the aggressive secularists would have been surprised by the vehemence of the opposition to Eamon Gilmore's decision to close the Irish Embassy at the Vatican."

Senator Rónán Mullen has been heartened by the widespread opposition to the closure. "Ordinary Catholics feel that it was a vindictive, petty step by the Government," he says. "And I believe what we've seen in recent weeks is a wider Ireland -- not just a traditional Catholic Ireland -- that has stood up to be counted on the issue too. It's a decision that's not pluralist or liberal in the literal sense of the word and it strikes me as a retrogressive step. We need to keep the channels of communication open, not closed."

Labour is seen by many, Mullen included, as the main driver in moving towards a more secular Ireland. He notes that there has been considerable disquiet in recent weeks over revelations that the party has proposed a motion for its forthcoming conference that would seek to "screen" civil servants who are likely to have to deal with the Catholic Church in the course of their work for any sign of "inappropriate deference" to the Church.

"It's a new form of intolerance," he says, "a Reds-under-the-beds scenario that's every bit as invidious as the intolerance shown by some religious people towards the views of others over the years."

New Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has been vocal about secularism, not least in education. In an interview with the Irish Catholic, the former school principal made his position clear: "Religious ethos has no place in the education sector of a modern republic."

But this week, Ó Ríordáin was in no mood to discuss the matter: "Every time I say something about the Catholic Church, I get hammered. I'm seen as the anti-Catholic Church guy, so no, I've nothing to say."

He was also unwilling to discuss the blasphemy law, introduced by Dermot Ahern in the dying days of the last government. Rónán Mullen considers it to be a harmless piece of legislation, but Ivana Bacik and Michael Nugent believe it damages Ireland's reputation internationally.

Nugent says: "There had been no demand for a blasphemy bill, yet it seemed to end up on the statute books before it dawned on anybody what was happening. People have been a bit laissez faire about it, thinking 'oh here we go -- it's Fianna Fáil being mad again' -- but it's been cited by countries like Pakistan at the UN to justify their own blasphemy laws, so it has had a negative impact internationally. It needs to be repealed as a matter of urgency."

Meanwhile, Nugent awaits the response to his letter about prayers at the Oireachtas. "It might be seen by some, even atheists, as a comparatively minor detail," he says, "but those prayers infringe upon the human right to freedom of conscience by forcing people to reveal information about their religious or non-religious philosophical beliefs."

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