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We can't base our laws on faith

Last weekend, President Mary McAleese was in Rome addressing a conference entitled 'Religious Freedom: East and West'. An exemplary topic, one would initially assume.

The conference itself was dedicated to the memory of a brave and good man -- Chaldean Catholic Fr Ragheed Ganni, who was murdered, along with three sub-deacons, in Northern Iraq because he was a Christian.

However, there is a certain horrific irony in the fact that Ganni was killed by deeply religious Sunni Arabs who were exercising their own perverted form of "religious freedom" in eradicating their townland of what they viewed as a dangerous heretic -- in much the same way as Sir Thomas More (the patron saint of politicians) ruthlessly tortured and murdered many people of deep religious faith who dared to read the bible in English. He, too, was exercising his fanatical version of "religious freedom". My God trumps your God, and all that.

As the President mentioned during her speech in Rome: "It is particularly tragic that the worst offenders [of intolerance and discrimination] are often themselves people of strong religious views."

As a native of Northern Ireland who observed close up the murdering hatred between two fairly similar religious tribes, she has intimate knowledge of such intolerance.

But for millennia it has always been thus: one man's freedom to practise his particular religion is often viewed by others as treason or heresy -- or just plain wrong.

Which is not a crime in itself, of course. If I choose to believe that there is a celestial teapot orbiting somewhere between the Earth and Mars, that is my prerogative.

A problem occurs only if I loudly insist that this teapot has decided that people with red hair are aliens who must be exterminated, women who use contraception are doomed to eternal damnation, or people who engage in sex with their own gender have (as the current Pope believes) "a tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil".

And even so, thanks to free speech (let's just ignore the blasphemy laws for now), this only becomes a serious impediment to a just and moral society if I somehow attain the power to impose my beliefs on others -- for instance by ensuring that so-called adulterous women are publicly stoned to death, or denying

people at risk of contracting Aids the use of condoms for protection, or by insisting that same-sex couples are denied the rights, duties and privileges accorded heterosexual relationships.

Thankfully, the Western heritage of enlightenment values has resulted in a slow and steady eradication of theocratic and totalitarian regimes in favour of secular democracies. But democracy is only as good as the values of its participants, which is why it is vital to defend it rigorously and without apology.

For instance, the ill-judged suggestion by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that aspects of Sharia law be adopted in Britain could have led to the acceptance of what are, essentially, crimes against humanity. Thankfully, the idea was immediately and vociferously opposed -- not least because it would deny women, children, non-heterosexuals and non-Muslims within their communities the basic rights of equal citizenship that are the norm in most Western secular democracies. Though the Archbishop of course specifically ruled out adopting extreme punishments and attitudes towards women, who gets to draw the line?

It's one of the reasons why, when personal religious views clash with the laws of the state, it should be the laws of state (and not those of a particular religion) which are used to uphold the rights and safety of our citizens.

Up until relatively recently, the laws of Ireland were skewed to reflect the moral values of one particular religious group: Roman Catholicism. The Church in Ireland was powerful enough to dictate to politicians when it felt that the law was going against Catholic beliefs -- as in the infamous Mother and Child scheme of 1950 when Dr Noel Browne (in his resignation speech the following year) said "the Hierarchy has informed the Government that they must regard the mother and child scheme proposed by me as opposed to Catholic social teaching".

Similarly, working wives and unmarried mothers were seen as anti-'Catholic social teaching' -- as were contraception, divorce and homosexuality. But thanks to brave, moral and just citizens like Browne, Garret FitzGerald and latterly Senator David Norris, human rights previously denied to many people in this State have been slowly introduced, making us seem less like a religious theocracy and more like the democratic republic we have striven to be since 1916.

However, what some call moral progress, others interpret as a threat to a traditional, conservative way of life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the claim (made initially by Pope Benedict in his statement for World Peace Day) that religious freedom is the fundamental human right and that this fundamental right is now under attack by "aggressive secularism".

What does this mean? Are Christians and members of other religions being prevented from practising their various faiths in secular democracies? No, what the Pope and many Catholic (and other religious leaders) are saying is that a particular faith community should have a "right" to discriminate against those whose moral values or lifestyles oppose the doctrines of that faith.

David Quinn (director of the Catholic organisation the Iona Institute) spoke at length on this topic of "aggressive secularism" at last week's conference on 'Religious Freedom' which, he said, "is reaching out from the political sphere into the public sphere in general and down to the level of the individual religious believer".

Quinn gave some Irish examples of where restrictions are being placed on the "right of a person to live out their lives according to their religious beliefs".

This included the case in Galway where an unmarried couple had been denied infertility treatment because the doctor and hospital which provided this treatment only offered the treatment to married couples, in accordance with Catholic ethos. The couple filed a complaint against the doctor with the Fitness to Practice Committee of the Irish Medical Council on the grounds that the doctor had discriminated against them because of their marital status. It was dismissed because they were never actually his patients.

Other examples given by Quinn were the recent State decision to allow the morning-after pill to be sold in pharmacies and the decision to allow civil partnership to same-sex couples. "Among the other effects of this law," he said "is that a church hall would have to be rented out to a same-sex couple if they wished to hold their reception there."

But surely in a democracy no religious group should be allowed to "impose" their morality on others?

Quinn answers that "it can be equally argued that the State is imposing its morality" [in this example] "on pharmacists". And he's right. The State is most definitely imposing a particular public morality on its citizens. It is attempting to ensure that the least amount of discrimination is practised, and the maximum amount of equality achieved, in accordance with the democratic wishes of all the people. (Check the 1916 proclamation.)

Recently it has become popular among some commentators to argue that our European Christian heritage is somehow under threat from the relentless onslaught of "aggressive secularism" -- particularly in the media. This is nonsense. It sounds disturbingly akin to the outraged bleatings of white slave owners in the Old South who complained that their God-fearing way of life was being destroyed by secular Republicans.

There is no anti-religious bias in the Irish media. Quite the opposite. RTE has an entire department (RTE Religious) devoted to the celebration of Christian worship. Both the main Irish daily papers have regular commentators whose Catholic credentials are very well known, and they constantly write with that bias in mind. The Irish Times even has a specific religious piece ('Rite and Reason') published each week. There is no danger that this country's Christian heritage is being in any way threatened by "aggressive secularism".

What is occurring, however, is that laws are constantly being upgraded to ensure that no one religious group can legally discriminate against another person because of personal religious beliefs.

If Catholics are allowed to discriminate against, say, homosexuals because of their belief that they are somehow "intrinsically evil", what is to stop radical Muslims insisting that they can stone adulterous women because that, too, is part of their belief?

Where does it end? Or do those who shout that religion is under threat from "aggressive secularism" only mean their own religion, their own moral values? I leave that for the reader to judge.

Coincidentally, at the same time that the 'Religious Freedom' conference was held in Rome, the first ever World Atheist Convention was being held in Dublin. As far as I am aware, nobody officially attended that event on behalf of anyone -- despite the fact that atheism is a very specific belief system and growing fast (especially if you include Buddhism, a religion in which there is no god) in Ireland. But don't bother complaining that you're being victimised by "aggressive Catholics". Because as far as official Ireland is concerned (the last census), you don't exist.

Sunday Independent