Our 256,000 (and counting) atheists, agnostics, humanists and non-religious

The ‘non-religious’ are the largest group in the State after Catholics, according to the last census

The 'non-religious' are the largest group in the State after Catholics, according to the last census. They range from active atheists lobbying for a secular Ireland to guilty non-believers who still observe religious rituals, writes RÓISÍN INGLE

A FEW WEEKS ago Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association of Ireland addressed a gathering that included Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter as well as various religious leaders. He used the opportunity to raise the issue of our religious presidential oath, which he says is just one example of State discrimination against the growing godless community.

The oath, the wording of which is enshrined in the Constitution, is taken in “the presence of Almighty God” and is a non-negotiable promise that must be given by whoever is elected president. It concludes, “May God direct and sustain me.”

“I talked about how embarrassing it would be for this country if a successful candidate decided that in all conscience they couldn’t give that oath because they didn’t believe in God,” says Whiteside. He was gratified to observe Kenny requesting that Shatter make a note of this potentially awkward eventuality.


It’s a possibility worth reflecting on, given that there is more chance of a non-believer being elected president now than any other time in the history of the State. In the 2006 census, more than 186,000 people ticked the No Religion box, an increase of 34.6 per cent on 2002. That makes it is the second-largest census grouping after Roman Catholic. There are more agnostics, humanists, atheists and non-religious in Ireland than there are Church of Ireland members, Presbyterians, Orthodox Christians and Methodists combined. A further 70,000 opted not to answer the religion question. Coming in the wake of the Murphy and Ryan reports, the 2011 census results are expected to record a further increase in this disparate but essentially non-religious group.

This weekend in Dublin about 350 atheists have gathered for the first World Atheist Convention to be held in this country. Speakers include the prolific British professor Richard Dawkins and the chairman of Atheist Ireland, Michael Nugent. “Twenty years ago the atheist campaign would have been around trying to change public opinion, and now it is much more about getting politicians and institutions of the State to recognise that public opinion has changed,” says Nugent.

While some people who wear their atheism on their sleeves still risk clashing with more religious family members or friends, declining to have your children baptised or choosing a civil ceremony instead of a church marriage is a less controversial choice than ever before.

There is also wide acceptance that religious involvement in education in this country needs to be addressed. One of Ruairí Quinn’s first acts on becoming Minister for Education was setting up a forum on patronage and management of schools, a move supported by leaders of the Catholic Church, which has a role in more than 90 per cent of Irish primary schools.

These days, says Nugent, it’s the layer of “background religious noise” lobbyists such as him are fighting. The group has 450 fully paid-up members and 2,000 registered members. “We have two aims: to promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and to promote an ethical and secular Ireland where the State does not give special treatment to any religion.”

Humanists and atheist advocates are concerned with a range of legal, cultural and constitutional areas where religion is imposed on citizens in ways they say discriminates against non-believers. This includes the preamble to the Constitution, which begins, “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from whom is all authority and to whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred”, and says “the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God”. Then there are all the God-infused oaths that must be taken to become a judge or a member of the Council of State.

A referendum would be required to remove these religious references from the Constitution, which Whiteside believes “are not appropriate in a 21st-century modern democratic republic”.

Lobbyists also object to our blasphemy legislation, the Christian prayers offered before Dáil and Seanad sessions, the angelus on RTÉ and the display of religious iconography in hospitals.

According to Whiteside, the 1,000-member Humanist Association of Ireland gives a voice to the growing number of what he calls “people who choose to lead an ethical life outside of religion”. Each year the association provides about 100 secular ceremonies for births, weddings and funerals. Whiteside and Nugent are members of both Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association, but Whiteside prefers to call himself a humanist, because it’s a “positive” definition.

“I don’t like saying I definitely don’t believe in God. It sounds fundamentalist, and the point is that I don’t really care if there is a God or not. I care about humanity and living a decent life.” He adds that while their strategy may differ from Atheist Ireland’s, the “endgame” of a more secular country is the same.

“I would say that atheism provides a better model of reality and a better foundation for morality than religion,” says Nugent, who was completing a project on the Gospels in primary school when he started to question the “comic book” nature of the Bible. “Faith in anything, whether that is religious faith or even faith in secular objectives, corrupts your sense of truth and stops you thinking critically about issues.” He says most non-believers he knows would be open to examining any new evidence that challenges their views. “We might be mistaken, but on the basis of the information we have on hand at the moment, there is no evidence to suggest God exists.”

ALTHOUGH WHITESIDE and Nugent could be described as card-carrying atheists actively pursuing a more secular society, non-believers come in many guises.

Karen Dervan, a 29-year-old musician from Galway, describes herself as an atheist “with guilt”. Even though she rejects religion from a rational, scientific viewpoint, she still ticked Roman Catholic on the census form and went to Mass on Good Friday. She felt compelled to mark the occasion, she says, because she knew her mother would ask her later that day whether she had attended a service.

“I was sitting in the church, thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t believe in the hierarchy of this, I don’t believe the words.’ I do like the sense of community, and the peace and serenity it offers, though.”

Dervan says there are “so many little ways that the guilt creeps in. I don’t have children, but I have spoken at length about this with people and have come to the conclusion that if I had a child I would get it baptised. I probably would simply because it would kill my parents if I didn’t. I would do it for them to maintain that sense of tradition.”

Elayne Devlin, a television producer in her 30s who is originally from the west but now lives in Dublin, began questioning the Catholic faith in which she was raised when she was at college. There was no “light-bulb moment”, but she came to the view that religions offered little more than a “good morality tale”.

When she was getting married, it made sense not to have a religious service. “My mother had a very adverse reaction, which surprised me. It took many months for her to come around to it,” she says. She has since had two children and chose not to baptise them, although for practical reasons her eldest will start at the local Catholic school in September. Her daughter will not, however, be receiving the sacraments of Communion or Confirmation. “We went to the school to discuss this and were told, ‘Well, that’s okay: God loves her anyway,’ ” she says with a smile. “I do anticipate further challenges as our children get older, but I don’t think we will be backtracking.”

FR PADDY BYRNE, a curate in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, and one of the few Irish priests who can be found holding forth about matters spiritual on Twitter, says that in the 10 years since he was ordained he has observed an increase in people expressing a “very secular perspective”.

At Easter, when he brings the ashes to schools, there are often students who say they don’t want them because they are atheist, and he occasionally meets terminally ill people who don’t wish to have religious services at their funerals. “I respect that totally. In order for growth to happen there has to be a time when we disconnect and experience the angst of doubt. I greatly respect people who make a choice like this fuelled by integrity,” he says.

He is less comfortable when parents make the decision not to baptise their children. “People have said to me, ‘We don’t want them baptised: we want them to decide for themselves.’ But God doesn’t just pop out of the sky. There are very few Damascus moments. I just question whether, if there is no engagement with God from an early age, anyone would opt for religion.”

He also questions this “carry-on” where children receive their first Communion but the vast majority are not brought back to the church to receive their second Communion, the following week. “It saddens me and it raises big questions as to why we go ahead with it.”

Fr Byrne says he is disillusioned about the leadership of the Catholic Church. “The scandal and abuse created a real consciousness that we need to strip away a lot of the baggage that came with the institutional church. We must remember that at the core of our church is Jesus Christ.”

At the World Atheist Convention this weekend, one of the issues being discussed is whether delegates should accommodate or confront religion. Some commentators have warned that the “new atheism” espoused by “God bashers” such as Richard Dawkins can be as hectoring and dogmatic as anything in the religious orders they denounce.

Michael Nugent says the Atheist Ireland perspective is pro-secularisation rather than anti-religious. “There will always be religion, and people should always have a right to practise, but we just hope that in the future religion will interfere less and less with the rights of other people who don’t share those beliefs.”