OPINION:Ruairí Quinn's observation that religion accounts for a disproportionate amount of class time was seized upon as an attack on religion, writes DAVID ROBERT GRIMES.
Religious pundits from bishops to the Iona Institute bemoan the attacks from secularists on traditional Catholic values.Religious pundits from bishops to the Iona Institute bemoan the attacks from secularists on traditional Catholic values.
Yet for all their bluster and hand-wringing, for all the tabloid outrage, “militant secularism” makes as much logical sense as “aggressive pacifism” or “hardline tolerance”; it is an oxymoron, a cynical attempt to paint equality and fairness as infringing upon the religious, who seem aghast that after decades of entitlement they might actually be expected to play fair.
The concept of secularism is separation of church and state; one has the right to practise whichever religion one likes but not to have their particular belief mandated for others, nor the right to impose their viewpoint.
Secularism is a relatively recent development for Ireland, a country historically dominated by a very powerful Catholic church, which viewed this nation as a vanguard of its ethos. And the church was not slow to use its influence in matters of social policy. Readers of my generation find it hard to believe that homosexuality was outlawed until 1993, and divorce granted only in 1995, both changes bitterly opposed by Rome.
Whether or not Ireland is becoming more secular, there is no doubt we still have a powerful religious element. When Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin’s referred to “fornication” and “sin” during a recent Dáil debate on abortion legislation, she dragged religion into a human rights issue – a jarring but common practice.
On matters of society and science, religious belief should not even be a consideration yet, all too often, rational discourse is abandoned in favour of ancient religious assertions without a modicum of evidence or logic behind them. Stem cell research, gay marriage and abortion rights are just some of the issues where frank discussion is clouded by often misinformed religious objections.
If Ireland was a truly secular society, a TD would have zero interest in sin and every interest in solving the actual problem at hand without reference to religious belief.
Yet this is accepted to an extent, underpinned by the arrogant assumption that the people all choose to subscribe to the same doctrine to the same degree.
This assumption is demonstrably wrong. In the 2011 census, 269,800 people declared themselves as having “no religion”, an increase of 44.8 per cent on the 2006 figure.
Even in regard to the 84 per cent who declared as Catholic, it would strain credulity to argue the majority are practising rather than cultural Catholics.
In any case numbers don’t matter: no groups should get special treatment, nor should any experience discrimination.
Of course there is the issue of religious education. John Waters stated recently in this newspaper that secular education produces mindless automatons devoid of curiosity.
Presumably he is unaware that the majority of scientists identify as agnostic or atheist, rarely expressing belief in God, Odin, Zeus or any other mythological construction.
It is wrong and insulting to imply a deficit of religiosity reduces curiosity.
Without religion, he argued, we would exist in an indifferent universe, an “accidental offspring of the pointless oozing of primordial slime”.
Such existential angst is heard ad nauseam, but it is an argument utterly devoid of merit.
Just because a notion is unsettling to some does not mean it lacks veracity. This is not so much logic but rather a comfort blanket. If parents feel religious indoctrination must be practised, then the onus for that instruction falls on them and their respective churches, not schools.
In any case, I find it strange that some would see existence as pointless if it is not preordained and controlled by a curiously anthropomorphic higher power. Surely our existence on this wonderful planet, rife with staggering beauty and steeped in discovery is incredible – regardless of how we got here. Why denigrate all life just because it mightn’t have begun as described in a Stone Age tome ?
There is a related fallacy in the form of a mantra which states that those without religion must be without ethics; this is bunk. Ethics exist independently of religion. The Catholic church staking a claim on morality ranks as an act of ultimate hypocrisy in light of the sexual, emotional and psychological abuse they facilitated for decades. If religion alone made us “good” this never would have occurred.
Belief in the existence of a vindictive, jealous Sky God with an unhealthy fixation on the customs and sex lives of his creations is one I find unsettling, but yet I would defend anyone’s right to believe in that entity.
I would not, however, think that belief affords them any special treatment any more than my beliefs afford me.
The truth is that there is no evil secularist movement hell-bent on depriving Christians of their rights. These groups are bemoaning the fact that their position, long over privileged and unquestioned, has become increasingly irrelevant.
People have the right to believe anything they choose, but not to impose that belief upon others. Protesting otherwise is merely trying to defend bigotry with pseudo-intellectual semantics.
David Robert Grimes is a doctor of medical physics and science writer with a keen interest in public understanding of science. He keeps a science and medicine blog at davidrobertgrimes.com