Religious oaths and conscience


Sir, – Brian Whiteside (“Swearing of religious oaths is hypocritical as Ireland becomes more secular”, Opinion & Analysis, May 18th), formerly of the Humanist Association of Ireland, is perfectly correct: it is wrong of the State to require a president-elect to take a religious oath.

Swearing an oath one disavows internally is a moral harm to oneself.

The harm is real and consists in the unravelling of one’s integrity, which is a basic aspect of one’s wellbeing. Presumably this happens in the case of a committed atheist swearing an oath that invokes the name of God.

Some might respond by saying that atheists could avoid this threat to their integrity by declining to run for the presidential office. But by effectively debarring committed atheists from the office of presidency the Constitution unnecessarily and unjustly infringes upon atheists’ freedom of conscience and right to civic participation.

Hence the relevant constitutional sub-section ought to be amended to either contain a philosophically much “thinner” oath, or else provide for a plurality of oaths being taken, secular as well as religious.

Mr Whiteside could have gone further and pointed out how the parental rights of non-religious parents (an aspect of their conscience rights) are not properly respected by a primary school system insufficiently pluralist in its provision of school ethos types. The Constitution is a support rather than a barrier here. Government and church are both perfectly free to do much more to facilitate genuine pluralism within primary level schooling.

Freedom of conscience cuts both ways, however. In this regard it was troubling to read two current members of the Humanist Association of Ireland, Aidan Pender and David McConnell, make a case which, as a matter of its inherent logic, attacks the right to religious-based conscientious objection in medicine (Letters, May 14th). Medical opposition to abortion is their primary target, it seems.

Conscientious objection is the core of the right to freedom of conscience, a right that is stress-tested in new ways every time a new, strident political orthodoxy emerges.

Its most serious threat is the idea that “error has no rights”, ie that a mistaken conscience is not deserving of conscience rights protection. This idea is a temptation for all of us, particularly those whose views are currently represented by a largely unchallenged political orthodoxy.

All those who value freedom of conscience on this island should reflect on the ways in which the conscience rights of those we conscientiously disagree with are currently being threatened. – Yours, etc,


Lecturer in Theology

and Religious Studies,

Mary Immaculate College,