Swearing of religious oaths is hypocritical as Ireland becomes more secular

What if an elected president declined office due to the religious oath required by our Constitution?

The 10th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland is tomorrow, Wednesday. File photograph: The Irish Times

The 10th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland is tomorrow, Wednesday. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

As we mark the 10th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s visit tomorrow I recall two other events that happened that same day: Garret FitzGerald died; and then taoiseach Enda Kenny held a meeting which I attended along with the religious leaders of our country.

This plenary meeting was part of the structured dialogue process which had been set up in 2007 as a platform for leaders of the various religions and other “non-confessional philosophical groups” to make the government aware of any issues they might have.

It was felt that, with the religious leaders congregated in Dublin to dine with the visiting monarch, it would be a good opportunity to hold such a meeting.

I had attended a number of bilateral meetings with the government as I was, at the time, a director of the Humanist Association of Ireland. We had presented a document entitled Equality for the Non-Religious and distributed it to all participants in this dialogue process.

Brian Whiteside is a humanist and a funeral celebrant; he is a former member and director of the Humanist Association of Ireland

The document set out very clearly those areas in our Constitution, our laws and in custom and practice, where non-religious people were discriminated against.

Very little progress was being made and there was a growing frustration that this might simply be a talking shop. But then the invitation came for the plenary meeting of May 19th, 2011. This meeting, attended by politicians, senior civil servants and leaders from all the different religions, would, we hoped, be an opportunity to air some of our issues with the other participants.

Kenny welcomed everyone and said how wonderful it was for such a diverse group to be assembled in the same room; this reflected a new Ireland, a more tolerant and pluralist country.

He then invited the Catholic representative to speak, who thanked the taoiseach and said how wonderful it was, indeed, for us all to be gathered here together on this occasion. There followed a recitation of the same platitudes from the rest of the religious leaders.

Eventually the taoiseach turned to me and asked, “Brian, would you like to add anything from a humanist perspective?” I reiterated how good it was for all of us to meet like this and then added that, as the only representative of the non-religious community, we probably had more on our agenda than any other group.

I referred to our Equality for the Non-Religious document and said that I would like to focus on just one topic. We were amid a presidential election campaign at the time so I asked: “How embarrassing would it be for our State if in November we elected a president who declined to take up office because he/she could not in all conscience take the religious oath required by the Constitution?”

This was followed by a period of silence as I looked around the room at these eminent religious leaders pondering something which, to them, up to that moment had probably been utterly unthinkable. Then Kenny leaned over his secretary general and addressed his minister for justice. “You’d better take a note of that, Alan.”

We’re still holding our breath.

Some people wonder why I get so incensed with this. What harm does it do? Are there not more important things to worry about?

Some time ago I met with a very senior Catholic church man who told me he found it extremely offensive for non-believers to take religious oaths

Well, I believe this is important; a sizeable and ever-growing percentage of our population no longer subscribes to any religious belief – are they to be ignored?

Similarly with members of the Council of State and our judges, a religious oath is required on taking office.

Hypocrisy

At a meeting in 2007 I challenged then minister for justice Brian Lenihan on this point who replied that he knew “lots of judges” who were not in the least religious who had no difficulty taking the oath. When I pointed out how disingenuous and hypocritical this was he conceded that I had a point.

Some time ago I met with a very senior Catholic church man who told me he found it extremely offensive for non-believers to take religious oaths; he favours change.

Going home that evening I reflected on FitzGerald’s life and his ambition for a constitutional crusade. I remembered the last time I met him when he told me he was “nearly a humanist”.

It is now only four years until our next presidential election. As Ireland becomes ever more secular the chances of a non-religious citizen being elected is growing all the time.

This situation has been known for a very long time and was highlighted at the meeting on the day the queen came to Dublin 10 years ago. Is four years enough time to get our house in order or are we headed for a possible constitutional crisis?