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Column: Ireland needs to become a fully secular state

Everyone is free to practice their religion – but that shouldn’t have anything to do with how we run the country, argue Nathan Wheeler and Sean Cassidy.

Nathan Wheeler & Sean Cassidy

THE SPANISH philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In Ireland we need to remember this apt phrase. When we look through our modern history there are many areas where we can see the exertion of power by the church over the state, its politicians and its people.

The source of religious institutions power began with the drafting of the Irish Constitution in the mid-1930s when many Catholic Church groups made submissions that tried to increase the power of religious institutions. These submissions can be seen to have had a direct effect upon the final draft.

This was most apparent with the special protection afforded to the Catholic Church and a number of other denominations, though this was later removed by referendum in 1973. However the constitution still contains religious references in its preamble as well as articles covering education, the family and oaths of office that must be taken by the President, Judiciary and members of the Council of State.

When religion is given the weight of constitutional assurance this can give religious institutions an unchecked and awesome level of influence in society. If we look through our past we can see a number of events where religion has had a negative effect on society. In 1950 Catholic bishops railed against the ‘Mother & Child Scheme’ put forward by Noel Browne and saw the resignation of an innovative minister for health and the collapse of a government. In the 1990s we saw the uncovering of the physical and sexual abuse that took place in the church-run State childcare institutions since the 1930s. We can see from our past that we need to separate the influence of religion upon our politicians and our state. There is a need for a secular constitution and for a secular state in modern Ireland.

Secularism is the separation of church and state institutions. The secular movement does not require anyone or any group to justify their theological point of view. The secular argument is not with the religions of Ireland but with the State, whose responsibility it is to provide a fair and equitable country for all its citizens. Currently one of the paramount difficulties with providing a secular movement is that the only groups that actively campaign on secularism are atheist organisations.

Don’t have to be an atheist

This is a challenge for working towards a secular state because many people are confused between atheism and secularism. The problem with an atheist movement that campaigns for secularism is that it cannot facilitate dialogue with their religious counterparts, and risks turning the argument for secularism into a debate on the value of religious belief. This approach taken by atheist groups is detrimental to real engagement on the issue. You can have belief in a religion and a belief in secular values. You do not have to be an atheist to understand the value of secularism!

The concept of a completely secular state would not see the destruction or erosion of religious belief. Rather it would embody a state where its citizens are free to pursue a religious or a non-religious point of view, unimpeded by the state. The state would no longer give preferential treatment to religion, nor exempt individuals and organisations from the equal rule of law. This would rather give the space for individuals of all creeds to grow their beliefs based on their own values and not the values imposed on them by the state.

Our past is ripe with examples of the negative effect that too close a relationship between the church and the state can have on our society. We must remember this and ensure that there are limitations put on this relationship. Although there is a decline in religious belief, there is no certainty that religion will not regain its place of power in society. There is a hunger for social and cultural change in Ireland. To ensure that Irish society doesn’t suffer from relations between religion and the state ever again then the question on whether people want a secular state must be put to the ballot.

The value of secularism is best described by Mahatma Gandhi, who said:

If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern!

Nathan Wheeler and Sean Cassidy are co-founders of the DCU Secular Society. The group was founded in 2012 and campaigns for a secular constitution and a secular state in Ireland. Information on the DCU Secular Society can be found at their website or by emailing dcusass@gmail.com.

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Nathan Wheeler & Sean Cassidy

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