Give us a state that’s not religious nor atheist, but secular
Here is an article I wrote for today’s Irish Times.
ATHEISM PROVIDES a better model of reality, and a better basis for morality, than believing in gods. Atheists can enjoy the benefits that many people get from religion, without the harmful effects. And the State should be secular, promoting neither religion nor atheism.
For clarity, an atheist does not believe in gods, and an agnostic does not know. These are very different assertions. You can believe there are no gods, yet not claim to know this, and thus be both an atheist and an agnostic.
Firstly, atheism provides a better model of reality. It typically results from rational thinking. Science gradually moves closer to the truth, while religion claims to have already found it. Science seeks evidence to prove its theories wrong; religion seeks to prove its theories right.
Science chips away at religious claims about reality, removing reasons for believing in gods. In every generation we move more mysteries from the category of “a god must have done it” to the category of “we now understand how it happens naturally”.
Scientific claims may seem counterintuitive. But these are not faith claims akin to religious beliefs. They are the outcome of applying reason to evidence through experiments, providing replicable and predictable results. And they will change if new evidence becomes available.
Secondly, atheism provides a better basis for morality. Morality evolves, and involves concern for the well-being and suffering of others. Religion distracts us from examining this by giving priority to the underdeveloped morality of bronze age tribes and by inventing consequences in an imagined afterlife.
The Biblical God displays at best arbitrary morality, at worst immorality. He wants you to love your neighbour as yourself, and stone him to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. As Jehovah, he helps one tribe to commit genocide and steal land if they obey his rules. As Jesus, he threatens to kill the children of Jezebel for their mother’s sins.
Whether you read the Bible literally or metaphorically, you intuitively identify that some of its ideas are morally good and some bad. This shows that you are applying your own natural morality to the Bible, not getting your morality from it.
Even if your preferred god is nicer than Jehovah, how arrogant is it to assert not only that a supreme being created the entire universe for your personal benefit, but also that you know how this supreme being wants everybody else to lead their lives?
Thirdly, atheists can enjoy the benefits that many people get from religion, without the harmful effects. Positive psychology shows the factors important to human well-being – positive relationships, absorption in activities, and a sense of personal meaning.
Many can get these from activities associated with religion. But we can enjoy all of these benefits even more if we disentangle them from rules of religions and from the harmful effects of believing claims about reality not supported by evidence.
Fourthly, whatever people believe about religion, the State should be run on a secular basis. Every citizen should have the right to freedom of belief, conscience and religion. To protect all of these, the State should form public policy by applying reason to evidence.
In Ireland, we need a secular Constitution relevant to today, not 1937. Our President and judges should not have to swear religious oaths. We need a secular State education system based on human rights law. We need to remove casual entanglements between church and State.
Atheist Ireland is a voluntary advocacy group that promotes atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism. Religious states promote religion. Atheist states promote atheism. We want a secular State, which promotes neither. Please join us and help make this happen.