Give us a state that’s not religious nor atheist, but secular

Here is an article I wrote for today’s Irish Times.

Give us a state that’s not religious nor atheist, but secular

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.


Michael Nugent


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    Nick Johnson October 20, 2010

    Argh. In the second paragraph, you conflate lack of belief in something with belief in its absense. Which is a major point of contention when trying to convince someone that atheism is not a position of belief.

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    bipedalhumanoid October 20, 2010

    A lack of belief is a position of belief.

    In any case, I think you make the mistake of assuming that ” an atheist does not believe in gods” means belief in the absence. It does not.

    Saying ‘I don’t believe in any gods’ holds exactly the same meaning as ‘I lack a belief in any gods’.

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    Michael Nugent October 20, 2010

    Nick, my main purpose in that paragraph was to describe the relationship between atheism and agnosticism, rather than analyse the different interpretations of atheism, so I used both phrases (does not believe in gods and believe there are no gods) as both are valid descriptions of atheism.

    Personally, I don’t try to convince people that atheism is not a position of belief. I appreciate that some atheists do, usually (as you suggest in your comment) for the purpose of debating with theists. I prefer to argue that some beliefs are much more reliable than others, because they are much more consistent with the available evidence.

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    Stonyground October 20, 2010

    “Religious states promote religion. Atheist states promote atheism. We want a secular state that promotes neither. Please join us and help make this happen.”

    This is a wonderfully concise statement of the secularist position. I don’t know how many times I have heard that the secularists want to ban religion or are denying Christians their basic rights. The only rights that Christians are being denied are their rights to be bigoted morons. They have every right to their beliefs, no matter how absurd, but they are not allowed to infringe other people’s rights because of those beliefs. I rather think that they don’t get it, not because they are too stupid to get it, but that they don’t want to get it. They would rather be seen as stupid than get it and have to give up their bigotry.

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    Dick Cremins October 25, 2010

    I sent this letter to The Editor, The Irish Times, but it seems she is unlikely to publish it

    Dear Madam,
    I am glad to find common ground with the Chairman of Atheist Ireland. I too do not believe in the gods he writes so well about in Tuesday’s Irish Times. When it comes to God, there is no apodictic proof of her or his existence, so we have to rely on faith to bridge the gap between wondering and belief or unbelief. We need to be sure that our conclusion does not conflict with reason or science. Both believers and unbelievers seem to have no difficulty on this point. The only question remaining for atheists is why there is something instead of nothing. Maybe Mr. Nugent can provide the answer.
    Yours faithfully,

    Dick Cremins, S.J.
    Cherryfield Lodge,
    Dublin 6.

    Tel.: 01 498 5813 (dir); 5800 (C’field)

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    nozzferrahhtoo October 26, 2010

    I am not sure what kind of answer you expect to that Dick, as the question seems to assume much in the way of defaults which we currently have no data about on which to make such assumptions.

    For example, turn your question around. What makes you think “nothing” is the default state and hence that “something” needs to be explained? Given our current level of knowledge the question “Why would there be nothing instead of something?” is exactly as valid as your own.

    Weed out the assumptions in your question and I think you will find it becomes a non-question that we simply can not ask with any validity at this time and stage in our knowledge.

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    Michael Nugent October 27, 2010

    Dick, that is a question for everybody, not for atheists. Adding a god into the equation simply pushes the question back a stage to why is there a god instead of nothing.

    The short answer to why there is something instead of nothing (or, as Nozz puts it, why would there be nothing instead of something) is that we don’t know, and we may or may not know in the future.

    In my opinion, if we do find out, quantum physics seems the most likely current source of finding out. Or maybe we will never find out, but a future species that evolves from us may have the capacity to find out.

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    Dick Cremins November 01, 2010

    Michael Nugent and Nozzeferrahhtoo,
    I reply to both of you together because you both come to the same conclusion: we don’t know the answer. We are atheist or theist as a result of a leap of faith. Your inability account for being rather than non-being should lead you to wonder whether you have jumped in the right direction. Instead Nozze denies the reality of my question and Michael avoids it. But it won’t go away for that.
    True, it is a question for everybody. It is a metaphysical or philosophical problem and cannot be answered by quantum physics or any other branch of Science, which only discovers facts and the causal relations between them, but cannot tell us how they got there or remain in existence.
    The default position (if the term has any meaning in this context), as the theist sees it, is God as Necessary Being, with other beings non-existent. Then, after He/She creates them we have contingent Beings, which exist but need not exist. The mind finds rest in the God hypothesis, when it posits a Necessary Being whose nature it is to be and who explains all other beings.
    You seem content to say we do not know and may never know. I do not find this uncertainty a good foundation for our personal or social life. What is the basis for assertions about virtue or truth, if there is no ultimate Truth and Goodness against which to measure them? You are prepared to live with this uncertainty, which means you may be in error. I find that belief in God gives me assurance that I am guided by truth, in spite of life’s uncertainties. It should be noted that God is not just an idea, but a reality who can be experienced.
    Of course, you may be put off by the behaviour of some believers…. but that is a different problem. So am I, as well as by some atheists. Bad people may have right ideas while the good, like yourselves, may sometimes be wrong.

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    Brian November 02, 2010

    Give us a state that’s not religious nor atheist, but secular….. U.S.S.R. Wait that’s dead. Tried and failed! Utopia you are seeking is but a dream!

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    nozzferrahhtoo November 02, 2010

    No I am afraid I not aware of believing anything on faith. I merely operate on what evidence I have available and there is literally zero evidence available to me at this time to grant even a modicum of credence to the notion that there is a god. I merely therefore proceed without the notion in formulating my choices, opinions and politics.

    Again however you need to weed out your assumptions. You say we need to account for being rather than non-being but I again ask you why this is any more valid than me asking why you feel non-being is the default state and being is the thing requiring explaining. I repeat, if you need to ask why is there something rather than nothing, then what wholesale assumptions are leading you to think that why there would be nothing rather than something does not also require clarification.

    However it is telling that when I ask you to justify your assumption in this regard you hide from that and merely accuse me of denying the reality of your question. Smoke and mirrors. Pointing out that your question is build on a massive foundation of assumption is a perfectly valid thing to do.

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    Dick Cremins November 05, 2010

    Dear Nozzferrahhtoo
    What are these “wholesale assumptions” which you say I make? Please spell them out.
    You believe in no-god, in the non-existence of God, just as I believe in his/her existence. There is no apodictic proof for either of these beliefs. Therefore they are equally based on faith, which is a strong belief based on conviction rather than on proof. I hope we agree on this point. Otherwise, on what do we agree? To know this is necessary in order to find where we begin to disagree.
    We can test these positions against the question why there is something rather than nothing. I do not find it helpful to talk about the default position, which is hypothetical. I know what the actual position is, that we are surrounded by contingent beings whose existence needs to be explained. I find that the hypothesis that they are created by God who is Necessary Being satisfies my mind.
    You can’t offer an answer to this question and are happy to live in uncertainty, with the possibility that you may be wrong. I would not find this very satisfactory.
    May I ask whether Nozzferrahhtoo is your real name or a pseudonym. I would not be very happy to discuss serious matters with someone wearing a mask.
    Best wishes.

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    dmarks November 07, 2010

    brian: Atheism was the official faith of the USSR. It has also usually been the main faith of socialism, and as such been an important part of most of the very worst cases of mass slaughter and oppression in history.

    It’s part of the ideology of Marx, alongside and related to Marx’s antisemitism (Marx sought to bring about a ‘world without Jews”; which is pretty easy when the state enforces atheism.)

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    dmarks November 07, 2010

    Dick said:

    “I would not be very happy to discuss serious matters with someone wearing a mask”

    Respectfully, I submit to you that you are diverting attention from discussing actual issues. The issues and opinions being discussed are the same regardless of whether or not someone is wearing a mask, has green skin, or three arms.

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    bipedalhumanoid November 08, 2010


    “You believe in no-god, in the non-existence of God”

    Presumably you don’t believe in faeries, elves and Thor. Is your absence of belief in these things a faith position too?

    What you’re doing is inventing an easier position than that presented and refuting it. What does that say about your postion if you have to resort to straw mannery to defend it?

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    Dick Cremins November 08, 2010

    Can you specify the actual issues from which I am diverting attention?
    Of course the issues remain the same regardless of whether or not someone is wearing a mask. But to do so in a serious discussion is discourteous and suggests a lack of moral courage, which is why I am unhappy.
    “Is your absence of belief in faeries, etc. a faith position too?”. Yes, understanding faith according to my definition which has not been challenged: faith is “a strong belief based on conviction rather than on proof.” But this belief does not raise any questions which cannot be answered, unlike your faith in a non-God.
    “What you’re doing is inventing an easier position than that presented and refuting it.” No, I am inventing nothing, but I have described two actual positions, atheism and theism, and have shown that the former is incapable of satisfying the mind on a fundamental question and condemns those who hold it to uncertainty and to the possibility of living in error.

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    bipedalhumanoid November 16, 2010

    “a strong belief based on conviction rather than on proof”

    That too is my understanding of ‘faith’. I however would word it this way “an irrational belief held in the absence of evidence”.

    What you fail to comprehend is that it is possible to not hold a belief in the existence of something and at the same time not hold a belief in its lack of existence.

    You, for instance, did not hold a belief in the existence or on-existence of the stackyboojoo man before you read this. You had never heard of the proposition so how could you possibly believe in its existence or non-existence? And yet, it is perfectly reasonable to say that, before you had ever come across the term ‘stackyboojoo man’ that you did not believe in the stackyboojoo man.

    So you see, your claim that you must either believe in the existence of something or believe in the non-existence of something falls to pieces. This insistence is nothing but a strawman.

    Personally, my position is that I have not seen any evidence to warrant belief in any particular god or the supernatural in general. I believe that blief without evidence is irrational. Like all rational people, I will not claim to know for sure if a god exists or not but I have NO reason to believe that any do exist.

    Furthermore, anyone who has ever attempted to convince me of otherwise has had to resort ot fallacious arguments like yours.

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    Lu November 16, 2010

    Hmmm.. I think a secular society is idealistic because there will always be people like Dick. By nature religions compel their followers to preach at those who don’t share their views- they aim to convert or save or even kill those who don’t believe. Secular society is a nice dream where everyone tolerates each others’ differences – I think evolution has to help us get there. Going by what Dick has to say it’ll b a while yet. I’m glad attributing what has yet to be explained by science to a necessary being or whatever puts his mind at rest but he still feels so righteous about it that he has to try and argue with those who have already quite clearly shown (it’s an atheist forum) that they do not share his belief or understand his need for faith. This faith motivated behaviour is the downfall of a secular society.

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    bipedalhumanoid November 20, 2010

    Lu said…
    “Secular society is a nice dream where everyone tolerates each others’ differences”

    Secular society has nothing to do with who tollerates what. It has to do with the state being indifferent to religion. The USA is an example of a secular state and yet religion thrives in that country. Why? Because secularism guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Secularism is the reason that one dominant religion hasn’t taken a foothold and managed to prevent others from rising.

    Secularism certainly does not prevent an individual from using his freedom of speech express a lack of tollerance for other religions or those who lack a religion.

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    Lu November 20, 2010

    Oh well maybe I don’t get it then, sorry obviously I’m not enlightened enough for this discussion. My experience of human beings so far? George Bush scares the **** out of me but I’m glad that secular government is world superpower where creationism is or was taught in schools.. I’m just an atheist I guess, I’m not into secularism. I’m not “militant” I’m tolerant- but I don’t like religion being taught in schools or people preaching on tv or adverts on the train and bus stops. I don’t mind people believing what they want but I think the public should be protected from religious campaigns and stick to science- i have to say that I don’t no what kind of society I’d like but the USA doesn’t do it for me and what’s the point of a secular goverment anyway if fundementalists are entitled to blast their views everywhere and target people through insidious bullying etc. Obviously there’s a higher plane of thought and ideas that I haven’t the intellect for- I’m well aware of my inferiority complex and it’s blatent here! Good on ya and I hope I’m missing something in a big way.

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    bipedalhumanoid November 21, 2010

    “Good on ya and I hope I’m missing something in a big way”

    yep I think you are. What you’re missing is that in the USA, from time to time, the fundies manage to do things that are unconstitutional. They need organisations such as the freedom from religion foundation to put them back in their places.

    In a non-secular society such as Ireland, the FFRF would have no power because it is not unconsitutional for the state to favour a religion. That’s why 95% of our schools are operated under a catholic ethos and funded by the state

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    Lu November 21, 2010

    My point is that I agree with freedom from religion but I don’t agree with allowing religious groups the same freedom to promote religion. I don’t think religion should be anywhere outside of churches(synagogues, mosques and temples etc.) and peoples own homes. I don’t like having people knock on my door, sticking up posters in public places and broadcast on tv like they actually have a real tangible product. I don’t think people should have the right to do that, I actually feel that faith is dangerous and like racism and sexism it is unfounded and not scientiically backed and it can motivate people to do and say things that hurt others. Freedom from religion means something different me.i think secularism is better than a religion influenced state but I would have to say that I’m an atheist and not a secularist and I’d prefer real freedom from religion.

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    bipedalhumanoid November 21, 2010

    Ah so you want to persecute the religious as a means by which to eradicate religion. That’s like trying to put out a fire with petrol. The religious love moaning about being persecuted. They think gay people having rights is a form of persecution against them. Persecution complex binds religions and makes them strong. That’s how you get hard core fundies willing to do crazy things for their religion.

    Good luck building your fascio-atheist state. It’s not a place I’d like to live.

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    dmarks November 21, 2010

    “So you see, your claim that you must either believe in the existence of something or believe in the non-existence of something falls to pieces. This insistence is nothing but a strawman.”

    True, but a large number of Atheists do make a positive assertion of a Godless universe. They don’t doubt. They don’t lack belief. They actively assert their faith.

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    bipedalhumanoid November 23, 2010

    “True, but a large number of Atheists do make a positive assertion of a Godless universe. They don’t doubt. They don’t lack belief. They actively assert their faith.”

    I can’t think of many. I know of two people in Atheist Ireland who did at one point. Not sure if they still do. I’ve yet to find a single you tube atheist who does and can’t think of a single prominent, well known atheist who does.

    Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris all make it clear that you can’t know anything with 100% certainty despite being constantly misrepresented by the world’s “religious affairs correspondents” to believe otherwise.

    The argument that ‘atheist have faith too’ has no merit. It’s nothing but a strawman.

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    Dick Cremins November 23, 2010

    Re bipedalhumanoid:
    In spite of my reluctance to deal with someone whole hides behind a pseudonym, I must defend myself against bipedalhumanoid’s allegation that I said “that you must either believe in the existence of something or believe in the non-existence of something”. I nowhere said this. So, it is his (her?) convoluted argument that turns out to be a strawman.
    Dick Cremins

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    Adam McGrath November 23, 2010

    Aaaaaand to get back to the point, how do we go about amending the constitution to make it neutral on matters of religion? My memory on constitutional law is vague but I think it can be brought about by a petition of x number of signatures or be introduced as a bill into the Dail – is either avenue being explored? Is there a draft of proposed changes to the wording of certain sections of the constitution?

    Given that we’re all likely to be doorstepped to death by local notables looking for our vote in the coming months, we should be ready to bring it up with them. The next step in the campaign is to try to make this an election issue – not that it’ll have any immediate effect, but it’ll raise the profile.

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    bipedalhumanoid November 23, 2010


    Ad hominem fallacy is always extra harsh when worded in the tone of a Bond villain.

    “that you must either believe in the existence of something or believe in the non-existence of something”

    I didn’t say those were your exact words Dick. These were your exact words Dick…

    “You believe in no-god, in the non-existence of God”

    “But this belief does not raise any questions which cannot be answered, unlike your faith in a non-God.”

    It’s your assumption that I must have faith in order to lack belief in your god that I am challenging here and you’ve failed to address any of my points.

    Hang on let me try… I do despise a time waster. =D

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    Tooooooooooooooooman April 28, 2011

    MICHAEL NUGENT, seriously, I can understand this kind of thing in America, because of all the creationist nuts, but seriously, IRELAND!?! You say that we are forcing the Catholic faith on others with the angelus, but yet I know a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist and a Protestant in my school, and NONE of them have any problems with the angelus in the media. Atheism propaganda isn’t the same thing. Is there ANYTHING in the angelus that would provoke people in a negative way? If there is, that person has serious issues, because HOW could a church bell provoke a negative response? Also, couldn’t you just change to another channel, instead of whining? Ever heard of “If you can’t take the heat, get the HELL out of the kitchen”?
    Here is the last paragraph of the article : “RTÉ also pointed out that support for the continuation of the broadcast tradition has been expressed by the secretary of the Clonskeagh Mosque in Dublin, by the outgoing Chief Rabbi and by the Church of Ireland broadcast committee”
    I mean, come on, it’s only you and your atheistic supporters that’s making a big deal about this. Also, do you not think that the Catholic Vibe of the Republic of Ireland is unique, for a country with no state religion? Also, did we ever persecute other religions in the history of our Republic? Not that I know of, unless you count school-bullying or discrimination in poorer areas, which is universal of all places, secular or not.

    Also, I agree that maybe that MOST secondary schools should be secular, I think that faith schools should still exist in primary school level. Maybe the Catholic Church should give around 5% of it’s school, just to make it represent the population of catholics, but beyond that, I think the way we are in religious terms is good. Also, do you not know how easy it is to run the education here, considering the Catholic Church runs 92% of all schools?

    As for religion in itself: To quote Adam Savage (An American Atheist that co-hosts the show “Mythbusters”, one of my all time favourites!) “I object your reality and Substitute my own”. In my reality, God exists in my life. To you, it’s fiction. To me, the belief of no God is fiction. To you, it’s reality. Religion and Science are two totally separate fields in which to study the world, and you can’t (or shouldn’t) expect one field to give you all the answers to life. The Christian Bible gives a moral guide to living life, and how to develop yourself spiritually, Science is about studying things that can be measured, weighted,documented or recorded in one way or another. It is impossible to be about to record everything. You can’t record a lot of simple things: That voice in your head that guides you decisions, love, Morals, Thinking and reflecting life, and many other things.

    This talk of atheism VS Catholicism is getting us nowhere. It’s no going to help us get out of the recession. It didn’t cause it either. We both want to do the best for our country. So, why don’t we just leave our differences and focus on the common good?