Atheist Ireland holds very productive AGM

Atheist Ireland held a very productive 2016 Annual General Meeting yesterday, after which we are prepared for another busy year promoting atheism, reason and ethical secularism. Pictured above is the Atheist Ireland Committee for 2017. Below are the three political reports to the AGM from Chairperson Michael Nugent, Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly, and Atheist Alliance International Secretary John Hamill.

1. Report from Chairperson Michael Nugent

Welcome to the eighth AGM of Atheist Ireland. I would like to thank all of our members, and all of our Committee members, for the hard work that you have all contributed on a voluntary basis to help make Ireland a more rational, ethical and secular place to live. When we were founded, most people would have considered the idea of an Atheist advocacy group in Ireland to be eccentric at best. In our early media appearances, we typically had to start by explaining what atheism is. Even other civil society advocacy groups did not focus on ending religious discrimination, instead arguing that the right to discriminate on the ground of religion should not be abused to discriminate on other grounds.

We have without doubt succeeded in our first important aim of normalising the use of the word Atheist in Irish society and politics.

Atheist Ireland is now part of the official state dialogue process with religious and nonreligious groups. We regularly attend and brief human rights meetings of the UN, Council of Europe and OSCE. We have a weekly email newsletter called Secular Sunday, monthly Information Tables around the country, a Kiva team that raises money for developing world entrepreneurs, and monthly Secular Sunday Brunches and public meetings around the country. These also help to normalise the idea that atheists are normal people who do constructive things.

1.1 International Lobbying

This year we have continued our international lobbying and briefing of human rights regulatory bodies, culminating in addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and the annual OSCE human rights meeting in Warsaw. We raised the need to end the Irish blasphemy law, religious discrimination in Irish schools, and the law against abortion. Back in Ireland, we had a successful outcome to our two year campaign to make the appointment procedure for third level college chaplains publicly accountable and open to lay people. The HEA has now issued new requirements to all institutions requiring them to follow public sector appointment criteria and to consider the use of lay chaplains. We will continue to monitor this.

1.2 Lobbying Alliances

We continue to work with other groups facing religious discrimination in Ireland, including through our unique alliance with the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Ireland. We work together as three groups with very different world views, who share the experience of being discriminated against, in particular in the education system. We continue to work with other secular groups, in Ireland and in other countries, on issues of shared concern. We remain part of the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion. We have supported the establishment of the new Ex-Muslims of Ireland group. We remain active in Atheist Alliance International, where our Committee member John Hamill is Secretary.

1.3 New Government

We now have a new Government. We welcome some of its policy commitments, including a referendum to remove the blasphemy clause in the constitution, and the equality proofing of new legislation with the help of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. However, there is no commitment to protecting the fundamental human rights of atheists and minority faith citizens to freedom of religion or belief, freedom from discrimination, equality before the law, and the right to an effective remedy, particularly in the education system. This is significant, because the State claims it has a constitutional obligation to buttress religious discrimination.

We continue to lobby the Irish Government to end religious discrimination in Irish schools overall, based on our Schools Equality PACT which addresses the changes needed in Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching. This is one of our priority overall campaigns. We made a submission to the consultation process, started by the new Minister for Education Richard Bruton, on his Statement of Strategy 2016- 2018. We argued that plurality of patronage cannot achieve pluralism in education, and that diversity and choice sound good as standalone words, but in practice they ensure that religious discrimination will continue. We asked him to implement the many recommendations from statutory, international and other bodies to respect equally the human rights of all families in the education system.

1.4 Freedom of Information Campaigns

Using data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, we highlighted the scandal of the State paying public money to the Catholic Church to appoint chaplains, without any proper process, to State-funded colleges and universities that are supposed to be secular institutions. Our work here led directly to a Ministerial Inquiry which is now talking place. We also produced another report based on data obtained under Freedom of Information, this time on how the Catholic Church had undue influence on the development of the State curriculum for religious education in second level schools, and the danger of that being repeated in the new State curriculum for religion, beliefs and ethics in primary schools. 

I am proud of our achievements in the eight short years since our foundation.

My fellow Committee members will outline in more detail our work during the past year in their respective areas. I would again like to thank all Atheist Ireland members for helping to make our work happen. We are all volunteers, with no salaried staff or income grants, and we depend on your membership fees and donations to enable us to continue our work. I hope that you enjoy our Annual General Meeting, and that you will come out of it re-energised for another year of promoting atheism, reason and ethical secularism.

2. Report from Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly

As Human Rights Officer in Atheist Ireland I take responsibility for implementing our education policy. I also have responsibility for making our formal written submissions to various bodies such as the UN and Council of Europe.

2.1 Human Rights/ International

This year Ireland was examined by the UN under three specific areas:

  • UN Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
  • UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • UN Universal Periodic Review.

Atheist Ireland fully engaged with all the various aspects of this process. This means that we make Submissions to the State, the leading NGO that is compiling the Shadow Report, and we make our own formal written Submission to the UN. Within those Conventions our submissions raise the issue of the Irish Education system, religious oaths, blasphemy, equality before the law, freedom of conscience, freedom from discrimination and the right to an effective remedy.

We had made a decision five years ago that the next time Ireland appeared before the UN Human Rights Council that we would be there to make an oral statement. We following this process by ensuring that we engaged at every opportunity with the UPR process and we were selected to speak. We were the first Atheist Organisation to speak at the UN Human Rights Council.

This year Atheist Ireland also attended the UN in Geneva when Ireland was examined under the ESC Rights and the Rights of the Child. We again attended the OSCE Conference in Warsaw. We were able to speak twice at the Conference and raise all the areas where Ireland is breaching human rights.

Next year Ireland is due to be examined under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against women. We have already made a Submission to the NWCI who are doing a shadow report. We will be making our own formal written submission which is due in January 2017. We also expect next year the Ireland will be examined under the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The State Report is well overdue at this stage.

2.2 Report on Religious Education under the Curriculum in Second Level Schools

This year for the first time we accessed documents under FOI in relation to the state curriculum on Religious Education. This is the first time that this has been done. We decided to do this as this is one of the main areas where we get complaints. Children from atheist and secular families as well as religious minorities are forced to take religious education in schools. This also includes ETBs (Education & Training Board Schools and Colleges). On foot of that Report we also wrote to all the Education & Training Boards throughout the country to ask them to do something about the fact that minorities were being forced to take religion in their schools and colleges.

2.3 New State Course on Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics

We have throughout the year continued to campaign on the above course. To date we have no idea how this course will be delivered in schools. We have done a lot of work on it and will continue to see how it develops.
In March this year we made another Submission to the NCCA on the proposed course which gives details of how the legal framework will not protect us from religious discrimination in schools.

2.4 New Admission to Schools Bill 2016

The new Admissions to Schools Bill proposed by the government will not remove religious discrimination in the education system. We are actively campaigning against that Bill by meeting with the Oireachtas Education Committee and by making Submissions at every opportunity. We are also pushing all our members to engage with their local TDs on this Bill.
Last December we supported the New Equal Participation in Schools Bill from Socialist Party/AAA. This Bill covers three of our areas under the Schools Equality Pact. We also campaign against Section 37 of Employment law which permits schools to discriminate against minority teachers on religious grounds.

2.5 Chaplains

The work done on Chaplaincy in Third Level Institutions was a very important area of work this year and very successful. John Hamill undertook this work and he will be reporting on it.

2.6 Government Statement of Strategy for Education

Atheist Ireland made a Submission on the consultation process, started by the new Minister for Education Richard Bruton, on his Statement of Strategy 2016- 2018. We are engaging with this process and will be making another Submission before 28th of November.

2.7 Complaints from Parents

We are still offering parents advice and help with opting out of religion in schools. We have Draft Letters on our website Teach, Don’t Preach but despite using these some parents have difficulty with opting their children out of religion in schools. Mainly this is happening at second level because of the Second Level Religious Education Course.
We give personal advice and can and do write draft letters.

2.8  Teach, Don’t Preach Website

We manage the website Teach, Don’t Preach and try and keep it up to date with various articles on the education system and the work that we do. We also now have a twitter account for Teach, don’t preach which is @schoolspact

3. Report from Atheist Alliance International Secretary John Hamill

There have been two separate parts of the Atheist Ireland activities through Atheist Alliance International this year. The first related to the AAI Gender Balance Report. It was actually Ashling O’Brien at an Atheist Ireland committee meeting, who pointed out that the AAI Census showed a strong gender imbalance and that this was something that should not be ignored. As this issue was pursued through the AAI Board, it resulted in a project involving Carlos Diaz (Argentina) and John Hamill (Ireland).

3.1 Gender Balance report

The AAI Census had returned a figured of more than 70% of atheists worldwide, who identify as male. This is consistent with polling on the same topic. The AAI Gender Balance project sought to consult the published academic literature on what the causes of this disparity are and also consult those outside of the 70% on what best to do about it. There has been a large volume of research published on this topic and you can see that summarised within the AAI Gender Balance Report. It includes biological, sociological and cultural factors. It also includes some instances of male behaviour within atheist events and discussion groups, falling below acceptable standards. From more than a hundred scientists, authors, academics, journalist, parliamentarians and activists consulted on possible solutions, there were many suggestions. As would be expected from such a diverse group, several of the suggestions were mutually contradictory. However, the report will result in several motions being brought to the forthcoming AAI AGM in order to take specific steps around gender awareness. AAI will also encourage each of its affiliate organisations to take similar steps.

Since publication, the report has generated some commentary within blogs, podcasts and other atheist media. It has also attracted some media coverage, including a discussion within a long piece in National Geographic magazine, about gender issues within atheists groups in general. Lastly, it is worth noting that Atheist Ireland already adheres to all of the recommendations made by the report and the report itself is available on the AAI web site.

3.2 United Nations

The second aspect of the Atheist Ireland activities through AAI has related to the United Nations. As an international group, AAI was able to acquire special consultative status at the UN. This allowed Michael Nugent and Jane Donnelly to become the first atheist delegation to address a session of the full United Nations Human Rights Council (previous visits to the UN have addressed the UN Human Rights Committee). In addition, the work with the UN is also closely related to the AAI Asylum Project, which seeks to help atheists and secularists escape persecution by religious extremists. For example, the cases of Raif Badawi and the Bangladeshi Bloggers have had some significant media coverage. The language used within individual national asylum processes has sometimes made matters more difficult for atheists. Their lack of any religion does not always fit neatly within terminology, which seems aimed specifically at religious minorities instead. The AAI Asylum Project is continuing to help individual cases of atheists in danger and a seven month correspondence with the UNHRC, has achieved some clarity on how the language around religion as a justification for asylum should be interpreted.

3.3 Chaplaincies

Since the foundation of the Irish State, the process of appointing publicly funded chaplains to third level institutions has remained exactly the same. The institution receives a block grant from the State. Some of this public money is then handed directly to the local Roman Catholic Bishop, who in turn appoints a priest as chaplain. Atheist Ireland has conducted a campaign against this process, on the basis that chaplaincies providing pastoral care and support to third level students and staff, should be appointed as openly and transparently as any other public job. They should not be restricted to one denomination (such as Roman Catholic) or to one gender (as Roman Catholic priests are).

This campaign started with lobbying individual members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, asking them to raise the issue at their meetings. From there it progressed through the Department of Education, the HEA and the C&AG. The investigation conducted by the HEA showed that more than €1.5M per annum was being awarded directly to the Roman Catholic Church from public funds, without tender, interview or advertisement. The outcome of the Atheist Ireland campaign is that current third level chaplains will have to re-apply for their positions. In fact, this process has already begun. Even in cases where the process has resulted in the re-appointment of the existing candidate (for example, Fr Paddy Rushe at Dundalk IT) there is now a very different contract in place. The value of the contract after the competitive process is considerably lower and the terms of the contract now oblige the chaplain to refrain from proselytising on a sectarian basis, such that all faiths and none are treated equally.

3.4 Civil Registration Service

One of the Atheist Ireland campaigns that has been ongoing for several years, relates to the Civil Registration Act. This legislation first distinguishes between religious and secular citizens and then discriminates against secularists while offering privileges to the religious. This year has seen the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster apply to enjoy the same privileges as Roman Catholic citizens. The application was rejected by the Civil Registration Service and also rejected on appeal to the Minister for Social Protection.

The reasons offered included the fact that Pastafarians are inclined to minister while wearing a colander on their head. So, civil servants in Ireland form a subjective view of the millinery used by various clerics in Ireland, then they apply different regulations to different citizens on this basis. Another reason to exclude the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster from the same benefits offered to other religions in Ireland, was that there were a number of different people in the country claiming to represent the faith. It seems to have escaped the notice of the CRS that Christianity, Islam and most other creeds, also appear to include a number of different groups who each make mutually contradictory claims to exclusive truth and authority.

There are a number of rulings from the ECHR, which make it explicit, that it is not within the competence of any public body to decide what does and does not constitute religious worship. Many of the greatest thinkers produced by humanity have tried and failed to demonstrate that one god or another, does or does not exist. As such, it has been determined that where a civil servant feels empowered to make such determinations at the stroke of a pen, this breaches the human right to the freedom of religion. This ongoing disagreement with the DoSP is currently the subject of a complaint to the IHREC.

Atheist Ireland
Atheist Ireland