Irish State must respect the rights of atheists to freedom of belief and association

Despite the recent positive statement by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about respecting freedom of religion and association, when talking about Scientology, the Irish State purports to legally decide what is and is not a religious group and who may be members of a religion.

For example, a recent decision on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty, ruled that no member of Atheist Ireland may be recognised as a member of a religious body. This issue was discussed at the recent AGM of Atheist Ireland in Galway, and it will be part of our programme of work for this year.

The ruling was made after the Pastafarian Church applied to be registered as marriage solemnisers. The Civil Registration Service refused, and the Pastafarians appealed to the Minister. But the response to the appeal, issued on behalf of the Minister, went beyond subjective opinions about Pastafarianism.

The Irish State has now made the arbitrary and wide-ranging claim that a member of Atheist Ireland cannot be a member of a religious body. This runs counter to the well-established fact that mainstream religions, including Buddhism and Judaism, have members who are atheists.

Ruling from the Department of Social Protection on the recognition of religious bodies

Ruling from the Department of Social Protection on the recognition of religious bodies

What is a religion?

It is, of course, difficult  to define legally what a religion is. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has recently made some comments in this regard, upon being asked about Scientology in Ireland:

“I know there is a genuine concern about the fact or the possibility that it could be a cult. At the same time I think we always have to balance freedom of religion or freedom of association on the one hand with protecting people from being exploited, and that is always a challenge.”

“I read stuff like you do, I don’t know enough about the Church of Scientology to know whether or to what extent the allegations made against them would require government intervention of some sort.”

“I would be loath to go down that route of starting to interfere with religious groups or restrict people’s freedom of association in any way.”

Atheist Ireland will be raising, with the Taoiseach and the Minister, the inconsistency between this statement about freedom of association and the arbitrary treatment of members of Atheist Ireland.

Discrimination in the Civil Registration Act

Under the terms of the Civil Registration Act 2004, the Civil Registration Service retains a list of the religious bodies in Ireland.

Atheist Ireland has been campaigning against the Civil Registration Act for many years, as it overtly breaches the human right to the Freedom of Religion and Belief that the Taoiseach has recently been so careful not to tread upon. The practical application of this legislation means that the Civil Registration Service in Roscommon, decide what is a religious body and what is not.

If this group of civil servants (Civil Registration Service) decides that your group does not qualify as a religion, then a much more onerous set of restrictions will apply to you with respect to the solemnisation of weddings, than would be the case for religious citizens. Section 45 of the Act defines a religious body as follows:

“religious body” means an organised group of people members of which meet regularly for common religious worship.

This is such a vague definition that largely arbitrary decisions have been made for some time now, with the Civil Registration Service simply inventing new criteria. For example, in Ireland, it can be determined that you cannot be a member of a religious body, if the Civil Registration Service does not like your hat.

International human rights law

The Council of Europe Handbook on Freedom of Religion and Belief under Article 9 of the European Convention states that:-

“26. Accordingly, as a general rule, the domestic authorities are not justified in casting doubt on the sincerity of the beliefs which an individual claims to hold without supporting their position with solid, cogent evidence. “

The United Nations Human Rights Committee in their General Comment Number 22 on Article 18 (Freedom of religion and belief) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have stated that:-

“2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community.”

What is a religion and what is a cult?

The definition of a religion has been a subject of controversy in many countries on many occasions, and frequently the conclusions can change over time. In its early days, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) was often called a cult.

Today, Mormonism is more likely to be accepted as a mainstream religion. In fact, it could be said that the same transformation has taken place with almost all mainstream religions. For example, there was a time when even Christianity would most often have been viewed as a small Jewish cult.

Atheists have the right to freedom of religion or belief

While the Taoiseach is correct to be careful about abusing the human right to the Freedom of Religion and Belief, this right applies to all citizens and not just those who may be at risk of being abused by a cult. For example, the members of Atheist Ireland also have the right to the Freedom of Religion and Belief.

There are many atheist religions in the world. It is not difficult to find Buddhist or Jain scholars who will explain that those religions are atheist. In fact, the Dublin Buddhist Centre, already recognised as a religious body by the Civil Registration Service, has defined Buddhism on their web site by including the statement that:

“Buddhism does not include the idea of worshipping a creator God”

The members of Atheist Ireland are just as entitled to have their Freedom of Religion and Belief respected as the members of Scientology or any other group. Atheist Ireland will be writing to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Social Protection, asking why this right is being explicitly withheld from citizens who happen to be members of Atheist Ireland.

The Civil Registration Act does not give to the Minister the power to prohibit the members of some organisations from forming a religious body (and in any event, there would be no good reason to include members of Atheist Ireland on such a list). There is nothing at all incompatible about being both a member of Atheist Ireland and a member of a religious body.

John Hamill
Promote Secularism in Ireland
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