Secular Sunday #494 – The right to freedom of thought

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The right to freedom of thought


This week Atheist Ireland made a submission about freedom of thought to Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Mr Shaheed had called for inputs to a report he is compiling for the UN General Assembly on the topic.

We highlighted the difference between internal freedom of thought, which is inviolable, and the external expression of those thoughts, which can be limited by the need to respect the rights of other people.

We addressed such issues as the right to not reveal your thoughts, the right to not be penalised for your thoughts, and the right to seek and receive information that can inform the development of your thoughts.

We described how the Irish State infringes on the right to freedom of thought, particularly through religious oaths for high public office, and by delegating the running of schools to religious bodies that are allowed to run the schools in accordance with their religious ethos.

Atheist Ireland campaigns for a secular State based on human rights principles. We are a voluntary body and we depend on our members to continue our work. Please join Atheist Ireland as a member and help us to advance our aims.

– Secular Sunday Editorial Team

Éire Aindiach

Éire Aindiach


Chun ár gcuid feachtais a leathnú agus a neartú, tá sé beartaithe ag Éire Aindiach níos mó úsáid a bhaint as an Ghaeilge.
Ba mhaith linn meitheal a eagrú, chun cuidiú le:
  • Polasaithe agus feachtais Éire Aindiach a phlé ar an raidió nó ar an teilifís
  • Cuidiú le doiciméid ghaeilge a scríobh
  • Bualadh le polaiteoirí chun stocaireacht a dhéanamh
Táimid i mbun aistriúcháin a dhéanamh ar dhoiciméid polasaí faoi láthair, agus teastaíonn cabhair uainn le aistriúchán agus profáil.  Más maith leat bheith páirteach san iarracht seo, cur ríomhphost chugainn ag
English translation:

To broaden and strengthen our campaigns, Atheist Ireland have undertaken to make more use of the Irish language.
We are looking to assemble a group of volunteers, to help with:

  • Discussing our policies and campaigns on radio or tv
  • Helping to write documents in Irish
  • Meeting with politicians to lobby them
We are in the process of translating policy documents at the moment, and we need some help with translating and proofreading.  If you would like to assist with this effort, please email us at

Atheist Ireland News


How the State uses misleading language to hide the purpose of religious ethos in schools


The Minister for Education, Norma Foley and the Department of Education are trying to control the language around Relationship and Sexuality Education in order to hide the influence that a catholic ethos has on the teaching of the subject.
The Minister and the Department use the words  ‘treated’ and ‘hear’ when they are questioned regarding the impact of a religious ethos on the teaching of RSE in schools. They say that ‘ethos’ may well have an impact on how the syllabus is ‘treated’ and on what student ‘hear’ in RSE.
The impression given by the use of these words doesn’t actually convey how syllabus Relationship and Sexuality Education is taught.
The purpose of a religious ethos is to influence children into a Catholic understanding of the world. If RSE is taught through a Catholic ethos, then the purpose is to evangelise (or as the Catholic Church has said, to pre-evangelise) all students into a catholic understanding of the world in relation to social and moral education.
The religous ethos of schools is legally protected under the Education Act, Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act.
Constitutional right to moral and social education
All students have a Constitutional right to a basic moral and social education under Article 42.3.2. They also have a right to objective RSE under Article 11 of the European Social Charter. Relationship and sexuality education are part of SPHE, Social, Personal and Health education. The State has a Constitutional duty to provide it.
Section 9 (d) of the Education Act 1998 obliges Boards of Management to consult with parents in relation to the moral and social education of their children, but that section of the Act goes on to say that the Board must have regard to ethos of the school. Section 15 – 2 (b) of the Education Act obliges the Board of Management to uphold the ethos of the school, and Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act means teachers can be fired if they refuse to uphold the ethos of the school.
No matter what parents and students require in relation to social and moral education  on the basis of conscience, it can be refused by private patron bodies in order to uphold the religous ethos of schools.
Parents may have rights under the Constitution, but successive governments have handed control of those rights to private patron bodies, mostly religious, to implement according to their mission and educational philosophy. Despite this, the Constitutional duty lies with the Minister to provide social and moral education, while respecting the philosophical convictions of parents in relation to the education of their children.
In the Burke case at the Court of Appeal in March this year it was stated that:

“191. This Court considers that the case law demonstrates that the relationship between parents, the State and the child as envisaged by Article 40, 41 and 42, is a trifecta not just of the participants but of the rules under which constitutional engagement on education must take place; namely rights, duties and powers. It is only through understanding the interwoven nature of those relationships, that clarity can be brought to the complex constitutional provisions on education.”

The Court of Appeal has linked the Constitutional right to moral and social education with the balance of provisions set out in Article 42 of the Constitution. Article 42 obliges the State to respect the philosophical convictions of parents.
Our chldren should not be denied their right to moral and social education because of the philosophical convictions of their parents. Many Catholic parents and and those from religous minorities would have the same issue. It is Catholic moral and social education or no moral and social education at all.
Parents are left trying to negotiate with the school to opt their children out of aspects of their education that they have a Constitutional right to. The State ‘provides for’ the education of our children in schools with a Catholic ethos. Even some ETBs operate with a catholic ethos.
The Constitution does not envisage minorities suspending their constitutional rights because they have no choice but to send their children to their nearest publicly funded school, when they are legally obliged to do so.
The Court of Appeal said in the recent Burke Case that: Read more…


Atheist Freethinkers of Montreal defend Bill 21, Quebec’s recent secularism law

Atheist Freethinkers/Libres Penseurs Athées of Montreal today made an online presentation in support of Bill 21, a recent law that promotes separation of Church and State in Quebec, which is facing ongoing legal challenges.
The law was passed in June 2019, entitled ‘An Act respecting the laicity of the State.’ It defines laicity as a neutral religious stance, keeping state and religious affairs apart, as well as promoting equality and freedom of conscience and religion among citizens.
Bill 21 prevents new employees among public workers in positions of coercive authority (such as police officers, judges, and teachers) from wearing religious symbols while representing the State.
Some existing public workers are exempted from the law, as long as they continue to hold the same job, at the same institution.
The law also requires people to uncover their faces to receive a public service for identification or security purposes, unless their face is covered for medical reasons or as part of their job.
Presentation by David Rand
David Rand, President of Atheist Freethinkers/Libres Penseurs Athées of Montreal, today made an online presentation in support of the Bill. The following is based on notes of the presentation. The full video will be online later.
Quebec Bill 21 is a secularism law, which does very little, but which has been strongly opposed.
By secularism I mean equality of treatment for all, freedom of conscience, strong religious neutrality of the State, and separation between religions and the State.
Strong neutrality means neutrality between various belief systems including non-belief. Weak neutrality is between religions but excludes atheists.
There are three layers of space: private space, public space, and civic space. Secularism applies mostly in the civic space.
Why should civil servants and teachers not wear religions symbols while representing the State? It is incompatible with State neutrality. It is incompatible with separation of religion and State.
In 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada stopped prayer at Saguenay City Council. It constitutes religious privilege, advertising, and passive proselytising.
Banning religious symbols is not discriminatory. t is about behaviour, not identity. It is like laws banning smoking, or speed limits.
The rights of some end where others’ rights begin. Freedom of thought may be absolute, but freedom to practice is limited. Wearing a symbol is a practice, not a belief.
Bill 21
Bill 21 was adopted in 2019 the French Canadian province of Quebec. Soon after, a crucifix was removed from the National Assembly.
The Bill has several strengths. It includes a definition in the Quebec Charter. It bans civil servants from displaying religious symbols, and it has a wide ban on face coverings.
The Bill also has weaknesses. It applies only to part of the civil service. It has a grandfather clause. It does not affect fiscal advantages for religions. It does not end the Ethics and Religious Culture programme in schools, though the Government has since said it will reform this.
Bill 21 is not extreme. There are stronger religious symbol bans in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany. Face covering bans in numerous European and African countries, including some Muslim majority countries.
Civil servants removing religious symbols is professionally ethical. The Quebec Public Service Act already bans partisan political symbols and behaviour for civil servants. No religious practice is truly an obligation.
The main legitimate argument against the Bill is that it limits freedom of religious expression for civil servants and teachers. This is true, but it does not affect belief. We must limit freedom of expression of State employees to protect service users and students. We must find an equilibrium between conflicting rights.
Read more…


Understanding the Right to Freedom of Thought – Atheist Ireland input to United Nations Report

Atheist Ireland has made the following submission about Freedom of Thought to Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Mr Shaheed had called for inputs to a report he is compiling for the UN General Assembly on the topic.
1. Internal — Freedom of Thought
2. External — Manifestation of Thought
3. Conflict of Rights when Manifesting Thought
4. Analysis of the Situation in Practice
4.1 The Right to Freedom of Thought
4.2 The Right to Not Reveal Your Thoughts
4.3 The Right to Not Be Penalised for Your Thoughts
4.4 The Right to Receive Information
4.5 The Right to Nonreligious Philosophical Convictions
4.6 The Situation in Ireland
4.7 The Irish Education System
1. Internal — Freedom of Thought
Freedom of opinion and belief are particular examples of freedom of thought. A thought is any idea that occurs in your mind. Two examples of thoughts are:

  • An opinion, which is a view or judgment about something, and
  • A belief, which is an acceptance that something is true or corresponds with reality.

In human rights terms, the words “religion and belief” refer to two subsets of all beliefs — religious beliefs and nonreligious philosophical convictions about life that amount to a coherent worldview and can shape a person’s conscience.

2. External — Manifestation of Thought
Freedom of expression, speech, behaviour, culture, and association are particular examples of the manifestation of freedom of thought.

  • You have the choice to keep your thoughts private or to manifest them by making them clear to others.
  • You can choose to manifest your thoughts by expressing them. This can include speech, behaviour, culture, and association.

Choosing whether or how to manifest your thoughts also has a correlation with freedom of conscience.

3. Conflict of Rights when Manifesting Thought

  • Each person’s internal Freedom of Thought is inviolable.
  • Each person’s external Manifestation of Thought is limited by the requirement to not violate the rights of others.

This can create conflicts of rights when different people manifest their thoughts through expression, speech, behaviour, culture, or association. The conflict can be made more difficult when the manifestation of thoughts contravene a person’s conscience.

4. Analysis of the Situation in Practice
4.1 The Right to Freedom of Thought
The right to Freedom of Thought is part of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is an absolute right which cannot be interfered with in any circumstances.
4.2 The Right to Not Reveal Your Thoughts
Many States do not recognise the right to not reveal your thoughts, particularly when it comes to religious beliefs or nonreligious philosophical convictions.
This includes the right to not be forced to behave publicly in a manner that others can infer, even indirectly, what your religious beliefs or nonreligious philosophical convictions are.

  • This can happen where the State forces people to take religious oaths, or to publicly choose between taking a religious oath and a secular declaration, in order to take up public office or in any interaction with the State.
  • It can happen where the State is carrying out its obligation to provide education by delegating the running of schools to religious bodies that are allowed to run the schools in accordance with their religious ethos.
  • It can happen where technological advances enable the State and/or private corporations to indirectly monitor people’s thoughts, by tracking their online behaviour including their social media and web browsing history (as well as more directly through monitoring their online search history, where most people would have an expectation of privacy).
  • It may happen on a more serious level in the future, as further technological advances may enable neuroscience to decode what you are thinking from your brain activity.

It is important that the right to not reveal your thoughts is protected under the right to freedom of thought, which is absolute, and not merely under the right to privacy, which has to be balanced against other rights. Read more…

Calling concerned teachers

If you are a teacher and concerned about unwanted religious influence contact Chris at

List of Atheist Ireland Submissions

Buy this book “Is My Family Odd About Gods?”

**Schools Special Offer**

As Covid continues and schools start back online, Atheist Ireland are offering the book ‘Is my family odd about godsfree (excluding postage and packaging).  This means that you can get this book for the total price of 10 euro. This offer is aimed at families with school going children, who would like to read this book during their online school term. This offer is limited to one book per family unit and for postage within Ireland only. Read more…

Have you noticed that your school and your teachers may tell you one thing about religion, while some of your friends and family may have different ideas about god?
If you think that this is a little odd, then this book is for you. Buy this book here.

Lessons about Atheism

Atheist Ireland has published a set of free lesson plans about atheism for children aged 8 and up. We welcome feedback, which we will use to develop the lessons. You can download the lesson plans here

Be Good without Gods

Atheist Ireland ‘Good Without Gods’ Kiva team members have made loans of  $32,625 to 1133 entrepreneurs in the developing world. You can join the team here. Before you chose a loan, make sure you do not support religious groups. You can check the loan partner’s social and secular rating here.

Atheist Ireland’s ‘‘ is a place where people can publicly renounce the religion of their childhood. Currently there are 1844 symbolic defections. Many share their reasons for making a public symbolic defection which you can read here

Petition on Schools Equality PACT 

Atheist Ireland currently runs one petition – The Schools Equality PACT. This seeks to reform religious discrimination in state-funded schools. Currently this stands at 4,056 Help us reach it’s target of 5000. Please sign and share this petition if you haven’t already done so. Thank you.

Tell us what you think

Have you any feedback that you would like to give us on the Secular Sunday newsletter. What are we getting right? What could we improve on? Is there something you would like to see included? Drop us an email at

Please consider joining or re-joining Atheist Ireland

Atheist Ireland is an entirely volunteer run organisation. We receive no grants or government funding to continue our campaign work. We rely entirely on membership fess and donations.

Annual membership is nominal; €25 waged, €10 unwaged/student and €40 for family membership. Please consider becoming a member. Membership means:

  • You can help to build an ethical and secular Ireland.
  • You have a say in determining policy and electing officers.
  • You can attend members meetings and our AGM.
  • You will have access to our members only Facebook group
  • Your membership fee will go towards supporting our many campaigns.

You can join Atheist Ireland here.

Thank you for your continued support

Atheist Ireland Committee


Opinion and Media

Material on atheism, secularism, human rights,politics,science etc. collected from media and the blogosphere from Ireland and beyond; used without permission, compensation, liability, guarantee or implied endorsement. We aim to include a variety of diverse opinions and viewpoints.


Blogs & Opinions



Mother and baby homes inquiry falls short of the mark


By Diarmaid Ferriter


“The official record can tell us what happened, but rarely what it felt like.” These were the words used by archivist Catríona Crowe 21 years ago when exploring the popularity of memoirs of Irish childhoods blighted by abuse and institutionalisation. Her comments came after a flood of revelations in the 1990s about the underbelly of Ireland in the decades since foundation of the State. Read more…

‘Painfully visible shortcomings’: Catriona Crowe on the problems with the Mother and Baby Home Commission


By Catriona Crowe


Catriona Crowe is the former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland and one of Ireland’s most prominent social and cultural commentators. In this article, originally written for and published in the Dublin Review, she looks at the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. Crowe examines the Commission’s report, and what it tells us about how the Commission treated the testimony from the women who spoke to it. Read more…

New maternity hospital: ‘deal with nuns means catholic control’ says group


By Padraig Conlon


Last Thursday’s statement by the Religious Sisters of Charity has been condemned by the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare.  In their statement the Religious Sisters of Charity said they had done everything in their power to expedite the transfer to the new independent charity, St Vincent’s Holdings. Read more…

Church still incapable of saying there is no excuse for a priest abusing a child


By Fergus Finlay


I don’t know whether he lacks the will or the courage, or whether he is incapable of asserting real and moral authority. I don’t know whether he has been undermined from within, or is just an old man incapable of seeing anything resembling a bigger picture. Read more…

Baptising babies into the Catholic Church is suppressing their freedoms for life, says former President Mary McAleese


By Sarah Mac Donald


THE baptism of babies into the Catholic Church is unsuitable and needs to be overhauled because it means people’s freedoms are being suppressed for life, Mary McAleese has said.In an address to Oxford University today, the former Irish President said canon law claims the Church is entitled to limit, compromise and control church members’ rights thanks to the “christening contract which most of us slept or cried through”. Read more…

Massive rise in non-religious identity in Northern Ireland


By Humanists UK


The share of adults in Northern Ireland with no religion is surging, according to the latest data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.The results of the 2020 survey have been published today. 27% of respondents said they had no religion – an increase of 7% on 2019. This latest surge means that the overall figure has more than doubled in the last decade, with just 12% saying they belong to no religion in 2009. Read more…




Tennessee should end religious tests for public office impartially


By Andrew L. Seidel


Tennessee needs to clean up its Constitution in an even-handed manner. Preachers and atheists are both banned from holding public office by the antiquated state Constitution. State Sen. Mark Pody’s proposal to amend the Constitution unjustly seeks to bar discrimination against ministers while leaving intact the equally pernicious prohibition against atheists serving the people of Tennessee. The Senate passed the proposal unanimously in mid-April. Read more…

Do Australians trust religious leaders?


By Nic Baker


When asked whether he trusts religious leaders in Australia today, Haodong Mo does not hold back. “If you’re going to mislead people about the metaphysics of the universe, how can we trust you about anything else?” says the 20-year-old. Haodong is attending a Friday night “atheist meet-up” at Sydney’s Humanist House, a venue that’s long hosted events celebrating the secular. Read more…

The PM’s Catholic wedding shows the need for a church-state divorce


By Meg Manson


A head of government will no longer advise the state religion on appointing its clerics because he got married according to the rites of a different sect. It’s a story we might expect from a distant, troubled theocracy. But it’s exactly what’s happened here in the United Kingdom following Boris Johnson’s surprise Catholic wedding. Read more…

Family wins right to challenge law requiring Christian RE and worship in Northern Ireland schools


By Humanists UK


The High Court in Northern Ireland has granted a non-religious parent and child permission to challenge laws requiring faith-based Christian religious education (RE) and collective worship in all schools. Instead they want the curriculum and school assemblies to be taught in a way inclusive of those of other religions and beliefs. Read more…

If you are a blogger or vlogger writing or talking about atheism, secularism, ethics, skepticism, human rights etc. and would like us to include your work here please email the link to

Podcasts, Videos and Interviews


Do you host an Irish-based podcast on atheism, secularism, science, skepticism, human rights etc.? Let us know and we will link to it here.


Freethought Radio – Militant Masculinity – Kristin Du Mez
The National Secular Society – Laïcité and free speech in France

Media Watch

News and views from Ireland and around the world. Sharing is not an endorsement. 




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