On The Easiness Of Being Atheist Ireland

Atheist Ireland is a political lobbying group that promotes “atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state”.

One of the good things about being a lobbying group is that you can use words like “reason” without giving a reason for the word. Never offer me a job with a lobbying group. I’d reduce your press releases down to emoticons, because all the words you want to use are too contested to mean what you want them to say.

My dear friend Eoin O’Mahony came to visit over the weekend. We drank tea and whiskey on sand dunes at 1am. We appalled some drunken Englishers with our lousy literate jokes. We butchered the Doge meme to within an inch of its life. Much laughter. Wow hilarity.

Over tea and cheese on Sunday afternoon, Eoin was explaining how even as Christianity collapses in the West, atheism as a “movement” has failed utterly to build momentum. I had a realisation. Atheist Ireland is the strangest lobby group in Ireland. It might be even more queer than the Iona Institute, to put an old word to fresh use. Allow me to explain.

We could imagine three major aims of Atheist Ireland to be as follows:

    The removal of reference to God from the Constitution.
    The removal of prayer from the beginning of parliamentary proceedings.
    The creation of a primary education system that is secular by default (and only faith-based by exception).

These are all clear, achievable aims for a lobby group. Even better news for Atheist Ireland, they are all distinctively atheist-y.

Or at least they appear that way.

The realisation I made, listening to Eoin, was that if the conversation went the right way, Evangelical Alliance Ireland would wholeheartedly support each of these propositions.

After all, the Constitution needs to be rewritten and reference to God has not made the interpretation of that text in any way more ethical. The same applies with prayer. Of course, worship is a good for Christians, but worship can be empty performance and when TDs pray before creating unjust systems of detention for asylum seekers, tolerate the transport of American torture victims through our airports or burden the next 50 years of citizenry with the private debts accrued by bankers, perhaps the TDs haven’t been praying to the God prayed to in the Magnificat. Finally, evangelical Christians very often forego the standard educational options because the watered-down be-nice-to-your-betters version of Jesus that is taught there leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

So they don’t care if God gets props in the Constitution. They are not impressed by clasped hands that turn immediately to writing venial laws. And they already embrace Educate Together schools.

What good is a secular lobbying group if the Born Agains would show up in support of its campaigns?

Maybe the world is not broken into those with “faith” and those with “reason” after all. Perhaps the world is more complex than Victorian polemics can account for?

Your Correspondent, Bronze Age Sky Fairies LOL

15 Replies to “On The Easiness Of Being Atheist Ireland”

  1. Good point.

    Slightly tangential to this, but from the Christian side of things, wouldn’t the first (and hardest) task of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland be to actually convince *evangelicals* to work towards these aims? In the circles with which I’m familiar, I think it would be fair to say that most Christians would be quite against the idea of “removing God from Ireland,” interpreting this as the victory of secularism and the defeat of, if not faith, then at least the “fear of God” that is necessary for a State to function well.

    In short, as per usual, the church’s internal division would undermine any effort to work hand in hand with atheists towards a common goal.

  2. Total agreement. This is why I said the conversations would have to be raised in the right way. I think the faction of evangelicalism that is right of EAI could get their knickers in a twist about the Constitution. But if prayer in Dáil and education were presented as secular-meaning-no-preference-in-religion, then even they would get behind it.

    I think.

  3. You open with an image of religious symbols being cast into a bin – I did a Google image search, it doesn’t seem to appear on atheist.ie, so some might say it’s unfair to present it as something endorsed by Atheist Ireland.

    I don’t see the conflict here. I admire Biologos. They’re a Christian organisation that promote the understanding of evolution. If I wrote a similar post saying that Biologos is pointless as its goals can be supported by secularists in general you’d rightly dismiss it as twaddle.

  4. Oh Geoff. I did a Google image search for “Secularism” and this was the first image. It was so wonderfully stupid, I had to use it. I did not claim it came from Atheist.ie and don’t think it would be mistaken as such.

    Neither did I say, for even a second, that Atheist Ireland was pointless. If you re-read it, you’ll see I implicitly said I agreed with their main policy agenda. That is, it must be easy to be a lobby group that even your natural critics could support you.

    That is interesting. It is queer, in the old sense. It is not twaddle, especially because overlapping contending groups in society based on what they have in common rather than what they differ on is a radically under utilised form of analysis.:)

    I’ll take the image down if it has offended you. [Image is now gone]

  5. Kevin, I like your way of thinking!
    In the short term it makes sense for atheists and evangelicals to share some similar goals as they are both ideologies that show a capacity to thrive and multiply in a secular environment.
    I use the term ‘secular’, not in the sense of the absence of religion from society, but rather as referring to a society where religion is not treated differently from any other ideology or interest group. In other words, where State and Church are truly separate and religion is neither granted special privileges nor subject to special restrictions.
    Certain ideologies need governmental assistance and support to function – that was the basic premise that sustained Christendom for 1500 years. Others are self-confident enough to know that they can thrive if they are given a level playing field. Alister McGrath has, I believe, touched somewhat on this strange relationship whereby both atheism and evangelicalism grow in similar soils and even, to some extent, encourage one another!
    Maybe Evangelical Alliance Ireland and Atheist Ireland need to talk to one another!

  6. Hi Kevin,

    I thought it might be helpful if I cleared up the misunderstanding that has caused you to conclude that Atheist Ireland is the strangest lobbying group in Ireland, on the basis that you mistakenly believe that an evangelical religious group could also support our main aims.

    The main flaw in your line of thinking is that you are basing your conclusion on what you and Eoin O’Mahony, over tea and cheese on a Sunday afternoon, after drinking tea and whiskey on sand dunes at 1am, “could imagine three major aims of Atheist Ireland to be”, rather than on what our actual main aims are.

    Funnily, you do this after noting our actual aims, which are promoting “atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state.” It is surely unlikely that an evangelical religious group would promote atheism (while they might believe they are promoting reason, and might actually support the type of secularism we promote).

    Also, you mistakenly believe that we are exclusively a political lobbying group. Actually, we promote atheism and reason as an advocacy group within society, just as as religious groups promote their competing worldviews. And we promote secularism as a political lobbying group, in the context of State neutrality between these worldviews.

    I’m not sure why you and Eoin think it unusual that religious people could also support secularism. That’s not a remotely controversial observation. Although, in practice, many fewer religious people are motivated to actively campaign for secularism, even if they pay lip service to the concept.

    That said, if you and Eoin can find an evangelical religious group that wants to promote atheism, reason and an ethical secular state, please send them our way!

  7. Nick,

    I agree with you that atheism and evangelicalism can grow in the same society, but I don’t think it is strange.

    As science and reason expose flaws in religious thinking about reality, and as ethical secularism exposes flaws in religious thinking about morality, moderate religious people might react in one or two ways.

    They might embrace these developments, and move towards atheism or agnosticism, or they might reject these developments, and move towards religious fundamentalism.

    Different people can react in different ways, and so atheism and evangelicalism can grow in the same society.

  8. //”I admire Biologos. They’re a Christian organisation that promote the understanding of evolution.”//

    I disagree. Stated baldly on their website is the purpose of ‘surrendering’ to science: simply to increase church membership. Biologos is only embracing science because they fear the steady losses of believers. Finally, Biologos penultimate conclusion is: “..because, ..uh, god.”

    I find this intellectually dishonest.

  9. Michael:

    Thanks for trying to clear up my misunderstanding. Sadly it has me confused because I don’t think I misunderstand anything. If the three practical aims I propose that Atheist Ireland might hold (among others) are not actual aims of your organisation, then that would certainly be a “main flaw” in my line of thinking.

    Your mission statement of promoting atheism, reason and an ethical secular state may get your heart thumping a little faster, but they are aims only in the vaguest semantic terms. After all, each of the five terms: atheism, reason, ethical, secular and state are polyvalent to the point of meaninglessness. Even if you are not exclusively a lobby group (a claim I didn’t make), you are a group who lobbies and you either have or will lobby, formally or informally, on the three issues I have cited.

    I grant that this off-the-top-of-my-head blogpost, written after a pleasant meandering weekend of conversation with a lovely expert on Irish secularisms may not have been rooted down with precision but its plain meaning is not in anyway invalidated by the “flaws” you share. I don’t think I have misunderstood anything here, apart from why this post would irritate you and Geoff.

    Let’s recap in brief summary what I have suggested:

    Atheist Ireland is strangely in harmony with Evangelical Alliance Ireland. That is curious. That makes your job easier. That your job is easy is curious. Perhaps secularity and other contested issues are contested along frameworks that obscure more than they reveal?

    Simple. Barely contentious. Not an attack on Atheist Ireland.

    Morri: BioLogos is many things. Intellectually dishonest is not one of them. The word “surrender” does occur on their website, but in an opposite way to what you suggest: http://biologos.org/blog/series/lets-not-surrender-science

    Even more relevantly, I didn’t mention BioLogos in my post. 🙂

  10. Kevin, Evangelical Alliance Ireland is explicitly opposed to secularism. That they are also opposed to the existing religious tradition in Ireland hardly aligns them with Atheist Ireland. And even if they align on a number of points as you suggest they might, how does the existence of one group make the other pointless?
    Atheist Ireland is not a contrarian group. Its aims are not invalidated if some of them can be shared by religious people.

  11. Derek, thanks for your comment.

    On EAI and secularism: EAI are explicitly opposed to very little, since they have a lovely habit of only speaking on things they can be constructive with. Trafficking and slavery, sure. I think their main leaders would fully concur with Charles Taylor’s break-down of this secular age:

    Secularization: religion displaced by modernity. Secularism: the philosophy of a neutral public sphere. Secularity: condition of belief/disbelief. (H/T to Daniel Silliman for the break-down.)

    If you polled them, I think they’d argue that secularization was mythic, that secularism was positive and that secularity is, as Michael and Nick have already discussed, a fertile soil for Christianity.

    Here’s one thing I know that they are not opposed to: they are not opposed to the “existing religious tradition in Ireland” since they are part of that “existing religious tradition”. There have been evangelicals in Ireland thriving since evangelicalism began and Protestants and Reformers before that. Wesley himself spent a good chunk of his life travelling around this island on horseback, talking to whoever would listen.

    And for what it’s worth, they aren’t opposed to the Roman Catholic church either.

    I’ve never suggested that Atheist Ireland was pointless. I have, at length, discussed in the comments how they aren’t. Did someone tweet that I said Atheist Ireland was pointless? Where did this idea come from? For the record, I don’t think its claims are invalidated by the fact that they are shared by evangelicals. After all, I am an Irish evangelical who holds those beliefs. How could my argument invalidate my argument? Nor did I suggest they were contrarian, although I tend to take that as a compliment when people say it of me. 🙂

    For what it is worth, let me restate this simple post:

    Secularity is contested in the Irish public sphere along lines that owe more to the way similar conversations ran in other territories (notably America) than to the existing arrangement of social groups and popular opinions that prevail in Ireland today. The common rails along which the conversation is running assumes difference when there is actually broad commonality. The world is more interesting than our ideas about it.

    I’m not having a go at Atheist Ireland. If a fourth representative would like to come and suggest I am, I might have to do penance or something. 😀

  12. Derek,
    EAI is not opposed to secularism, explicitly or otherwise.
    In the above post, Kevin explained well the distinction between secularity and secularism. Secularism means a neutral public policy where religion receives no special privileges or passes in society, but neither is it discriminated against or subject to special restrictions. In other words, a society where a church has the exact same legal standing as the Vegetarian Society, or indeed as Atheist Ireland.
    In such a secular society we all have a level playing field where we can share our beliefs and ideologies freely. EAI is most certainly not opposed to that.

  13. Kevin, thanks for the reply. The reason I said that EAI is explicitly opposed to secularism is because their web site says as much:
    “THE VISION OF EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE IRELAND is to contribute to the welfare of every sphere of Irish society through the liberating power of God’s kingdom.
    That kingdom represents a third way, an alternative to the power structures of an imposed religious tradition or (the mirror-image) of an imposed secularist one.”
    (That is also why I said they were opposed to the existing religious tradition in Ireland.)

    And I thought you thought Atheist Ireland was pointless because of your rhetorical question:
    “What good is a secular lobbying group if the Born Agains would show up in support of its campaigns?”
    The form of the question suggests the answer: “No good at all” which would be synonymous with “pointless”. I have difficulty reading it another way so I’d be grateful if you could clarify what you actually meant.

  14. Well as I say, there is a massive body of academic literature about the secular, that I am sure you are aware of and using Taylor’s magnum opus as a touchstone that would win widespread support within EAI, secularist and secularism are different things. You may have read more into that EAI website than was intended.

    I hear what you are saying with regards to the rhetorical question. Your reading makes sense on one level. Yet it neither semantically nor idiomatically suggests (in a strong sense of the term) the interpretation you have offered. To fall back into the distinctions we learned in 4th class, it may be inferred but it is not implied.

    Since I am an evangelical Christian, a member of Evangelical Alliance Ireland and a citizen who would support each of the three proposals that I mused might be pushed forward by Atheist Ireland, the clear logic of the argument is that it is curious but considerable good.

    To take the reading you have taken, then I would be arguing against myself. While I understand from those better informed than I, that atheists on the internet often assume that religious people are incoherent and self contradictory, I sort of take good-faith reading for granted.

    I hope that clarifies. I heartily recommend A Secular Age. Jamie Smith published a summary of it earlier this year if you fancy a truncated version instead of the 900 page original. Eoin O’Mahony continues to blog about secularisms and I think Irish people are mad not to at least keep half an eye on what he is researching.

  15. From the front page of evangelical.ie (for context, in case you think I am hop-scotching around with my academic nuance):

    “EAI is conscious of the momentous changes in Irish society that require not only a truly Christian response (that is, one rooted in the teachings of Jesus and his apostles), but a continual self-critical evaluation of our own diverse movement. For this reason EAI is open to dialogue with all elements of Irish society, secular or religious.”

    It is hard to read this as being explicitly against the secular.

Comments are closed.