Posts Tagged ‘collective faith’
Michael Nugent was in primary school when he lost his faith. While working on a project on the gospels he had an epiphany, “I realised the comic book nature of the bible” So at a very early age Mr. Nugent started questioning the existence of God. His journey to becoming a fully fledged atheist had begun.
With mass attendance in dramatic decline and the churches’ standing in Irish society severely battered due to the exposure of a litany of sexual abuse cases. The Irish Catholic psyche has suffered blow after blow to its collective faith in the church. Added to the seemingly never ending reports, Ireland’s societal and financial changes have helped create an entire generation with little or no interest in religion as a part of their life; never before in Ireland has there been as open a space for alternative views on the metaphysical and for the skeptical questioning of the relevance and even the veracity of Judeo – Christian creation stories. It is into this space Michael Nugent and Atheist Ireland have stepped.
Atheist Ireland as an advocacy group came about organically according to Mr. Nugent. A friend, Seamus Murnane set up the initial website as a forum for Irish non-believers. Following much discussion on the website and inspired by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins’s bus campaign, which had 800 London buses running with advertisements stating ‘There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The decision was made to push the site off the screen and into the real world as an advocacy group with a formal political agenda. Michael Nugent became the chairman and face of the new organisation.
Under Nugent’s chairmanship and using his years of experience as a campaigner against terrorism in Northern Ireland and against the ban in contraception, Atheist Ireland has defined its political agenda and set about the process of raising awareness within the public sphere, both through debates and direct political advocacy based around a secular agenda.
Currently the group is focusing on several major campaigns including the repeal of the blasphemy law, a submission to the council of Europe on protection of national minorities and an ongoing campaign for secular education and the removal of Rule 68; The controversial rule which mandates the inculcation of Christian values to be the main focus of primary school education.
On meeting Mr. Nugent I found him to be affable and erudite. While being passionate about his advocacy he managed to come across as anything but adversarial, an accusation often aimed at public atheists. He first talked about Atheist Ireland’s current political agenda.
“Well we have recently put together a list that we have sent to all politicians which we call ‘5 steps to equal civil rights in a secular Ireland’ and what we’re talking about there is a list of everything we want in terms of secular education, secular constitution, secular parliament, secular government and secular courts. That’s essentially our political agenda for the foreseeable future. Separately to that the organisation has two ends; one is to promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism and we do that through debates, articles and the website and secondly we want to promote a secular state. These are two different agendas; one we just do with our fellow citizens and are happy that religious people do the same but with regard to the secular part, what we are saying is that the state should stay out of that debate.”
The release of the latest census figures would seem to justify Atheist Irelands campaigns and lend impetus and certainty to their campaign for a more pluralist and secular country. 270,000 Irish people did not identify with any religion, an increase of 45% which at 6% of the population make non – believers the second largest census category after Roman Catholic.
Mr. Nugent however feels that in reality the true figure for non-believers is likely to be much higher based both on the reality of living in a more pluralist Ireland where mass attendance has declined and a leading census question that assumed everyone had a religion and merely asked them what the that religion was. Many people would have ticked their childhood religion but in reality not be practicing their stated religion and are “culturally Catholic”
When I asked Mr. Nugent about the census and the decline in mass attendance he said “I think it’s (religion) become a lot less relevant in Ireland and the only person who seems to realize that in the Irish Catholic Church is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, where as the others seem to be in denial. But that said religion is still spreading in Africa and South America. It spreads most effectively where there is poverty. They will shift their marketing towards those areas. The more pluralist and secular a society becomes the less religious”.
With the release of the report from the advisory group, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in Primary Schools, recommending that initially 50 schools be divested from the Catholic Church around the country and that “faith formation” be thought outside of school hours, it seems that one of Atheist Ireland’s main campaigns is on the way to fruition.
With an estimated 90% of schools in Ireland currently being run by the Catholic Church and an ever more pluralist society, calls from leading politicians and senators such as Ivana Bacik for an overhaul in the education system so as to reflect the new realities of Irish life have been welcomed by Michael Nugent who says with regard to Atheist Irelands education campaign,
“Well tactically we have decided that rather than rely on the argument that secular education is a good thing socially. We’re focusing on the human rights element, which means under the Irish constitution and all sorts of treaties the Irish Government have signed up to, Irish parents have the right not to have their children indoctrinated in religious beliefs contrary to their own”. This thinking is very much in line with the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn’s own views regarding a pluralist education system.
While there are voices in the Church who agree with the need for such radical change, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin amongst them, there are also those who see this as an attack on their religious freedom and the Catholic character of the state. So while the campaign for secular education may be headed in the right direction as far as Mr. Nugent is concerned, it is just one of many battles Atheist Ireland will have to fight.
When public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins are being called strident or militant, the question of compromise in the context of such an important social debate becomes paramount. Mr. Nugent’s position on this is quite clear.
“There isn’t a compromise when it comes to the state but there is plenty of room for compromise when it comes to society. The distinction is we have a pluralist society where different people have different beliefs and where everybody has a right to their beliefs and a right to manifest their beliefs as long as those beliefs are not interfering in the rights of other people. In practical terms the only way to equally protect and vindicate every ones rights is for the state to remain neutral. I would be as opposed to an atheist state as I would be to a religious state”.
Atheist Ireland may be a relatively young advocacy group with just over 400 paid members and around 2,000 passive members, but it is growing with new branches opening in Cork and Limerick. The change in attitudes to religion, access to information and the increasing liberalisation of Irish society seem to indicate that while young, Atheist Ireland and its secular agenda will continue to grow and to resonate with many in Ireland. With the increasing disconnection between the Vatican and Irish Catholics, Michael Nugent may one day find himself preaching to the converted, asked where he sees Atheist Ireland going over the next few years he said,
“I used to be involved in a lot of anti terrorists groups. Our mission essentially was to put ourselves out of business and ideally the same would be true for Atheist Ireland. The only reason we exist is because it is necessary for us to exist”.