Last Tuesday, I was part of the Atheist Ireland delegation who met the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and the Minister for Education as part of the structured dialogue with churches, faith communities and non-confessional bodies that was set up in 2007. This was the first time an atheist organisation was included in the dialogue process. The bulk of the work for the meeting was done by Atheist Ireland’s Chairperson Michael Nugent, Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly and Blasphemy Campaign Co-ordinator John Hamill. I was there in my role as a parent, and we were joined by an atheist primary school teacher and an atheist secondary school student, who have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.
I had been a little nervous about the prospect of meeting the Taoiseach, but earlier in the day I was interviewed on The Right Hook (listen). Having faced the formidable bulk and probing questions of George Hook, it was hard to be intimidated by the thought of meeting Enda Kenny. And indeed, he was friendly and approachable, and after a bumpy start, appeared to be genuinely interested in what we had to say.
My speech, which I was unable to pare down to the requested two minutes, is below:
My son Leo is five years old and currently in Junior Infants. When my partner and I applied to schools in our area, we found that each school had its own enrolment policy, but the one thing they all had in common was that they considered our son to be less worthy of a place in school than other children. I recently had occasion to talk to the principal of one of these schools, and he explained to me that Leo – as a non-Catholic – was a “Category 2 boy”, to only be considered if there were any places left over after all the “Category 1” applicants had been considered.
Taoiseach, my son is not a “Category 2” child. He is a creative and energetic boy. He can count to ten in five languages. He is obsessed with tall buildings. His favourite food is pizza. He can be cheeky or charming, but never boring. He has an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Any school would be lucky to have him. And he is a citizen of this republic and has the right to be given the same opportunities as any other child.
Instead, he was rejected from school after school because the philosophical convictions of his parents did not match the ethos of the school. These schools purport to celebrate diversity, but they systematically weed it out. They claim to be inclusive, but they exclude those who are different.
Eventually we found a school that was willing to accept our child without a certificate of baptism. And while it’s a fine school with caring dedicated teachers, every day – every day for thirty minutes – he is marginalised while Catholicism is taught to his classmates. That time, and the extent of the exclusion, will increase dramatically in a couple of years when Leo’s class begins preparation for First Communion.
We can only hope that we are lucky and that the school we found will be accommodating and the teachers understanding.
But we shouldn’t have to be lucky.
We shouldn’t have to be accommodated. Or tolerated.
We shouldn’t have to hope that teachers will be understanding.
Our freedom of conscience should be respected. Our choice as parents should be respected. Our son’s right to a neutral education should be respected.
And right now, none of that happens.
The way this state treats Leo, and thousands of other children is wrong.
Taoiseach, Minister: you have the power and the opportunity to right that wrong. Please use it.
The response seemed positive and the Taoiseach acknowledged that no child should be considered “Category 2” based on their parents’ philosophical convictions. The Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan advised us that she is in the process of drafting an amendment to Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act (which currently allows for such discrimination) It was not clear, at least to me, whether this amendment will prevent such discrimination in the future, but at least the Minister has had the opportunity to hear from people who have been unfairly treated due to the current law.
This is, hopefully, the beginning of a process that will eventually put an end to the systematic discrimination against the non-religious and members of minority religions. How long that process will take remains to be seen. Regardless, I was glad to have had the opportunity to look the leader of my country dead in the eye and tell him that what his government does to my child is wrong.
- Atheist Ireland begins ongoing dialogue with Government at historic first meeting with Taoiseach (atheist.ie)
- Ireland Education : Opt out of school religion classes (teachdontpreach.ie)
- Dawkins among atheists urging Irish PM to hold blasphemy law referendum (The Guardian)
- This photo of Atheist Ireland meeting the Taoiseach is significant for who it does not include (atheist.ie)
Earlier this week I took part in a debate hosted by the UCD Law Society. The topic: “This house believes God loves gay people too.” It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I was arguing against the motion. Below is my speech as prepared and more-or-less as delivered. Read more…
Saturday’s afternoon session began with a panel entitled “Women Atheist Activists” although it was unclear whether that was to be the subject of the discussion or simply a description of the panelists. It seemed to serve as both.
Paula Kirby spoke first and made it clear that she was an atheist activist but not particularly active in the area of women’s rights and had never really experienced or noticed any sexism in the movement, so wasn’t really sure why she was there. I have to admit to being a little unsure myself. Kirby has plenty to offer but seemed to be on this panel only because she was a woman, ironically an apparent example of the kind of sexism she hasn’t noticed.
Less than eight hours after getting to bed I was on my way back to the Alexander for Saturday’s session. Tired and mildly hung over, I was a little apprehensive about the length of the program. Even had my eyes been at their brightest and my tail at its bushiest, I would have been concerned that at some point in the day my brain would simply refuse to take in any more information. But I needn’t have worried. As packed as the day was, I never found myself losing interest. The talks were without exception informative and engrossing, and there was plenty of entertainment to be had outside. Read more…
Last weekend saw Dublin’s Alexander Hotel host the World Atheist Conference (or Convention, nobody seemed to be quite sure). Over 300 atheists – and a few theists – from all over the world gathered to hear some of the world’s best-known atheists speak on subjects such as secular education, blasphemy laws, communicating atheism and the rise of Islamism, as well as to meet and discuss these and other topics with like-minded people. As a “militant” atheist (i.e one who goes to “Atheists in the pub” on a regular basis) living in Dublin, I bought my ticket early.
The weekend began – as all weekends should – on Thursday. “Atheists in the Church” was a pre-conference gathering held in a nicely ironic setting, a bar that used to be a church. As a fairly active member of Atheist Ireland I was invited to have dinner first with a few other AI members and some of the speakers. I had a great chat with Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and also met some of the other speakers including Rebecca Watson, Tom Melchiorre and Bobbie Kirkhart.
There was a good mix at the bar: regular AI members, people who’d travelled from far and wide and locals who couldn’t make the conference but wanted to be part of things anyway. I reluctantly but sensibly bowed out early enough to catch a bus home, as I expected the rest of the weekend to be hard on the wallet, not to mention the liver. Read more…
People have different standards for what’s morally acceptable. I get that. And many people find it difficult to accept that the moral standards and societal norms they grew up with have changed. I get that too. That’s why I sympathise somewhat with Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the Cornwall B&B owners who this week were forced to pay compensation to a gay couple whose holidays they ruined by discriminating against them and refusing to honour their reservation.
The Bulls are no doubt sincere in their beliefs as they were willing to risk legal sanction rather than violate them. But while they’re entitled to their private views, a judge has quite sensibly ruled that they’re not entitled to run a business that interferes with the rights of others to be treated equally. The Bulls will now be free to decide whether they wish to run a business from their home or to refuse to allow gay couples to stay there. They are free to do either but not both. Read more…